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Inkjet vs. Laser vs. Thermal - Which printer is best?

Inkjet vs. Laser vs. Thermal - Which printer is best?
(Image credit: Getty)

We've all heard of the different types of printer out there - inkjet, laser, and thermal, but few of us actually know how each of these printers works, or which is the best choice for them. To help answer those questions, we've put together this handy article which explains how each type of printer works and which scenarios they're best suited to.

Whether you're looking for one of the best compact printers, or need something a bit bigger like an all-in-one printer, you can find inkjet, laser, and thermal options and 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 you can get great print quality without breaking the bank. You will find inkjet printers in all shapes and sizes. There are very large inkjet printers all the way to wireless and mobile compact printers that you can carry in a briefcase.

Inkjet printing works by precisely placing extremely tiny droplets of ink onto paper to form an image. Dpi (droplets 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 it the printer will put 600 dots horizontally and 600 dots laterally per inch. Printers with a higher dpi will produce better quality prints. Lowering your dpi will usually result in better print speeds but lower quality prints.

Laser Printers

Laser might sound like an advanced, sci-fi technology to have in a printer, but funnily enough these are actually the simplest variant of printers around. OK, so how do they work?

The basic principle behind laser jet printing is static electricity. How does that same buildup of energy that shocks you when you go to open a metal door handle apply to printing? Scientifically speaking, two atoms that are oppositely charged are attracted to each other. The drum inside of 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 take away the positive charge in certain places. 

After this occurs the printer then puts a positively charged toner (black powder) on the drum. This positively charged powder will stick to the parts of the drum that are now negatively charged due to the help of 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 printer paper is hot when it comes out of a laser printer. This is how the basic concept of static electricity is used to print efficient and great quality prints.

Laser printers are typically found in offices and workplaces rather than in the home. Laser printers 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, the laser printer is the way to go. But for home users who often print family photos, the inkjet is the best option.

Thermal Printers

Thermal printers do not use ink to print. A special paper, fittingly called thermal paper, needs to be used with thermal printers. Thermal paper is coated with certain chemicals that make the paper change color when heated. A roller will feed the thermal paper over the thermal print head. Where the print head heats the paper is where the image will show up.

Without the use of ink cartridges or ribbons, the process of thermal printing can be quite simple. The maintenance of a thermal printer is minimal due to the lack of these moving parts. Without these moving parts, thermal printers can be extremely small and portable.