Color laser vs. inkjet: The hidden factor

Ars Technica did a quick and dirty study on whether inkjets or lasers are more cost effective for color printing  and came down in favor of the inkjet. The math works in their color laser vs. inkjet battle, but it misses something non-trivial. Ink cartridges dry out. Toner cartridges don’t.

Here’s why I use and recommend laser printers for color printing.

color laser vs. inkjet
Color laser printers like this Samsung CLP-300 are cheaper to operate than inkjet printers for one simple reason many people easily forget.

Dried-out cartridges

We had an Epson color inkjet printer for a couple of years, but found the ink dried out after about six months. Meanwhile, I have four-year-old toner cartridges that still have toner in them, and they’ll work once I replace the drum in our color laser printer.

And that’s the problem. There’s more to it than just the cost of the printer and the ink when you compare color laser vs. inkjet.

The laser gotcha

The drum is going to cost me $100 to replace. With some printers, the drum is part of the toner cartridge, and with others it’s a separate sale item. That’s one thing you have to consider. It’s also part of the reason toner cartridges for my color laser only cost about $20.

Well, the aftermarket ones do, anyway. That’s the nice thing about laser printers, or at least the second-tier laser printer brands like Samsung and Brother. Over time, aftermarket cartridges appear that are cheaper than OEM, and the cost generally gets lower over time.

That’s also true of many inkjet printers. So we can call the cost per page almost a wash. Maybe the laser comes out a touch higher due to the need to replace the drum. Or maybe not, since you sometimes have to replace the print head in some inkjet printers. Inkjet printers cost less than laser printers, but there’s more to the math than just the initial purchase price.

The inkjet gotchas

There are two hidden gotchas with inkjets. For one, the color cartridge sometimes has cyan, magenta and yellow in a single cartridge. Run out of cyan, and you have to replace the whole cartridge, even if there’s still usable magenta and yellow ink in there. And if the cartridge dries out before you’ve used up all the ink in it, it really doesn’t matter how great of a deal you got on the ink.

It doesn’t take very many of those dried-out-before-their-time cartridges for the laser to come out ahead.

Although Ars says both ink and toner cartridges expire after 18-24 months, my experience is different. Ink cartridges can last significantly less than 18 months. And most makes of toner cartridge last significantly longer than 24 months. If the drum isn’t part of the toner cartridge, there’s nothing in the cartridge to go bad.

For me, the lack of dried out cartridges is the deciding factor in color laser vs. inkjet printing.

How I shop for a printer

Here’s how I’d shop for a color laser printer if I were buying one today. I’d see what’s available, whether that’s at the local big-box stores or at someplace like newegg.com. I recommend shopping in person and getting sample prints from any of the printers in your price range, as not all printers are created equal.

Then I’d go to 4inkjets.com and see if aftermarket cartridges are available for it. Then go to Amazon.com and search on the particular printer model you’re looking at. That will give you an idea of what other consumables you need. Don’t expect the big-box stores to have things like replacement drum units.

Armed with the cost of the printer, the cost of toner cartridges, and the cost of consumables, you can figure out the cost of printing, say, 2,000 pages. Figure that up for all of the printers you’re considering. Compare the sample prints, then go online and look at the reviews for the contenders. Besides reading what PC World and PC Magazine say about it, hit Amazon.com and Newegg.com and read the customer reviews. The customers won’t know some things professional reviewers know, but the customers deal with owning and using the units for long periods of time. Reviewers only look at them for a few weeks, and you don’t find everything in just a few weeks.

And then, equipped with an honest cost per page and an idea of what each printer can do, you’re ready to make a decision you can live with, regardless of what anyone else says about color laser vs. inkjet printing.

5 thoughts on “Color laser vs. inkjet: The hidden factor

  • February 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm
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    Another factor is ink durability once it’s down on paper. Inkjets have ink that is water-soluble. Get it caught in the rain, or drop it on a wet surface, and the ink runs. Not so with lasers, where the toner is fused to the paper.

    My wife is considering whether to print business cards for a venture she’s starting. I strongly advised against using our inkjet. We don’t have a color laser, so some local printing company is going to get the business. I want those cards to last.

  • February 22, 2011 at 11:50 pm
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    Very true. Toner won’t run, and it fades very slowly, if at all. I have buildings on my train layout that I made out of laser prints. I did the first of them 7 years ago. While the paint on my layout has faded over the years, those laser prints are still just as bright and vibrant as the day they were printed.

    So for longevity, the laser wins.

  • February 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm
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    Not all inkjets are water soluble – HP’s “officejet 8000,” for instance, uses indelible ink. Actually, the officejet makes a very decent laser replacement, as long as you’re going to be printing frequently enough that ink drying out isn’t an issue. It’s rated for heavy use (thousands of pages a month), the cartridges are high capacity (over a thousand pages per cartridge), and the cost per page is pretty low. We had to ditch our laserjet because the indoor air pollution it put out when printing was making my spouse sick, and after extensive research, the officejet 8000 was what I ended up getting. The only downside to it so far is that sometimes it fails to grab the next sheet of paper and thinks it’s out of paper when it isn’t.

  • February 24, 2011 at 1:03 am
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    Interesting – didn’t know that. My world is a bigger place now. Thanks!

  • February 26, 2011 at 10:58 pm
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    Another knock on inkjets – print heads. I’ve had six inkjets over the past ten years or so, and three of those failed due to print head clogging. When my kids were younger, I didn’t print as much as I do now, so there would be times when the printer would sit idle for three or four weeks at a time – then I’d try to print and the head would be clogged. And invariably it would be when I had an extra cartridge or two of each color of ink.

    Haven’t had that problem yet with my Samsung CLP-315, and it’s nearing 10,000 pages.

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