I’m planning on buying a laser printer but concerned about the life cycle of the toner in the machine. I went to Brother’s website and and it says:

“The toner cartridge shelf life is 2 years if the protective bag is unopened or 6 months after the protective bag is opened.”

I print infrequently and only a few pages a month and was hoping the toner would last for years, but am I wrong?

Will it start to clump in the printer after 6 months? I was going to get a laser printer instead of an inkjet because inkjet printers clog often if not used every week or two and use a lot of ink in the cleaning cycles. But if the toner only lasts 6 months then I have a similar problem with the laser printer.

Can someone clarify which I should get for my infrequent printing needs? I only need to print black and white.

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    Laser printers don't use "ink". They use toner. – Michael Harvey Apr 6 '19 at 9:35
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    @MichaelHarvey - potato potato. Same end result. – Tetsujin Apr 6 '19 at 9:39
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    If you are in a discussion about laser printers, and you talk about "ink", you will make people think you are talking about ink jet printers, and that you have made an error. – Michael Harvey Apr 6 '19 at 9:53
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    I think Brother are being pessimistic to cover themselves. Most users of toner will get years out of them if they print only infrequently – Neil_UK Apr 6 '19 at 12:54
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    I think we can probably drop the ink vs toner discussion. It's not as though it's an answer I can edit. It's a comment which would look odd if I suddenly re-entered it in a corrected form way down here. – Tetsujin Apr 6 '19 at 16:56

14 Answers 14


Will it start to clump in the printer after 6 months?

Very unlikely unless you're keeping the toner in an especially warm and humid location.

I purchased a Samsung Laser MFD (CLX-6260FW) over two years ago, and I've had no issues with it. It came with a set of "starter" toner cartridges:

  • Black - 1503 impressions / 2000 page capacity
  • CMY - 645 impressions / 1500 page capacity

About 1.5 years after receiving it, the cartridges each showed as "0% remaining" and required "immediate user intervention" so I purchased more to be prepared (6k Black, 3.5k CMY), but a further ~7 months later, the original cartridges are still going strong. Others have suggested that toner can still be good after ten or more years.

Toner cartridges can benefit from a gentle shake (side-to-side), which helps to redistribute the contents, but this tends to be required when they start to get low and show print issues... rather than due to toner clumping up. Be wary of vigorous shaking, as any toner leaks / spills will be a significant issue (for both cleaning and respiration).

I flat out refused to buy a printer for a long time, but it's become more necessary for me in recent years. I decided against any inkjet technology (including HP PageWide / fixed head printers, which can be presented similarly to a consumer) for a number of reasons... critically:

  • Idle Inkjet printers get "gunked" up very quickly - if you're not printing regularly, then the head quickly becomes caked in dried ink, which requires careful and expensive cleaning (ink is expensive) - potentially requiring hand cleaning or even a replacement head (or whole printer)
  • Running costs: replacement ink is incredibly expensive, and DIY refills are becoming harder and harder due to DRM - Printer Ink is one of the most expensive liquids in the modern world - See "Ink Cartridges are A Scam".
  • I've long maintained that "printing is the weak link in computing" - Inkjet printers have a habit of jamming, chewing on paper, wearing out... mechanically they are far from a sound idea

With the price and size of laser printers now, I'd recommend that nobody purchases an Inkjet ever again (budget permitting of course, they are still a bit more expensive in the short term).

While laser printers are quantitatively worse for high-quality photo printing, I'd suggest that unless high-quality photo printing is a very important and regular use-case for you, laser will be just fine. For occasional high-quality photo printing, use an online service.

To expand on the running costs of an Inkjet printer briefly, consider some random HP cartridges.

While the upfront cost is much higher, the running cost is significantly lower (probably better than ~50%).

