Inkjet and laser: a printer primer

Not so long ago, color inkjets first hit the mass market. That was in the mid-1990’s. Everyone predicted the death of the photographic print shop, much the same as when digital cameras arrived and folks ‘foresaw’ a swift end to traditional film cameras.

In both cases, neither prediction came true, for the most part. Digital cameras are now driving the photo industry, so much so that inkjet printer prices have dropped to quite affordable levels, while the quality of the prints they produce has climbed steadily. Now that technology has advanced, a former office workhorse, the color laser printer, challenges the rule of the inkjet.

We’ll look at how to choose between the two.

Inkjets are exactly what their name implies. They produce colored droplets of ink that are shot onto a page to produce images. Almost all of the current crop of photo-quality inkjets on the market use six different colors of ink to create vibrant images on plain paper. They can produce stunning photographic results on specialty ‘photo paper’ that absorbs the ink more precisely. While prices for the printers have come down considerably, the ink cartridges
themselves remain relatively pricey for the small volume of ink they contain.

Laser printers, the powerhouse office machines, have come a long way, as well. Whereas it was an easy choice five years ago between lasers (for volume printing and crisp resolution ) or inkjets (for their cheap color capabilities ), now the lines have blurred. With the incredible drop in color laser prices, decent models are now around $500 for a basic unit, roughly triple the price of a good photo inkjet printer.

For example, an ‘older’ color laser printer, the Magicolor DeskLaser 2200, is a beast of a machine, weighing in close to 120 pounds with paper and toner. Though it is less than four years old, newer color lasers have already eclipsed it in terms of speed and color fidelity. The photos it produces are quite colorful, but there is a definite ‘grid pattern’ to the images (still common to color lasers) and the color matching does leave something to be desired compared to inkjets. But it is fast!

As is often the case in the tech industry, once a product hits the market, it often finds uses far apart from its initial design. In the case of the color laser, it has migrated from creating color documents for business use right on down to the home consumer, who can now run off beautiful color copies of vacation photos in record time – something that may send a shiver of horror down any relatives spine.

But the average consumer does not print images in volume, and so should consider an inkjet first before a color laser, especially if the major use will be to print photographs. Inkjets have evolved into excellent platforms for producing photo-realistic prints, and can do so relatively cheaply. Bear in mind that most photo inkjets do not print basic black text very quickly, so work projects or school essays may take a while to print.

Color lasers come into their own when the user needs volume-printing, much the same as back in the days of monochrome printing; nothing prints as fast or in quantity as a laser. Now that color has been added to the mix, consumers who want to produce large numbers of prints (say for brochures, signs, or basic color photos) should look to a laser. Though some color lasers do a good job on printing photos (given the right paper), they still cannot create the fine smooth detail that inkjets can, at least not yet.

Interestingly enough, many consumers today prefer to take their digital photos to a photo specialist to be printed, much the same as in the days of film. Time and cost are factors here; those photographers with dozens of photos to print find it less expensive (and time-consuming) to have their photos printed than wait for results at home. As well, printing dozens of photos can eat through an inkjet’s ink supply fairly fast, especially at the higher resolution settings usually used to produce quality photo-realistic prints.

While this article does not touch on multifunction machines, it’s worth remembering that though such ‘All-In-One’ solutions are great for home offices, be warned: if one part stops functioning, it may render the entire unit useless. Having a scanner, fax, printer and more in one unit saves space and money but can cause headaches in a crunch.

Those wishing to start out in the color laser world would do well to look at the Dell 3110cn. It sells on the Dell
website for $549 U.S. ($479 Canadian). Its little brother, the Dell 1320c is only $229 U.S. ($299 Canadian) – a remarkable price for a highly-rated small business color printer. Color inkjets to look at include the HP Photosmart D7160, for $120 U.S. (less than $160 Canadian) and the Canon Pixma iP4200 for $63.00 U.S. ($150 Canadian). Both are designed for photo printing, and the Canon uses five separate ink cartridges.

Look at your printing needs, and price your purchase accordingly. If you need to print photos at home, make sure your inkjet uses multiple cartridges to create the best-looking prints, and price out replacement cartridges before you buy. If a laser is more your choice for volume prints, ensure that a replacement toner won’t bankrupt you. After all, the initial price of the printer is only part of its cost – it’s the consumables that add up over the life of the printer, especially if it does a good job.

After all, once you HAVE those photos in-hand, you need to print more, right? Thanks to the digital camera, we can all cover our walls with photos, on the cheap.