Color laser printers vs. inkjet printers: Which should you choose?
Color laser printers -- once lavishly expensive behemoths, found only in big corporate offices -- are now small enough and cheap enough for small businesses, home businesses and even for personal use. You can pay as little as $165 for a basic color laser printer, or up to $650 for one that's robust enough for a corporate setting.
But why buy a color laser printer at all? What difference does it make if it's a laser printer or inkjet?
- Color laser printers = zero ink hassles. This is a biggie. Owners who have struggled with inkjets for years -- constantly replacing ink cartridges, messy ink leaks, wasteful ink "maintenance cycles," clogged print heads, ink that costs more per ounce than Chanel No. 5 -- write gratefully glowing reviews of their refreshingly trouble-free color laser printers.
- Color laser printers don't punish you for taking a few weeks off. Inkjet printers need to print color documents regularly -- at least once every few days is best -- or you'll risk clogged ink cartridges and ruined print heads that simply can't be fixed. Often, replacing these costs more than replacing the whole printer, so your printer is effectively bricked. If you only print every once in a while, a color laser printer will wait patiently and work perfectly whenever you need it.
- Color laser printers work faster. Some high-end inkjets can print text almost as fast as a laser printer. But generally, laser printers blow inkjets away -- especially in color.
- Color laser printers generally print crisper, more professional-looking text and graphics. Some top-rated inkjet printers produce equally polished pages -- but even cheap color laser printers do this effortlessly.
- Inkjet printers print much better photos. Hands-down, if you want to print photos that actually look like real photo prints, you'll want an inkjet. Color laser printers that can accomplish this are few and far between. Their photos look fine for internal business documents, though.
- Inkjet printers often cost less up-front. However, ink usually costs more than color toner over time, so the cost evens out over the long haul.
If you are not sure that a color laser printer is right for your needs, we cover inkjet printers, black-and-white (monochrome) laser printers and all-in-one printers (with copy, scan and fax capabilities) in separate reports. However, if you believe that a color laser printer is just what the doctor ordered, it's time to find the right one.
Given the wide price range and capabilities of color laser printers currently available, navigating the options can be a daunting task -- but that's where we come in. ConsumerSearch analyzes professional reviews from sources such as PCMag.com, ComputerShopper.com, ConsumerReports.org and elsewhere, along with owner reviews posted at Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and other retailers, to find the top choices for any situation or budget. We consider cheap color laser printers that are ideal for home or small office use, as well as high-volume, high-quality workhorses most suitable for large corporate settings. We evaluate color laser printers based on how well they perform overall, their features and design, their operating costs, and how well they are likely to hold up over the long haul.
Best color laser printers: Fleet-footed workhorses for big (or tiny) offices
Striking the perfect balance between price and performance, the HP Color LaserJet Pro M452dw (Est. $300) is experts' favorite color laser printer overall. In fact, PCMag.com's tough tester finds almost no weaknesses. The print speed is "impressive," M. David Stone says. He clocks it at 9.8 pages per minute (ppm) for mixed office documents (PDFs, spreadsheets, PowerPoint handouts, etc.); so does ComputerShopper.com. Text-only pages zoom along at 15 ppm in another test.
Beautiful graphics? Check. "Among the best I've seen on our tests for a color laser," Stone says. "Easily good enough for marketing materials like tri-fold brochures."
Generous paper capacity, a duplexer and full networking features (Ethernet, Wi-Fi, mobile and cloud printing) make this "small-office workhorse" Stone's Editors' Choice. A 250-sheet input tray for up to legal-size paper, 150-sheet output tray and 50-sheet multipurpose tray come standard; you can add an extra 550-sheet input tray for $150. A color touch screen controls the printer, and a walk-up USB port allows instant printing from a thumb drive. The HP M452dw carries a one-year warranty.
Print quality is on the right side of very good. Text looks outstanding in tests. Although Stone says other color laser printers do even better, "as long as you don't have an unusual need for small fonts, you shouldn't have a problem with the output." Photos don't look inkjet-flawless -- but close. "Photos were nearly true-photo quality," Stone says, although another test source rates them only "Fair."
ComputerShopper.com agrees: "We found nothing to complain about with this printer's output," William Harrel says. However, if you print a ton, the toner can get expensive. HP says the M452dw can comfortably churn out 4,000 pages per month, but Harrel crunches the numbers and says that if you print more than 3,000 pages per month, you'll probably save money by stepping up to a heavier-duty printer with a lower cost per page.
If you do have a need for an even more robust printer, the fast, powerful HP LaserJet Enterprise M553dn (Est. $630) takes first prize in that category. It muscles through print jobs with ease, whipping out 12.2 ppm of mixed office documents at PCMag.com. Printouts look impressive. Even photos really look like photos, says PCMag's Tony Hoffman, who wouldn't hesitate to hand them "to clients or colleagues you are seeking to impress."
Workhorse laser printer features include an automatic duplexer, big paper capacity (a full 550-sheet paper drawer plus 100-sheet multipurpose tray and 250-sheet output tray; if that's not enough, you can add up to three extra 550-sheet input trays at a cost of $300 each) and a heavy-duty recommended monthly duty cycle of up to 6,000 pages. Toner costs are "reasonably low," Hoffman says, at 1.7 cents per black-and-white page and 10.9 cents for color. The M553dn carries a one-year, next-business day onsite warranty.
As far as networking goes, wired Ethernet is built in, but HP charges $150 extra for a Wi-Fi dongle to turn the M553dn into a true wireless printer (although you can print wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet). There's also no walk-up USB port. Instead of a touch screen, a keypad and four-line color display control the printer.
Both of these HP printers earn equally high marks from owners. Bottom line? Pick the one that suits your printing needs (smaller or larger), and you can't go wrong.
Brother printers offers rock-solid reliability
For seven straight years, Brother printers have won the Readers' Choice award at PCMag.com for their solid reliability and customer support -- and that's one reason why the Brother HL-L8350CDW (Est. $330) is well regarded by owners at every retail website we checked.
ComputerShopper.com likes it, too, rating it "Good for Business." It's in the same class as the Best Reviewed HP Color LaserJet Pro M452dw. Both are sized for busy small businesses. The Brother runs slower (6.6 ppm of mixed office documents in ComputerShopper.com's test, vs. 9.8 for the HP), but with exactly the same paper trays and monthly duty cycle. Printouts look equally good, with "near-typesetter-quality text and great-looking business graphics," Harrel says. There's no touch screen, but the Brother does have a walk-up USB port. It likewise carries a 1-year warranty, plus free phone support for the life of the printer.
On the downside, the Brother is priced a little higher than the HP. Still, plenty of users say Brother's steadfast reliability and support are worth it, and often available rebates and discounts can minimize or eliminate any pricing differences.
Elsewhere in this report:
Cheap color laser printers | Buying guide | Our sources