Virtually all printers use one of two printing methods: laser or inkjet. Structurally, the difference between a laser printer and an inkjet printer can best be explained by the way they apply ink to paper.
Inkjet printers use tiny nozzles to spray liquid ink onto paper in microscopic dots. Laser printers melt powdered ink, called toner, onto paper using heated rollers.
Laser printers tend to create sharper text, because toner does not bleed into paper the way ink does. Inkjet printers tend to create higher-quality color documents and photos, because they can create more nuanced color gradients than a laser printer, which prints one color at a time. For example, professional photographers exclusively use high-resolution inkjets, and print on specialty paper that resists bleeding.
However, as the printer industry evolves, inkjet printers are getting better at printing text and laser printers are getting better at printing color. Because quality has become less of a differentiator between the two types of printers, cost and speed have become the most important factors to consider.
Laser printers are significantly faster than their inkjet counterparts. In our all-in-one printer review, we found that the best laser printers produce close to 30 pages per minute, while the best inkjet printers produce well below 20 pages per minute.
Laser printers are also cheaper to operate than inkjet printers, costing roughly half as much per page in ink costs. However, inkjet printers tend to be cheaper upfront, especially if you compare full-color inkjets to full-color lasers.
If you have a home office or a very small office, the low upfront cost of an inkjet might appeal to you. There are a multitude of inkjets on the market, and some offer high-yield ink cartridges at a discount that somewhat offsets the high operating costs. However, if you engage in high-volume printing, initial cost is not as important as low operating costs and high print speeds.
As laser technology evolves, color laser printers will become more affordable for the average consumer. As that happens, inkjets will become specialized for photographers, who need the gradient detail that only inkjet photo printers can provide. For now, low-volume consumers are better off sticking to inkjet printers, while businesses will find laser printers a better option.