HP Inkjet Black Ink Cartridge

  • HP "No. 45", claims a coverage of ~930 pages, for £44.95
    • 4.8p / page
  • HP "No. 300XL", claims a coverage of ~600 pages, for £36.73
    • 6.1p / page

An approximate ~5.5p / page of black and white only printing... completely ignoring the use for alignment, head cleaning, wastage due to being dried out, wastage due to re-prints, wastage due to DRM, etc...

High capacity inkjet cartridges (e.g: HP 973X) can work out dramatically cheaper than this on a strict per-page calculation, though their high-capacity nature will incur a far higher cost due to wastage for infrequent printing.

HP Laser Black Toner Cartridge

  • HP 1500, claims a coverage of ~5,000 pages, for £100.50
    • 2.1p / page
  • HP 642A, claims a coverage of ~7,500 pages, for £206.23
    • 2.7p / page
  • HP 645A, claims a coverage of ~13,000 pages, for £320.95
    • 2.5p / page

An approximate ~2.4p / page of black and white only printing.

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    Regarding your suggestion to not buy inkjet. Im fairly certain the quality of an inkjet print is still substantially better than a laser. You can print reasonable photographs with inkjet, but not so much with laser. – Matt Apr 6 '19 at 12:31
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    "About 1.5 years after receiving it, the cartridges each showed as "0% remaining" and required "immediate user intervention" so I purchased more to be prepared (6k Black, 3.5k CMY), but a further ~7 months later they're still going strong." - I have found this. My Brother mono laser lasted 7 years (2008 - 2015) on its "starter" cartridge. – Michael Harvey Apr 6 '19 at 12:50
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    It was a Samsung CLX[can't remember the number] that I had for 10 years. It got a bit squeaky over time, but never failed. I just got a new one when the original toner ;) ran out, though they used to sell them with full cartridges, not part-filled like they do now. – Tetsujin Apr 6 '19 at 15:51
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    @Matt, ...there's a big difference if you're measuring "quality" by sharpness of black-and-white text, or "quality" by ability to reproduce colors. Laser printers have been reigning champions of the former category for a long, long time. – Charles Duffy Apr 6 '19 at 22:16
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    @Matt The quality of laserjet color image printing has actually improved surprisingly alot over the past few years - depending on printer. Inkjet is still better for real quality photo printing, but after moving from an inkjet to laser just a year ago, I'm quite pleased with the color image printing of my Brother HL-L8260CDW for basic household needs including printing color stickers for children or colored spreadsheets w/ images, or colored artwork for food labels. I am rather disappointed in toner consumption by this printer though! – Jamin Grey Apr 7 '19 at 4:26

Not to get dragged into a laser vs inkjet debate (laser is far superior.), I will simply add my experiences using lasers.

Do not be worried about the toner going bad. I have never had it happen, nor heard of it going bad.

I have a Brother H-2140 sitting next to me now, it was manufactured in January 2008. It gets little use. The toner in it now is over 2 years old (and that is only the second cartridge in its entire life). So using (very) old toner is not an issue.

There are a host of HP laser printers at work, all with mixed amounts of use, some with OEM toner others with cheap ebay toner. Some machines sit unplugged for long periods of time until needed, no issues with toner in any of them.

Under no circumstance would I consider buying an ink jet, especially for infrequent use. An inkjet will either use up all the ink sitting idle, or if you unplug the printer will ruin it. The ink really can dry up and clog the print head, (have had it happen).

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I have had my printer, a Fuji Xerox CM305DF for more than 3 years. The cartridges (rated at 3000 pages) are still 3/4 full - I have only printed about 1500 pages. The toner seems to be perfectly OK.

In most laser printers, the toner is stirred whenever a print is made. This is true regardless of whether the cartridge and drum are together (as is the case for most mono printers), or when the cartridge is far removed from the drum (most colour lasers). As a result caking or clumping should not be a problem.

In general, I agree with your comment about inkjets. In many inkjets only 50% or less of the ink makes it onto the page. The rest is used in regular head cleans (e.g. every time it wakes up) or in emergency cleans (when the print quality suffers from a clogged jet). Inkjets also need to be used regularly. If you leave them switched off for a couple of months, you can expect to waste large volumes of ink to get the jets working properly again. Lasers do not have any of these problems.

