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Inkjet vs. Laser vs. Thermal - which is the right printer for you?

Inkjet vs. Laser vs. Thermal - which is the right printer for you?
(Image credit: Getty)

Out of all the printers you could buy for your home or office, there are some that stand out as being better fits for your needs than others. Finding these models, however, can be a tricky business, so it helps to have a bit of understanding about how printers work in the first place, so you know what to expect from a particular printer.

There are three main kinds of printer on the market today - inkjet, laser, and thermal - and we've put together this handy article to explain how each type works, and which scenarios they're best suited to.

Whether you're looking for one of the best compact printers (opens in new tab), or need something a bit bigger and more flexible like an all-in-one printer (opens in new tab), you can find inkjet, laser, and thermal options. Knowing which is best for you isn't straight forward. So let's get started, kicking off with the most common type of household printer, the inkjet printer.

Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers have become the most commonly owned printer because they can provide great print quality without breaking the bank. You will find inkjet printers in all shapes and sizes, from the very large A3 photo printers all the way to tiny wireless and mobile compact printers you can carry with you on a business trip.

Inkjet printing works by precisely depositing extremely tiny drops of ink onto the paper to form an image. Dpi (droplets or dots per inch) is a common acronym that you will see in reference to inkjet printers. For example, when a printer has a 600 x 600 dpi this means that the printer will put 600 dots horizontally and 600 dots vertically per inch. Printers with a higher dpi will produce better quality prints. Lowering your dpi will usually result in better print speeds, and less ink consumption, but lower quality prints.

HP makes some excellent inkjet printers

(Image credit: HP)

Laser Printers

Lasers might sound like a dangerous technology to have in a printer, especially with all that paper around, but funnily enough these are actually some of the simplest printers around. So how do they work?

The basic principle behind laser printing is static electricity, the same stuff you might get from a nylon carpet or by rubbing a balloon on your hair. Atoms that are oppositely charged are attracted to each other, so a drum inside the printer is positively charged by a wire or roller with an electrical current running through it. As this drum is revolving, a laser is projected onto the drum to negatively charge it in certain places that correspond to where you want the ink to go. 

The printer then puts a positively charged toner (inky black powder) on the drum. This positively charged powder will stick to the parts of the drum that have been negatively charged by the laser. When the paper goes through the printer, it is given a negative charge by the same wire or roller that took away the charge on the drum. The paper then rolls under the drum, attracting the toner from the drum onto the paper due to its stronger negative charge.

Finally the paper passes through the printer’s fuser. The fuser melts the toner onto the paper and rolls the paper out into the output paper tray. This is the reason why the paper is hot when it comes out of a laser printer.

Laser printers are typically found in offices and workplaces rather than in the home. They use toner rather than printer ink, and are more economical, especially on a large scale. They can handle color printing, but can't do photos and imagery nearly as well as an inkjet printer. If you just need to print text documents and Excel spreadsheets, and want something that can print all day for multiple users, then the laser printer is the way to go. But for home users who often print family photos, the inkjet is the best option - they make up the bulk of the list in our best photo printers guide (opens in new tab).

Brother PocketJet

(Image credit: Brother)

Thermal Printers

Thermal printers do not use ink to print. They use special paper, fittingly called thermal paper, which is coated with chemicals that make the paper change color when heated. A roller feeds the thermal paper over a thermal print head, which heats the paper where you want the image to show up.

Without the use of ink cartridges or ribbons, the process of thermal printing can be quite simple, and maintenance of a thermal printer is minimal due to the lack of moving parts. They can be extremely small and portable, but can’t handle color and their print quality is the worst of the lot.

If you find yourself working from home more and more, make sure you have one of the best home computers (opens in new tab) or the best laptops (opens in new tab), to stay productive.

Ian has been a journalist for 20 years. He's written for magazines and websites on subjects such as video games, technology, PC hardware, popular (and unpopular) science, gardening and astronomy. In his spare time he has a pet tortoise and grows his own vegetables. He also has a passion for cameras and photography, and has written for TTR on these subjects.