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My old color inkjet is giving up, and I'm considering laser to replace it. There are several good questions about color laser printers, but none of them summarize the pro's and con's. So here goes:

I am looking to buy a color printer for home use, mostly for photos (at least medium-quality) and also for low-volume b/w text. Duplex would be neat but not a must.

One aspect per answer, please:
What aspects should I consider, what should I look for, what should I avoid in a home color laser printer?

I'll make this a community wiki because there won't be one single definite answer. I'll post a few ideas of my own but I'm hoping to get many useful insights.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Moses, Tog, Heptite, Kevin Panko, random Mar 9 at 17:56

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
Wow, thanks all for the great responses that have already been posted. This is good information! One thing is particularly clear: if photos are part of the job, then only inkjet can do it justice. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 14 '10 at 21:01
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13 Answers 13

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The only downside to a colour laser nowadays is that they are not very good at printing photographs. If this is the key reason for buying a printer, I'd say avoid lasers altogether.

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If your primary objective is photos, DO NOT go laser! Today's cheap lasers are great for text and all sorts of graphics, but for photos today, you really want to go inkjet! (I've got both, and even with laser photo paper, it's not that good). –  Michael Kohne Aug 14 '10 at 12:55
    
Agreed. I use laser for printing training materials with screenshots and it's OK, but not great. For photos it is mediocre at best. Inkjet wins hands down in this area for range of colours and accuracy of reproduction in all except the deepest black shadows. Inkjet prints suffer from fading in sunlight (some worse than others), laser not so much. So if you want quality, go with inkjet, but if this is for pictures on the mantelpiece you will have to do them again every year or so, or replace them with a new image for variety. If quality is not so important, just quick prints, laser might be OK –  AdamV Aug 14 '10 at 17:19
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Wifi capability can be useful in a home with several computers but is mostly found on the more high-end printers. Non-wifi printers need to be connected to a computer, and nobody on the home net can print if that computer is off. Also, a wifi printer can be placed anywhere, not necessarily next to the computer.

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I'll add network printers in general. In the old times (and areas tagged undeveloped!) printers had wired network cards and connected to wired networks. WiFi printers are natural evolution of that. –  AndrejaKo Aug 14 '10 at 8:21
    
While wi-fi can be useful, it is by no means essential, and setup can be troublesome. Connecting a network printer to a switch / router and then using wireless computers to communicate with it is often easier to setup and achieves a similar effect ie laptop can print from another room while connected wirelessly. Also note that a wireless printer and computer will be sharing the same radio channel bandwidth which is really inefficient once you have several clients or large print jobs (such as photos). –  AdamV Aug 14 '10 at 17:13
    
@AdamV While everything you wrote is correct, I can't see how that is a failure of WiFi printers? Those are general WiFi problems. Anyway, here's another problem: Compatibility! Some printers may not support modern encryption standards. Also old network cards affect whole network in WiFi. A single 802.11b device can slow down entire 802.11g or 802.11n network. –  AndrejaKo Aug 14 '10 at 18:12
    
It's not a failure of Wi-Fi printers, just reasons why I would not say it is a particularly useful feature to look for since the same extra cash could be spent on a more beneficial upgrade (eg faster printing, quicker warm-up, more expensive printer but cheaper to run...) I agree, some wi-fi printers don't understand modern encryption and may force the network security to be downgraded. –  AdamV Aug 15 '10 at 11:57
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Duplex printing is worth the money if it's needed regularly - just to avoid problems with paper feed.

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Don't use inkjet paper, because it's not built to withstand the heat of a laser printer. You risk damaging your printer.

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And definitely NOT special photographic paper i.e. coated to give gloss/matte finish –  BrianA Aug 14 '10 at 11:10
    
@BrianA Weren't there special types of paper for printing photographs on laser printers too? Anyway, here's another reason why not to use inkjet paper: Inkjet paper is designed to absorb ink while laser paper is designed to keep toner on surface. If inkjet paper is used on laser printers, print quality will suffer. On the other hand ink on a laser paper may spill before it dries. –  AndrejaKo Aug 14 '10 at 18:16
    
@AndrejaKo: I've not found any laser paper for photos. My printer has a warning label on the paper tray "Warranty will be voided for any type of product failure using unsupported media (glossy/photo paper" - I assume because of the heated rollers used to fuse the toner. –  BrianA Aug 15 '10 at 5:46
    
@BrianA I'm sure I saw some paper labeled as photo for laser printers. For example this one h10010.www1.hp.com/wwpc/us/en/sm/WF06c/… Truth to be told, I never used any paper denser that 180g/m^2, so I don't know how it's going to work, but I don't think that Hewlett-Packard would list meltable paper as compatible with its laser printers. Still this very much depends on temperature used to fuse toner. –  AndrejaKo Aug 15 '10 at 6:37
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High printing resolution is a must for color photos, not so much for "business graphics".
Superusers: How high does the resolution need to be? Is 2400x600dpi enough?

