When buying a printer for your business, the choice is primarily between one of two types: inkjet or laser. An ink jet printer works by spraying tiny jets of quick-drying ink onto a page. A laser printer distributes a powdery substance called toner over a statically charged drum that rolls over the paper, distributing the print onto the page; heated rollers then cook the toner permanently into place. The price of both kinds of printers has dramatically dropped since the early 2000s. Manufacturers sell the printers cheap but charge owners exorbitant amounts for expensive ink or toner. To get the best value for your business, you should pay attention not only to the price of the printer but to costs of operation as well -- especially the cost of replacing ink cartridges.

Advantages of Laser Printers

Laser printers are faster than ink jet printers. Because they use toner which, unlike ink, never bleeds, laser printers usually produce higher quality print. Although replacing a laser printer's toner cartridge is expensive (as much as 50 percent of the cost of the printer), toner lasts so much longer than ink that a laser printer's cost per page tends to be low. Finally, laser printers tend to be quieter when printing.

Disadvantages of Laser Printers

Laser printers come up short in a number of ways. First, laser printers, while still cheap, are far more expensive than inkjet printers. Second, while a monochrome laser printer is only marginally more expensive than an inkjet printer, a color laser printer costs two to five times more than a color inkjet printer. Because laser printers need to keep rollers heated, they often have fans that whir while the unit is on standby, generating noise and consuming extra power. Lastly, inkjet printers can be more compact, which is a point to consider if desktop space is limited.

The Verdict

Most other printing features -- wireless connectivity, multi-function capability, printing straight from media -- come at roughly the same additional price for both laser and inkjet of printers. To determine which type is best for you, consider how you are going to use the printer. If you are primarily printing letters or business documents, a monochrome laser printer will likely carry the lowest operating cost for the highest quality output. If you need to print occasional photos or color presentations and can't shell out for a color laser printer, you may be better off with an inkjet printer. Remember also that there is variation among printers of both kinds and while the rule that laser printers are cheaper to operate and produce better print than inkjets is usually true, it is not always so. Examine the quality and operating cost of each individual model to make the most informed decision.

A Third Alternative

The far rarer dye sublimation printer uses heated rollers to apply quantities of dye to a specially coated paper. Because of the special paper required, the cost per print of dye sublimation printers is fairly high and they are normally used only for photographs. These printers can be made in very compact designs, however, so if you are looking for a highly portable printer to produce photo prints (e.g., printing head shots for temporary ID badges at a conference) a dye sublimation printer would have some definite advantages.