This post was most recently updated on June 5th, 2020
What is better; inkjet or laser printers? It’s a rivalry as old as time itself. Like Pepsi or Coke, Ford or Chevy, or Packers or Vikings (SKOL), everyone seems to have strong opinions. And, like Packers fans, a lot of the opinions are misinformed or just plain wrong.
In this guide, we’re going to break down all the differences and little nuances between inkjet and laser printers. We’re going to go over how they print, what they are designed for, and who they are designed for.
There should be more nuance to this conversation than just saying laser printers are better because they last longer. That’s not enough information to make a buying decision.
By the end of this inkjet vs laser printer guide, you’ll know enough about these two types of printers to know which is best for you. Let’s do this.
An inkjet printer is a printer that uses liquid ink to print on paper. It does this by forcing tiny droplets of ink to break into even smaller drops. It then drops that ink onto the paper or stock using a print head.
Those tiny drops work together to form the image you are printing. In fact, if you put a page printed using an inkjet printer under a microscope, you’ll be able to see these little ink dots on the page.
To learn more about how inkjet printers work, check out our ultimate guide to inkjet printers.
There’s a lot of different subtypes of inkjet printers that serve different purposes.
Types of Inkjet Printers
Monochrome Inkjet Printers
A monochrome printer is a printer which only prints using black ink. That means you can only print in black and white or greyscale.
Monochrome inkjet printers are very rare these days. In fact, I haven’t sold a monochrome inkjet printer at my store for over five years. You can probably still find one on the internet, but be careful. They will probably be an old, refurbished model.
Dedicated Color Inkjet Printers
A dedicated printer is a term for a printer which only prints. These printers won’t have scanners or fax functions. They also probably won’t have much in terms of web applications, mobile printing, or other special features. These printers are going to be as simple as possible to bring the price down.
This is another category of inkjet printer which is slowly disappearing. Manufacturing costs are lower than ever, so it’s easy for a printer manufacturer to just go ahead and include a scanning unit. Even if you don’t need the extra features, you’ll probably get them, even with the cheapest models.
Inkjet Photo Printers
This is probably the most common category of inkjet printers. These printers are designed to deliver the highest quality of photo printing possible.
Inkjet photo pritners are great because liquid ink is very vibrant and offers high contrast.
Also, manufacturers can achieve higher resolution prints by developing print heads that offer smaller and smaller ink dots. Smaller dots means a higher DPI, or dots per inch. Higher DPI means sharper pictures.
Inkjet photo printers are great at what they are designed for, but typically they aren’t as desirable for everyday or office use. Because they tend to be really inefficient, they use a lot of ink and run up your operating costs.
All-In-One Inkjet Printers
All-in-one inkjet printers are also very popular, because they tend to be advertised as a budget replacement for color laser printers.
These printers tend to be oriented more toward document printing, although they do have photo printing capabilities. They also usually include additional office functionalities, like auto-document-feeders, fax functionality, security functions, and web based applications.
The biggest thing to be aware of when buying an all-in-one inkjet printer is your monthly print volume. These printers can be great, but are often cheaply built, and will wear out fast from over usage.
That’s all for inkjet printers, let’s check out laser printers.
A laser printer, or thermal printer, is a printer that prints by adhering a fine powder called toner to a page.
Laser printers work with a complicated system of toner drums and rollers. Basically what happens is a small laser shoots your image onto a heated roller, then toner fills in the image, and finally the printer uses heat to print the toner onto your page.
I know, it’s boring and confusing, but that’s how it works. That’s also why your pages come out of a laser printer hot. Hot off the presses, get it?
Like inkjet printers, there’s also a few types of laser printers.
Types of Laser Printers
Single-Function Monochrome Laser Printer
A single-function monochrome laser printer is a laser printer that only prints in black and white or greyscale. Simple, sleek, and to the point. A lot of these printers don’t even have display screens.
This is the cheapest way to get into a laser printer. I’ve even had customers buy a single-function monochrome laser printer with a separate scanner. Hey, whatever works.
Single-Function Color Laser Printer
Well, this is easy. These printers are same as the last laser printers except they print in color.
Like the monochrome option, single-function color laser printers don’t scan or fax or anything like that. They are relatively cheap and simple. However, because they print in CMYK, there’s three more toner cartridges. That means the operating costs go up a bit, but that’s the cost of color printing.
Multi-Function Monochrome Laser Printer
Here we go. This is what most people think of when they think of laser printers. Monochrome multi-function laser printers are what most offices and businesses use, and for good reason.
With these laser printers, you get all the great cost saving of single-function printers, with more capabilities. They print, copy, scan, and also typically come with extra security and business features.
Multi-Function Color Laser Printer
Obviously, these are the color version of the last laser printers. They cost the most out of the laser printer category, but they also have the most capabilities. Print, scan, and fax, all in vibrant full color.
Now that you know what inkjet and laser printers are, let’s get to the differences.
Inkjet VS. Laser | What's the Difference?
Generally speaking, inkjet printers have a lower sticker price than laser printers. Also, replacement ink cartridges have a lower sticker price than replacement toner cartridges.
However, toner is so much more efficient than ink that laser printers tend to save you way more money in the long run.
Think about it this way. You buy an inkjet printer for $100, and ink cartridges for $50. You’ve spent $150, and this lasts you for one month.
I buy a laser printer for $300, and a toner cartridge for $100. So I’ve spent $400, and you’re feeling pretty smart. Except you have to keep spending $50 every month to buy new ink cartridges.