Inkjets have a place if your main use is printing photos. On photo paper they do a far better job than any laser. On the other hand, on plain paper any laser will print better photos than an inkjet. When considering an inkjet for photos, make sure you include the cost of photo paper, which is something like 20c for 4" x 6". Including the ink, you'll be up for close to 50c per photo. If you get them printed at the nearest shop, the same photos will cost you 10c or less and the quality will be even better. Of course, it does mean you have to wait a couple of hours to get your hands on them.

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    I have had an HP colour laser (an M251nw) since May 2015, it came with "500 page" starter cartridges, the black lasted 3 years, and had done 500 pages when I changed it, it started giving warnings about the cyan about 100 pages ago, the page count says 708 pages, but still printing fine. I'll buy some colour toners when the output starts looking strange. – Michael Harvey Apr 6 '19 at 9:33
  • "on plain paper any laser will print better photos than an inkjet" — very wrong. My Epson AcuLaser C1100 has never printed a photo with acceptable colors (although it's in good condition, and is not low on toner). In particular, its cyan toner is too dark, closer to blue than to cyan. Maybe newer printers/better cartridges would result in better quality, but for "any laser printer" your statement is too strong. – Ruslan Apr 8 '19 at 9:39
  • @Ruslan Something must be wrong with your driver's colour settings settings. And, I was talking about the overall print quality - not the colour quality, which is a separate issue. And, as it's a driver issue, new/better cartridges won't improve your prints. – hdhondt Apr 8 '19 at 9:49
  • I don't think it's a driver issue, unless it's a bug in the driver: I've tried it on multiple different computers with freshly installed OS (WinXP, then various flavors of Linux), and in all cases the colors were too dark (not in the sense of luminosity, but rather cyan=light, blue=dark). Windows drivers apparently did try to fix this colors, but the results were still very off. Basically, you can't get colors outside of toner+paper gamut. – Ruslan Apr 8 '19 at 10:11
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    "you can't get colors outside of toner+paper gamut" that's obvious. It sounds as if there may be too much magenta in the blue, but I'm guessing. Do you want to start a new question about this? Attach some screendumps and scans, and someone may have the answer. – hdhondt Apr 8 '19 at 23:20

To add another data point, I have an inherited LaserJet 4250, and according to the supplies status page, the toner was first used in May 2008, just shy of 11 years as of this writing. The capacity and page counts are within limits, and it works perfectly fine.

This is backed up by the fact that HP has a warranty on laser cartridges that lasts until the printer reports the toner is consumed, and states

There is no expiration date for the use of HP toner cartridges.

This is in contrast to inkjet supplies which are marked with a end-of-warranty date.

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    That's impressive. My 4L was purchased new in 1995 and I think might be on its third cartridge. – Blrfl Apr 7 '19 at 16:51

Your choices

Other answers point out cost advantages for lasers, and attest to the longevity of toner. That's all true. But the simple fact is that if you need a printer for occasional use and it will sit idle for months, a laser printer is really your only practical option.

There are some other technologies that have a long shelf life for the supplies but they generally aren't used for day-to-day printing requirements. Virtually all consumer printing is either inkjet or laser.

Inkjets can't

An inkjet will be problematic if it sits even a few weeks without use because the ink dries out in the print head and clogs it. Beyond that, ink cartridges actually have a limited shelf life. Even unopened cartridges deteriorate in a few years. Once the cartridge is installed, its ink slowly dries out inside the cartridge and changes consistency. It can become unusable in a year or two. So inkjet printers just aren't compatible with this kind of usage.

Lasers can

Which brings us to your question of whether laser printers can't do it, either, based on Brother's "best if used by" date. A shelf life of 6 months after opening simply isn't realistic. Brother would probably claim that it's to ensure that customers get the best possible performance. But I suspect it's really to fool some customers into buying more toner so it's "fresh".