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Drum lifetime is a cost consideration. Besides toner, a laser printer also needs a replacement drum, after 20.000 - 50.000 pages. Drums can be very expensive.

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Some laser printers have drums integrated into toner cartridges, so drum is replaced with every toner replacement. –  AndrejaKo Aug 14 '10 at 8:17
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Must it be laser? It might be wiser to buy a small dedicated photo printer (higher image quality) plus a b/w-only printer (for letters).

The benefit of laser is that it's water-resistant and won't smear from moist fingers, and it's light-resistant and won't fade over time. But laser doesn't blend colors as well as ink colors. If these aspects aren't important, then maybe color laser isn't necessarily the right choice.

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Number of passes printer needs to print a picture. Usually printers are 1-pass or 4-pass.

In one pass printers, image is drawn on drums of 4 cartridges at the same time and paper passes through all drums before going to fuser. This way printing lasts same amount of time for color and black and white pages.

In four pass printers, each color is printed separately meaning that paper must pass 4 times through whole printer. This way it printing color page takes same amount of time as four black and white pages.

Also back when I was looking for color printer (2007), 1-pass printers used to have better image quality because paper can shift a little bit while moving through printer mechanism so it can happen that in 4-pass printers colors do not align perfectly. Of course that mostly depends on printer quality itself.

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Standards compliance is important, especially for network printers. Postscript printers can work with almost any operating system and will usually have good print quality and can be used for decades. Because they directly print Postscript, they don't rely on drivers as much. There is also Hewlett-Packard's language which works fine (can't remember its name at the moment).

On the other hand you have printers which use their drivers to process the data and send it to printer. They are usually a bit slower and are very dependent on drivers. Another bad side of this is that they are also often considered "consumer products" and printer manufacturers often don't bother to provide updated drivers.

Further more if you use a printer which can directly print from a page description language, you can avoid having to install printer applications on all end-user computers. This may be important because printer applications are often crap.

Bad side is that although printers which can print Postscript are great, they often come with "great" price too. That is why most cheap printers don't support it. For example back when Apple presented first LaserWriter printers, their embedded computers were faster than desktop computers they connected to.

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Oh ye goode olde Apple LaserWriters. They were awesome - and their dot-matrix printers were also lightyears ahead of the competition. Pity they stopped doing printers, but then again so much has changed since those days. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Dec 9 '10 at 7:22
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Toner cartridge characteristics

There are few things which are important when choosing laser printer:

How much standard ISO specified pages can be printed?

What toner cartridge sizes are available? Usually larger cartridges make printing of a single page cheaper than smaller cartridges.

Which parts cartridge contains? Some cartridges come with drums installed into cartridge while on others drum is part of printer. Also important is manufacturer's policy towards drums. Some manufacturers use recycled drums in new cartridges. This might lead to reduced print quality compared to cartridges with new drums.

We've covered drum lifetime before, but it is relevant in this section too. Users who like to refill toner may find it important how long can a drum integrated into cartridge last. Unfortunately, such information often cannot be found on website of printer manufacturer.

How well does printer calculate amount of toner left in cartridge? This is also important as well as how much printer relies on electronics in toner. Some printers calculate area covered by each color during printing and estimate how much toner is left. Some may use fixed amount of pages and not take coverage into account. Some may even use sensors inside the cartridge to calculate amount of toner left. Another plus is if printer can display exactly how much toner is left in each cartridge and estimate how much more pages can it print.

What does printer do when a toner reports to be empty? This is in my opinion of extreme importance! Some printers will just stop printing and display message that cartridge needs to be replaced. Others will allow black and white printing if a color toner is empty or attempt to replace Key black with Cyan-Magenta-Yellow black or may ignore empty cartridge and continue printing even if toner is empty. There are some conflicting opinions in this area. Some people believe that printer should always produce highest quality prints with selected settings and should refuse to print if a toner is almost empty. Other believe that it is better for printer to produce some print than none.

What does printer do with excess toner on a page? During printing pages often come across one or more very sharp blades. These blades remove excess toner from page and make sure that extras don't end up in fuser or somewhere else in printer mechanism (often first pass with blades is made before developing while toner is still on the drum) . On some printers that toner ends up in cartridge and is mixed with unused toner and is not wasted. If the paper used is clean and uncontaminated, that shouldn't be a big problem, but is paper is dirty than some particles may mix with toner and reduce print quality. On some other printer types used toner is taken into a special compartment inside cartridge where it is stored and not used for printing while some other printer types use special used toner box where extra toner ends up.