By the end of the first year, you’ve spent $700. I’ve just replaced my first toner cartridge, and I’ve spent a total of $500. And it just compounds from there.
Now, these numbers all change and fluctuate based on how much you print and what models we are talking about. However, in the majority of cases, laser printers save you way more money in the long run.
There are, however, a couple ways to save money printing with an inkjet printer
HP Instant Ink
I’ve mentioned HP Instant Ink a lot in the past, so I’ll be brief.
Instant Ink is a subscription service for your ink. You choose a plan based on how many pages you print, you pay a monthly fee, and ink is sent to you whenever you need it.
HP Instant Ink’s monthly fee is much, much less than you pay for ink cartridges. You will save at least half off your ink costs, and up to 90% in my experience.
There’s a lot more to it than that, so check out our HP Instant Ink review if you are interested.
Supertank printers are printers that have refillable ink wells built into the machine. This way, instead of inefficient ink cartridges, you buy bottles of ink, and refill the individual cartridges when needed.
Again, these printers can cost one tenth of what normal inkjets cost for ink. However, these printers tend to cost a lot up front, and their build quality varies a lot. Be sure to do your research before jumping on a supertank printer.
If you are interested, I wrote a ultimate roundup of all the Epson EcoTank printers of 2020. It’s a great place to start your search.
Now, most reviewers give the quality edge to inkjet printers, but it’s not quite that simple.
For photos, inkjet printers are much better, hands down. It’s what they are built for. Laser printers tend to print terrible photos, and the special paper for laser photo printing is super difficult to find.
However, there’s more to print quality than photos.
First, text is much sharper on laser printers. Not that many people care, but the color consistency of text from laser printers is much better on laser printers than inkjet printer.
Also, I tend to prefer graphics and charts printed from laser printers. Especially on proper laser printer paper, the colors tend to pop, and large fields of color are more consistent from edge to edge.
Like most things, whether print quality is better with inkjet vs laser printers depends on what your print needs are.
For the most part, laser printers are faster than inkjet printers. It’s not true in all cases, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
Most of the high-end all-in-one inkjet printers cap out under twenty-five pages per minute. But high-end laser printers can get upwards of forty pages per minute. That’s cookin’.
As with most things, there’s outliers, like the HP PageWide series of inkjet printers. There’s also other factors like what you’re printing and how many pages. Inkjet printers do tend to get the first page out faster, because laser printers need to warm up first.
When looking at the monthly volume of inkjet vs laser printers, laser printers have a clear edge here.
Even the best heavy-duty inkjet printers are going to recommend a maximum of 10,000 pages pre month. Laser printers will scoff at that.
I’ve seen laser printers that advertise up to 100,000 pages per month. That’s 20 cases of paper per month. It’s clear that laser printers are built to stand up to more than inkjet printers are, which brings us to our next point.
Out of the box, laser printers and inkjet printers are probably equal here. New printers should work, there’s a few lemons, but overall you’re safe. However, two years in and things start to change.
Because laser printers are built to withstand higher volume and workloads, they tend to last a lot longer. Inkjet printers are built to be disposable. The manufacturers want you to use and abuse them, which is why they are so cheap.
This really depends on which model of printer you buy, but, on the whole, laser printers will have more business features, and inkjets will have more creative features.
Inkjet printers will have better scanning, mobile printing, and photo based features. Laser printers will have better security and be designed for multiple users. These features show who the manufacturers have in mind and the ideal customer for each machine.
Inkjet VS. Laser | What does Reddit Think?
They talk about a lot of the same things we talked about in this article. One thing they mentioned is that ink dries up when it isn’t used, which increases your ink costs and frustrations. Toner is a powder, so it’s already dry.
Who is an Inkjet Printer Best for?
If you print a lot of photos, then there is no other option. Laser printers just don’t have the print quality needed for good photo prints. Photo users need photo printers. Also, use photo paper!
Inkjet printers are great for college students because they fit in dorm rooms. They also work for the variety of print types college students tend to use. They work great in a pinch, but don’t cost a lot.
As I’ve said before, college students should always use their school printing facilities first, because they’re paying for it either way.
Older users tend to like inkjet printers, because they are simple and familiar. Don’t buy your eighty-five year old dad an all-in-one color laser printer. He doesn’t want it. It’s confusing, and he prints something three times a year. Give the man something simple and let him live his damn life.
Low-Volume and Consistent
A lot of my customers want inkjet printers to work for them, because they are cheap. But the fact of the matter is, for most home offices, they just don’t cut it. The exception is if you print one or two pages per week, every week.
Then you print enough that the ink won’t dry out, but you won’t benefit much financially from springing for a laser.
Who is a Laser Printer Best for?
This is surprising to most people, but inconsistent printing is usually better with a laser printer. That’s because toner never goes bad. Even if it has an expiration, it’s a lie. They last forever.
If you print in September, December, and April, and no other time, you should get a laser printer. It’ll save you a ton of money.
Home Office Users
Even if your home office use isn’t very intensive, you’ll probably still benefit from a laser printer. They save you time and money, and last much longer than inkjet printers.
Some customers disagree with this, because they are trying to keep the upfront cost low. However, it never fails that they come in two years later, angry, looking for a laser printer to replace their inkjet.
This shouldn’t even be a discussion. If you run a small-business or office, you need a laser. Stop reading this, get over to our laser printer guide, and get something that will keep your business running.