On a time scale of less than many years, the primary issue is the potential for the toner to absorb some humidity and clump together inside the cartridge. If that happens after sitting idle for 6 months, shaking the cartridge is a trivial fix. The toner will still work for an extremely long time. So yes, a laser printer can handle your usage pattern without a problem.

I'll add another example of personal experience to the responses. I have a 15 year old HP 1012 laser printer connected to an old computer in a back room. It gets used a few times a year. The toner cartridge is a dozen years old and still prints just fine (and I don't think I've ever had to even take it out and shake it).

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TL;DR Get a monochrome laser, but with anything choose based on TCO

There have been many excellent answers, which I will summarize and 100% agree with, that boil down to:

  • Inkjets clog and/or dry out if left to sit, laser printers, by and large, do not. The only concern I'd have with a laser printer is if it is left in a hot, non-air conditioned environment (e.g., trunk of a car in summer) for extended periods of time.

  • As a general rule, inkjets, even with normal usage, tend to cost far more per page than lasers.

In addition, I have done a LOT of analysis about the issue of pricing not just of inkjets vs. lasers but of differences within each category. My bottom line is TCO - Total Cost of Ownership. When you factor in ink (inkjet) or toner (laser) costs, a little more (sometimes very little) more spent on the printer can pay off over the life of the printer.

Shameless self promotion: I have written extensively on this topic on one of my blogs, Printer Chooser. For example, in this post I analyze costs of purchasing a printer + toner for various levels of usage of monochrome laser printers. YMMV, of course, but basically there are huge differences and it pays to do the calculations based on your usage before buying a new printer.

That being said, if you already have a laser printer, keep using it until it quits and don't worry about the toner wearing out. Far more likely is some cheap mechanical plastic part will break first - which almost always won't pay to repair. My previous laser (Brother HL-2070) lasted ~ 12 years, 10 or 11 (can't remember) if you count my buying another off of eBay cheap to replace some cheap mechanical plastic parts that broke.

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I have a HP Laserjet 4 which dates from the early 1990s. It still works perfectly (albeit slowly).

The toner cartridge was last changed around a decade ago, and that was a remanufactured one which was dated "refilled and tested Aug 2004"

As long as your printer isn't underwater, or in a humid space, or exposed to direct sunlight or high temperatures, then it should be fine for a very very long time.

This printer was obsoleted when MS/HP removed driver support for anything later than XP, so I print to it from a linux box through a parallel port JetDirect.

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    Mine is not quite that old, but my laser printers drivers support also ended with XP (and with the original toner still in use). – Hennes Apr 7 '19 at 15:50
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    @Hennes - non-windows systems print to them just fine... :) – ivanivan Apr 7 '19 at 16:18
  • I guess I could use a vm, but all my physical non-windows running servers are elsewhere. – Hennes Apr 9 '19 at 15:09

Unlike inkjet int which lasts at best a couple weeks opened/installed and unused, laser printer toner lasts years if not decades. Don't worry about it at all.

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This might be only anecdotical evidence, but I'm using my HP Laserjet P3005 maybe once a week for 3 years now on the same toner cardridge that was there when I bought it used, and it still prints like new. The same was with my previous Laserjet 2200 printer before I broke it — bought in 2009 used and it printed just fine on the same cardridge long into 2015. I wouldn't worry about durability of these cardridges, it's more likely that there will be a mechanical problem.

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No one seems to have understood what the life span of a toner cartridge is based on. It has nothing to do with the toner. It’s the developer roller, which is part of the cartridge, that is the limiting factor here. The whole reason why the developer roller is part of the cartridge is so it gets replaced often. They are sensitive to light and the smallest scratch or fingerprint can be reproduced on every single sheet printed.

That’s why having the bag open shortens the lifespan: it allows more light in which leaks in around the cheap plastic door and can decrease the lifetime of the developer roller.

