Laser printing has had a tough time of it in recent years. The pace of innovation with this older printer technology (barring tweaks to toner formulations) has slowed to a crawl. Plus, high-speed business inkjet printers with low costs per page, such as those in HP’s PageWide and Epson’s WorkForce lines, have been nibbling through laser printers’ lunch—and are now eyeing their dinner. When you’re debating inkjet vs. laser, it’s even odds which one will come out on top.
Still, laser printers have remained relevant by focusing on their traditional strengths: fast print speeds and reasonable costs per page (especially for text output), as well as the extremely clean look of the finished product and the resistance to fading or smudging of toner. On the downside, lasers often have a significantly higher up-front cost, and they’re nowhere near as capable as inkjets at reproducing fine gradients in complex color output such as photos.
So, who would find a laser printer a more attractive proposition than an inkjet? In most cases, not the person seeking an occasional-use printer for motley tasks: at one moment to print a personal e-mail, the next to copy a color image out of a book, or to print photos. Lasers are better suited to bulk text output: contracts, long research papers, book drafts. If you print a lot of large jobs, and stick mostly to text and clean graphics instead of color photographs, a laser printer is the right match.
It’s also a good one if high-quality, stable text printing matters most. Indeed, certain types of businesses, such as medical offices, may mandate laser printing for archival tasks and record keeping.
What Kind of Laser Do You Need?
You can break down lasers into four key types, defined by two questions: (1) Is the printer a mono-only laser, or can it do color, too? And, (2) is it only a printer, or an all-in-one (AIO) model that can print, scan, and copy (and perhaps handle faxes)? Laser models exist in all four combinations.
“Printer-only” models are well and good; they are all about sheer text or business-document output to the exclusion of all else. If all you need is stacks of relatively uncomplicated documents, they’re perfectly fine for that. They fall into two rough classes: inexpensive units meant for homes or student use (usually monochrome), and larger models designed for a home office, a small office, or a workgroup (which come in mono-only and color varieties).
In contrast, the laser all-in-one is a more varied animal. You can find both monochrome and color laser AIOs, but when you’re talking about a mono laser AIO, there is an inherent mismatch of functionality there. Mono laser AIOs obviously print only in black-and-white, but they can scan in color, as well as make monochrome copies of any kind of source material, like a standard photocopier can. In a sense, the mono laser AIO combines the cost efficiency of a mono laser (which requires just one color of toner, black) with the convenience factor that an AIO brings. You just need to know what you’re getting into before you buy one of these.
Color laser AIOs, meanwhile, bring much of the functionality of an inkjet AIO and combine it with the clean text that lasers are known for, as well as smudge-proof color output. Just know, though, that color laser toner can be an investment come refill time, often exceeding the cost of the printer. It’s something to think about if you’ll use the color printing function only rarely, as the four cartridges (black, plus cyan, magenta, and yellow toners) can be dear.
Also know that as a rule, almost any inkjet’s color photos will be superior in quality to color photos printed on any color laser. Laser-printed color photos tend to look flat. The strength of color laser output is in printing text, business graphics, charts, and the like. So a color laser—given the added cost of its color toner—makes sense to buy only if you are sure that you need that kind of color output.
Indeed, don’t underestimate the power of a seemingly simple monochrome laser. A mono laser printer can provide the speed, durability, and paper handling to deal with the high printing volume of a busy office. And inexpensive monochrome lasers with modest paper handling can serve as personal desktop printers in any size office. Many current color lasers print photos that are fine for many business uses, such as client newsletters. In higher-quality lasers, the overall output quality for text, graphics, and photos is typically good enough for brochures and other marketing materials, allowing many companies to take such printing in-house.
Understanding Laser Printer Connectivity
While the vast majority of new inkjets (barring photo printers) are AIOs, with lasers you’ll find an abundance of both single-function printers and AIOs as you shop. AIOs provide copying and scanning in addition to printing, and in some cases, fax capabilities, too. Models with fax functionality will have a phone-line interface.
