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 $140 for a basic color laser printer, or as much as $650 (or more) 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.
Finding the Best Color Laser Printers
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
For eight 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 (Est. $350) is reviewers' favorite color laser printer. Plus, it bests its rivals in PCMag.com's tests: "Stellar performance and value," William Harrel concludes, naming it the new Editors' Choice in its class. User reviews, while still limited, give this workhorse printer high marks as well.
This printer is ideal for a small office (or workgroup) that prints a ton. Brother also makes a less expensive version -- the (Est. $300) -- for those who print more moderately (say, 3,000 pages per month). It draws kudos, too. But if you regularly crank out up to 4,000 pages per month, Harrel says, definitely spring for the big gun.
"The Brother HL-L8360CDW ... is essentially the recent Editors' Choice Brother HL-L8260CDW on steroids," he explains. It packs twice the memory, a few extra features, bigger potential paper capacity and -- importantly -- a cheaper cost per page (0.06 cents less per black-and-white page and 2.7 cents less per color page, to be exact).
"If you print thousands of pages each month, these seemingly piddling amounts can cost (or save) you hundreds, even thousands of dollars over the life of the printer," Harrel says. Expect to pay 1.9 cents per black-and-white page and 10 cents per color page.
The HL-L8360CDW replaces -- and improves upon -- an old favorite of experts and owners, the Brother HL-L8350CDW. The new version adds a color touch screen, double the processor speed, quadruple the memory, faster Gigabit Ethernet (it also has USB, Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi direct connectivity), Near Field Communication (NFC) to tap-to-pair with phones and tablets, and cloud printing. It has an automatic duplexer and a handy walk-up USB port, too.
Printouts look nicer than rivals' -- especially text, which looks way better than the iffy text produced by last year's PCMag.com favorite, the (Est. $320). Graphics and photos look almost flawless.
Speed is "fast for its class," Harrel says, at 33.2 black-and-white text pages per minute (ppm), dropping to 11.4 ppm when he throws some color pages, graphics and photos into the mix. Paper capacity is 300 sheets (one 250-sheet drawer and a 50-sheet multipurpose tray), but you can add up to three more 250-sheet trays (Est. $170 each) or two 500-sheet trays (Est. $230 each) for a max 1,300 sheets.
Security features are top-notch, including an NFC card reader (so you can allow only people with a compatible NFC card to print) and Active Directory (so you can require an ID and password to print).
"And, finally, Brother provides free tech support for the life of the printer, rather than for only the warrantee period, as some other printer makers do," Harrel writes. The Brother printers carry a one-year warranty.
Heavy-duty color laser printers
If you need an even more robust printer, the fast, powerful (Est. $640) 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.com'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. However, ComputerShopper.com, which otherwise likes this printer, begs to differ. Though the editors come up with the same costs per page using high-yield cartridges, they ding it a bit for the high upfront costs of those cartridges, which can run up to $1,000 for a full set. The M553dn carries a one-year, next-business day onsite warranty.
As far as networking goes, wired Gigabit Ethernet is built in, but HP charges $75 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). Instead of a touch screen, a keypad and four-line color display control the printer.
If you need a color laser printer that's even more robust, consider the Dell Color Smart S5840cdn (Est. $1,000). This beast can churn out 25,000 pages a month without breaking a sweat, and it holds 650 sheets of paper straight out of the box (a 550-sheet main tray plus 100-sheet multipurpose feeder). You can add up to three more 550-sheet trays (Est. $300 each) for a total of 2,300 sheets. PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com both name it an Editors' Choice for those with massive color printing needs. A one-year warranty comes standard. However, user reviews for this printer are nearly nonexistent. Dell and HP printers both earn middling reliability scores in PCMag.com's reader survey.