Well kept toner cartridges last years. Also note that a major difference between inkjet and laser printers is the cost per page of ink is much higher than toner. Laser printers usually cost more up front and cost less over time.

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  • ...aka the Drum. – Criggie Apr 9 '19 at 8:25
  • @Criggie Actually it looks like those are two separate things, but they are usually both part of the cartridge and the drum is the one more exposed to light. Light exposure can cause problems with even drum ionization and of course any exposure of the drum risks scratches or dust or finger oils getting on it. – Todd Wilcox Apr 9 '19 at 8:31
  • Which is why Brother and Okidata have historically made drums separate from toner. A typical machine might have toner ~ 2k - 3k pages with drum 12k - 30k pages. And now HP has started doing it too on some of their low end machines - i.e., the machines where the typical user will keep it less than the lifetime of a drum and therefore the consumables cost goes down significantly compared to toner=drum. I've written about this issue too – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Apr 12 '19 at 15:34

I need 50 rep to comment but I feel the need to add:

Inkjet is the only smart option when running off line-interactive UPS power. Laserjet cannot run on line-interactive UPS power and will damage your fuser.

Ink tank inkjets are the cheapest prints, color or mono, at this time. You trade cost for quality, unfortunately.

Finally, to answer your question, your toner won't "gunk up" within 6 month's time, with exception to extremely humid or otherwise high in moisture environments. The warranty is for worse case scenarios. If you plan to operate the printer in otherwise "normal" conditions, you can expect it to perform optimally whether its used once a month or once a year.

Source: 7 years of IT sales.

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  • Agree re: line-interactive UPS. But due to limited run time (aka make 'em cheap by using small batteries), typical consumer/small business UPS (e.g., APC) have some outlets "surge protection only" which is ideal for a laser printer. Just can't print if the power is out, but for most people that is not a big deal. As far as "Ink tank inkjets are the cheapest prints", I challenge you to find me a readily available inkjet < $300 where the mono per page ink costs are lower than a similarly priced laser. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Apr 9 '19 at 19:44
  • Most entry level Ink Tank System Inkjets will pass your challenge. While I cannot speak for your availability, the Epson L3110 is priced at $180 and ships with "three year's worth of ink", has a three year manufacturer's warranty and can scan and copy to boot. It claims to be able to print "up to 7500 pages" per 60ml bottle. If that holds true, you are looking at $0,0013 per mono print at 5% coverage. The HP LaserJet Pro MFP M130a has all the above features (excluding color prints), but prints cost $0,023 per page, not including the replacement drum's cost every 8 toner changes. – phLOx Apr 10 '19 at 21:21
  • Interesting. The specs I find show 4,500 pages black, 7,500 pages color. But that is still quite impressive for an inkjet compared tot he typical HP machines. I'm having a little trouble finding that in the US (searches point to Amazon India), but a quick Amazon (US) gives me the Epson Expression ET-2750 for $300 "Includes enough ink to print up to 6,500 pages black/5,200 color" - that's pretty good by itself and add-on ink bottles (Epson brand) $16 for black - that's incredible, even if it only prints 1/2 capacity. Thank you! – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Apr 10 '19 at 21:43

I would say those numbers were conservative. Like others here I have a cheap Brother laser printer and haven't had to change the toner since I got it years ago. My guess is that they it isn't a hard and fast rule, but either A) something that can vary and that is the low extreme or B) a marketing ploy to get you to buy new toner every 6 months.

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I bought the Samsung Xpress C480W A4 Color Laser Printer two and a half year ago, and changed toner only once.

I blogged about it.

Never had the slightest problem with clogging or anything, much so in contrast with the formerly used inkjet.

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I happen to have a Brother DCP L2540DW printer. I don't use it much: dozens of pages a year.

I've had it for two years. I replaced the dinky little toner cartridge that came with it about 18 months ago, with a third-party cartridge.

I have never had the slightest hit of a problem with the toner. You should be good to go.

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