Should You Buy an Ink-Jet or Toner-Based (Laser) Printer?

Laser vs. IJ Tested PrintersWe’ve been in the office-product evaluation business since the days when copiers barely made copies and office workers used manual typewriters, carbon paper and adding machines.

As a result, when we attend events and family gatherings, we’re often subjected to the same type of questions posed to doctors, dentists and lawyers:  “I need some advice on a little problem that I have.  What printer, copier, PC, software, etc. should I buy?”

As far as printers are concerned, many advice seekers want to know what to buy with the limited funds they have and are predisposed to purchasing the cheapest printer they can find–which nine times out of 10 is an ink-jet printer that costs around $100.

While we always expound on the ink-jet “razor-and-blades” analogy and the high cost per page of most color ink-jet printers, it never seems to sink in until after they have to run out to the store for ink at the last minute so that their kids can print their homework.  Then, they are astounded that they have to part with $30+ dollars for a single ink cartridge.  In some cases, they pay more for a full set of ink cartridges than the initial cost of the printer itself (hence the “razor-and-blades” analogy)!

Lately, more and more business acquaintances, friends and relatives ask for advice on replacement printers.  Interestingly enough, we now notice that they have begun asking if they should buy an ink-jet or a toner-based laser/LED printer.  Aside from the aforementioned sticker shock for ink-cartridges, a frequent complaint is that with ink-jet printers, they have experienced problems with clogged ink-jet nozzles and/or print heads, and often they have bought several ink cartridges and found out that it was ultimately the print head that was the source of the problem.

Here’s the deal plain and simple.  If you don’t have enough print volume to use an ink-jet printer on a daily basis, you’re better off with a toner-based laser/LED printer.  The image quality of toner-based printers is not affected by extended periods of non-use unless the paper has soaked up so much moisture that it resembles a dish rag.  Other benefits include:  1) faster and more consistent print speeds; 2) for the most part, cost per page (particularly for B&W) is lower than that of ink-jet printers; 3) toner cartridges’ page yield is much higher than that of ink-jet printers, minimizing those midnight runs to the local Walgreens to buy supplies at the most inopportune moment; and 4) you can usually coax a few more prints out of an apparently empty toner cartridge–but when you run out of ink, it’s all over with and off to the store you go.

There are some downsides to laser printers to consider: 1) laser printers consume considerably more energy than ink-jet printers; 2) ultimate image quality (e.g.: photo printing) is not as good as with ink-jet printers; 3) some laser printers also have replaceable drum units that are usually viewed as an unexpected and questionable expense; and 4) since toner cartridges have a higher page yield, they cost more to replace and can result in even more of a sticker shock at the check-out counter.

We have spoken to Lexmark about the high cost of ink and they had an interesting theory—they claim that it’s not how frequently users have to buy ink or the high cost per page–it’s how much they have to lay out of pocket when the time comes to buy ink.  We totally agree with Lexmark and they have a good point.  However, we think that it’s a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish.  Why take two or three trips to the store and spend less per cartridge, but ignore the cost of transportation?  Why be resigned to the fact that you are more likely to run out of supplies and cannot print right before that big presentation or homework project?  Can you put a price on peace of mind?

Unlike other printer evaluators that don’t even compare similar printers, much less ink-jet to toner-based printers, Wirth Consulting has decided to stick its neck out and do so.  In fact, in our latest Head2Head Product Comparison on Duplex MFPs Under $500, the results support our theories:  Kudos for Overall Performance was earned by the Hewlett-Packard Officejet Pro L7780 (ink-jet), Lowest Color Cost Per Page (CPP) and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) was earned by the HP Officejet Pro L7590 (ink-jet), while Lowest B&W CPP and TCO was earned by the Brother DPC-8065DN, a toner-based B&W (laser) device.

Happy reading and good luck buying that printer!
Terry Wirth

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