Laser printers offer crisp text, faster print speeds, cheaper per-page printing costs, and the ability to handle high-volume printing. For consumers who print infrequently, laser printers (which use a dry powder called toner) have a hidden advantage since their toner doesn't dry out. Laser owners don't have to deal with dried-out cartridges clogging nozzles and wasting expensive ink and time -- a common problem for inkjet owners. Xerox laser printers go a step further, using solid blocks of ink that have less waste than toner cartridges.
Due to the way the toner is applied -- using heat to bind the toner to the paper -- laser prints are also more smudge- and water-resistant than most inkjet prints. Laser printers are also capable of printing finer lines and details in graphics. Many are PostScript- and PCL-compatible, a must for graphic designers and others who print EPS (encapsulated PostScript) graphics and PostScript files.
Inkjet printers are still better for printing photos. Laser printers generally produce mediocre photo output. However, many laser printers can print photos that are good enough for use in newsletters or internal business documents, and some offer high-end graphics printing.
Laser printers can handle a much higher volume of prints than inkjet printers can. Buyers who do a high volume of printing should consider a printer's monthly duty cycle, which determines how many prints a printer can comfortably handle in a month. In general, cheaper laser printers have much lower duty cycles than the higher-end printers; sub-$350 printers typically have duty cycles of around 30,000 pages a month.
Laser printers really shine in cost savings. Experts emphasize that although the toner cartridges used by color laser printers cost more than most inkjet cartridges, they generally provide thousands more pages of output, making their per-page printing costs far less. Manufacturers often offer high-capacity cartridges, which brings down the per-print cost even further. For high-volume printing, even a one-cent difference per page can save hundreds or possibly even thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the printer.
When shopping for a color laser printer, consider:
Laser printers work by exposing an electrically charged revolving drum to a laser, creating positively and negatively charged areas. Positively charged powder (toner) is applied to the drum. The toner sticks to the negative areas and is heated, causing it to become liquid and sticky. Paper is passed through the printer, and the image is transferred from the drum to the paper. The toner cools and binds to the paper. Color laser printers use four printing colors -- cyan, magenta, yellow and black -- and they have a separate toner cartridge for each.
Initially, color laser printers required four passes over the drum (one for each color of toner), an obviously slow process that accounts for the speed difference between printing color and black-and-white pages. Printers now use a single-pass technology (usually involving multiple lasers and drums), allowing them to print pages much faster.
Because of the need to heat the toner, laser printers need time to warm up before they are ready to print. Some printers need just a few seconds, though users have noticed that printers with shorter warm-up times tend to have greater power demands. A printer's "first page print time" identifies this warm-up time.
Experts recommend buying high-yield cartridges to reduce the per-page print costs. Most toner cartridges come with a drum. Some manufacturers market the drum separately, allowing them to sell the toner cartridges for a little less, though the manufacturer recommends changing the drum every few cartridges. Some brands issue low-toner warnings, which can be a mixed blessing. Experts warn that some printers with low-toner warnings will not print when the toner gets low even though there is some toner left in the cartridge. Sometimes removing the cartridge and giving it a little shake will help to squeeze out a few more prints or stir up toner that has settled in a cartridge that has been sitting idly for weeks.
Experts recommend that if toner spills on a counter or in a printer, you should wipe it up with a paper towel moistened with cold water (hot water might cause the toner to become sticky). Do not try to vacuum it, as the particles are too fine to be caught by the filters of most household vacuum cleaners and could end up clogging your vacuum or being blown about the house.
A study by Australia's Queensland Institute of Technology finds that laser printers emit microscopic toner particles into the air. This might be a concern for a high-volume office printer, but probably not for home use. In the worst case, the study says emissions are equal to cigarette smoke. Even so, the emissions may not be harmful to health.