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Color Laser Printer Buying Guide

By: Tara Tuckwiller on July 31, 2017

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. Even a good cheap color laser printer can produce color graphics that look professional enough for ordinary office needs. The best models can print impressive client handouts and glossy brochures.
  • Adequate monthly duty cycle. Your print volume should never exceed a color laser printer's rated monthly duty cycle. Doing so may void your warranty and lead to repairs down the road.
  • Adequate paper tray(s). If you print a lot, consider the size of the printer's paper tray. Cheaper printers typically have standard paper trays that can hold 250 sheets or less, while the most robust printers can hold more than 500 sheets, with optional trays you can buy that hold up to thousands of sheets.
  • Low cost of use. Consider the cost of consumables such as drums and toner cartridges. Cheap color laser printers usually produce printouts that cost more per page than high-end models, although most color laser printers can use optional high-capacity toner cartridges that can lower print costs. Also consider energy efficiency; look for color laser printers that 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, some budget models are not much larger than midsize inkjet or monochrome laser printers.
  • Fast print speeds. The fastest color laser printers can print 40 pages per minute or more, in color or black and white. Keep in mind, however, that these ratings are claimed by the manufacturer and pertain specifically to text-only prints. Complex 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 you need a color laser printer or inkjet printer (covered in their own report) largely depends on what you intend to print. Inkjet printers are best for printing photos, but text quality sometimes isn't as impressive (although still fine for most uses). Color laser printers shine at producing sharp, flawless text, but generally mediocre photos (though again, still fine for most uses).

How much do you intend to print? If you print a lot, pay attention to the printer's recommended monthly duty cycle (the number of pages the printer can comfortably print month-in, month-out). If you expect to print big jobs, buy a printer with high-capacity trays so you won't run out of paper mid-job. Some printers allow you to buy and tack on additional paper trays.

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 print a lot, speed might not be vital, and even the slowest printers print fast enough for low-volume work.

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

How will you hook your printer up to your network? Most -- but not all -- color laser printers can connect to your computer or network either wirelessly (via Wi-Fi) or wired (via Ethernet or USB). Many can print directly from your smartphone or tablet, and some can print directly from cloud sites like Dropbox and Google Drive.

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.

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. 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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