Does printer come with starter or normal cartridges? Price difference should be calculated. When I was buying my fist color laser printer, I was thinking about HP LaserJet 1600 and HP LaserJet 2600n. The 2600n was of course more expensive but came with full toners. Once I calculated the price difference between toner sizes, it turned out that extra features of 2600n were free.

How well cartridges behave and do they come with warranty? This is also very important. Cartridges my leak toner and damage printer! After finding several interesting models, it's a good idea to take a look at manufacturers' forums and see if there are any common problems with toners? As for cartridge warranty, it in my area usually lasts until cartridge's original toner charge is used up. It's always good to have a peace of mind that in case toner starts leaking, it will be replaced.

Does printer use cartridges at all? This is now as far as I know extremely rare, especially among cheap printers, but in the old days you just poured toner in a special compartment in printer and printer would use it from there. It has both good sides and bad sides. Toner in bottles is usually much cheaper than toner in cartridges, but it is also much easier to spill and contaminate surrounding ares.

Does printer use toner at all? I saw some printers made by Xerox which use solid ink sold as classic electrophotographic printers. Beware of badly written retailer web-sites and badly-informed salesmen.

Size of toner particles is also important. It directly relates to printer resolution. In general smaller particles provide higher resolutions and better printing quality. On the other hand in case the toner leaks or is spilled, it is almost impossible to easily decontaminate area contaminated by them.

Distribution of toner inside cartridge is also interesting. On some printers, cartridges need to be shaken every few weeks to make sure that any lumps of toner inside cartridge are broken and used. Some toners include mechanism which will correctly mix toner once the cartridge is unsealed. I've heard that some printers have mechanisms which will mix toner inside cartridges from time to time, but haven't actually seen any.

Amount of cartridges. Some printers use extra cartridges for bright colors. I don't know if this is a plus or minus when looking for cheap printer. It does provide higher printing quality but it also increases maintenance cost.

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I seem to remember Xerox bought out Tektronix Phaser printers which use dthe solid ink models you refer to. These strange blocks of wax were melted to the page. Great for business graphics, not too hot for photos. (very similar to difference between gif/png versus jpeg really, in terms of single, solid colours vs gradients and subtleties) –  AdamV Aug 14 '10 at 17:21
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Printer RAM

Printers have computers inside them which control printing process and such computers need RAM. On some printers, amount of RAM is upgradeable. They usually come with a slot for some type of SO-DIMM RAM. Unfortunately, they often use SD RAM which hasn't been in use by home computers for nearly a decade and is therefore rare. Printer manufacturers use rarity of this RAM as an opportunity to charge RAM bought from them many times its market price.

Why is RAM important? Well it affects print quality and speed. If printer does not have enough RAM to store entire page, it will often attempt to compress the page in order to fit it inside its RAM. Compression may have negative effects on print quality. It also leaves user at mercy of driver developers who will hopefully correctly implement compression. I have a Samsung printer who's driver has major problems in this department. Another factor is speed. Printer will need longer time to process a complex page if it has low RAM.

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Accessories

Duplex modules, network cards, RAM, additional trays, Bluetooth adapters, Infra-Red adapters, memory card readers and similar accessories can be bought to upgrade a printer. Sometimes manufacturers will make a similar model which comes together with such accessories. Often it will be cheaper to buy more advanced model than to buy accessories for a cheaper model. When I was buying HP LaserJet 2600n, additional tray for it costed almost as much as whole printer. On the other hand a more advanced model (LaserJet 3600dn I think, but am not sure) with higher resolution, duplex and extra tray costed less than 2600n plus tray.

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I did a thorough (perhaps excessive) research project a few months ago to answer this question for my self. I surveyed models from the last 10 years from Lexmark, HP, Canon, Dell, Xerox (Tektronix), Okidata, Samsung, and Brother.

For a modern printer at less than $300, the #1 lowest cost for all consumables (if bought on ebay) is:

drumroll please

HP 4600 Series (includes 4600, 4600N, 4600DN, 4600DTN, 4650, 4650N, 4650DN, 4650DTN)

The only models with lower cost consumables are:

  1. Giant several-thousand-dollar copiers from Canon and Xerox
  2. HP 4500 and 8500 Series (old and slow)
  3. Tektronix Phaser 740/750 Series (very old and hard to find)
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Any chance you can provide references? –  brian Feb 1 '11 at 21:44
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