What the best color laser printers have

  • Crisp, clear text output. The best color laser printers handle even the smallest of fonts with precision, producing sharp text even at fast speeds.
  • Good graphics quality. While color laser printers aren't known for graphics-printing prowess, the best models can still produce color graphics that look professional enough for internal office needs. Areas of flat color should appear even, and banding -- or visible stripes often caused by a clogged nozzle or poor rendering -- should be minimal.
  • High monthly duty cycle. Your print volume should never exceed a color laser printer's rated duty cycle. Doing so may void your warranty and lead to repairs down the road.
  • High-capacity paper tray(s). Those who plan to print at high volumes should consider the size of the printer's paper tray. Cheaper printers typically have standard paper trays that can hold a few hundred sheets, while the most robust printers can hold thousands of sheets of paper, albeit through the addition of optional and/or auxiliary paper trays.
  • Low cost of use. Consider the cost of consumables such as drums and toner cartridges. Cartridges for high-capacity color laser printers can be expensive up front, but can be long lasting, driving down the per-page cost of each print you make. Also consider energy efficiency; look for color laser printers meet Energy Star standards.
  • Small footprint. While it's unrealistic to expect many color laser printers to be small enough to share a desk with, many low-priced printers are not much larger than midsize inkjet or monochrome laser printers.
  • Fast print speeds. Printers with page-per-minute ratings of 30 or higher land in the high range of printer speed. Keep in mind, however, that these ratings are claimed by the manufacturer and pertain specifically to text-only prints in black and white. Complex color pages with graphics and photos take lots longer to produce, even with the fastest color laser printers.

Know before you go

What are you printing? Whether or not you need a color laser or inkjet printer largely depends on what you intend to print. Inkjet printers are best for printing photos, but text quality sometimes isn't as impressive. Color laser printers shine at producing text, but generally produce mediocre photo quality, though more expensive models can print photos that are good enough for newsletters and internal business documents, and some offer high-end graphics printing.

How much do you intend to print? Those who need a high volume of prints should pay attention to the printer's monthly duty cycle. PCMag.com editors say that "if the number of pages you print is large enough to be a concern, a good rule of thumb is to pick a printer with a monthly duty cycle that's about four times the number of pages you expect to print each month." If you expect to do a high volume of printing, buy a printer with high-capacity trays to minimize refills. Some printers have higher-capacity or additional paper trays available as an option.

How fast will you need to print? Cheap personal and small office color laser printers are slower than their more expensive corporate counterparts. However, unless you're printing in high volume, speed might not be vital, and even the slowest printers print at speeds that are fast enough for low-volume work. Duplex printing may slow down your printer's speed. Many printers let you increase installed memory; more memory helps speed up the printing of complex pages loaded with graphics and photos.

Will you want to print on both sides of the page? Automatic duplexing is a time-saving convenience that allows printing on both sides of a sheet of paper. Some printers offer a duplex tray as an optional accessory. Duplexing, though essential in a busy office, may not be worth the additional cost to home and home office users, who can duplex manually -- printing odd pages first, then flipping the stack over and printing even pages.

Do you need network capabilities? If you plan to connect to your printer via a network, experts recommend getting a network-ready printer to make the process as easy as possible. For those on a Mac network, experts at Macworld recommend getting a Bonjour-enabled printer for easier setup and access. Wireless color laser printers are becoming more available and affordable. In addition, many network-ready printers offer wireless as an option, with the needed adapters costing $250 or less.

What are your system requirements? Make sure the printer has drivers for and is compatible with the operating system of your computer -- especially if you are using older computer hardware.

Will you be using it for desktop publishing or graphic design? If you plan to use the printer for desktop publishing or graphic design, experts recommend purchasing a model with PostScript 3 capability. PostScript is the format developed by Adobe for professional printing, and having it will enable your printer to properly print PostScript fonts. We also recommend that you purchase a printer with Level 5 or higher printer control language (PCL), the printer standard developed by Hewlett-Packard. Most color laser printers are compatible with both formats.

Consider the cost of consumables. Most reviewers attempt to calculate cost of use, but they usually rely on the manufacturers' estimations of cartridge life and arbitrarily determine the cost of replacement toner (which may change). While that isn't a purely scientific method, reviewers do find drastic differences in the cost of use. You'll also want to investigate the availability of replacement toner and supplies. Judging from reviews, more expensive color laser printers tend to have a lower cost per page than cheap color laser printers.

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