Most laser printers or AIOs include an Ethernet jack, and some integrate Wi-Fi. Ethernet connections are essential for plugging into the office router or other wired network infrastructure. For a small or home office, this is often sufficient, too, but also look at the other connectivity options (usually a direct USB cable connection) if you just need to connect the printer to a single PC.
Also, when checking out the wireless aspects, be sure to check whether the Wi-Fi interface comes standard or is an option that you add via a module or card. Wi-Fi add-ons for laser AIOs tend to be extravagantly priced.
You might also see support for Wi-Fi Direct, or its equivalent, for establishing a direct peer-to-peer connection between computer and printer so you don’t need to connect to a network. Another more frequent option is support for Near-Field Communications (NFC) touch-to-print, which lets you print from a mobile device by simply tapping it on a specific spot on the printer.
Printing Speed: Where Testing Matters
If you do a lot of text-based printing, a single-function laser or a laser AIO will likely prove faster than an equivalent-priced inkjet AIO. There’s only so much speed you can get out of squirting ink, and an inkjet’s printhead mechanism running across the page in wide sweeps is an inherently mechanical, less efficient process. (That’s with some exceptions, as always; HP’s PageWide family of business inkjet printers, mentioned earlier, churns at laser-like speeds by making the inkjet printhead a non-moving array, a fixed element.)
You likely won’t notice the difference on small jobs, where it’s just a matter of shaving a few seconds off the time a comparable inkjet would take, but it adds up the more you print. If you plan to purchase a printer for regular large jobs, a laser will save you time spent waiting for your pages to print when you could be doing something else—including the next heavy print job.
Vendors will cite estimated printing speeds in pages per minute, but look at comparative reviews like ours for cross-model print-speed comparisons using real-world documents. (See how we test printers.)
Inkjets work by spraying ink in microscopic droplets onto paper. A side effect of that, though: Ink bleeds. There’s a certain upside to this, as bleeding (when a computer’s algorithms and the printer’s resolution are up to snuff) can be harnessed to execute complex color combinations in photo reproduction. The downside is that bleeding can fuzz out fine lettering. It’s seldom enough to notice at a casual glance, but inkjet-derived text can show artifacts (speckling, blobs, wisps), smudging, and filament breaks, especially at very large font sizes (say, in headlines) or very small font sizes (say, when printing several page images on one page).
Lasers typically don’t have this problem, since a laser printer’s dust-like toner particles are positioned precisely on the page with the help of a drawing beam and then fused in place. They’re superior when you want to create a professional-looking document, say, on your office letterhead.
This applies double when you’re duplexing pages—that is, printing to both sizes of a sheet. With inkjets, visual bleed-through to the other side of the paper, with resultant shadow artifacts, may occur, though less so with thicker paper. That’s not an issue on a laser. You can grab a faxed document or produce a double-sided booklet without fears of seeing page 2 as you read page 3, unless you use very thin stock.
Also, because the toner is transferred electrostatically and then fused by heat to the page, laser output tends to handle dampness better, and it doesn’t need to “dry.” A laser can churn out pages atop one another without worrying about ink-saturated images transferring in part to adjacent pages that are still wet. This is an important factor for any business that needs cleanly printed color graphics, and fast.
Print Costs and Toner Considerations
Whether you use your inkjet regularly or leave it idle for weeks, you lose a bit of ink whenever you change cartridges or start up the printer and endure its cleaning cycle. The toner in laser cartridges isn’t subject to drying and tends to last longer when left idle, and toner cartridges also tend to last for more pages than most inkjet ones. This should, at least in theory, appeal to both the small office that frequently uses its printer (it means less-frequent accessory purchases) and to the one that prints only intermittently (because of less loss of the consumables between uses).
Now, lasers typically have a higher up-front cost. Traditionally, they make up for it with greater cartridge efficiency—i.e., lower printing costs per page. But the rise of high-volume business inkjets has closed the page-cost gap, and depending upon the individual printers being compared, the advantage could now go either way. Some inkjets and lasers support bulk refills and cartridge subscriptions that can reduce the cost of toner and ink.
We discuss cost per page (CPP) in our laser printer reviews, and factor in any other accessory costs that might apply to an individual unit, such as drums, fusers, transfer rollers, and pick rollers. In some lasers, these parts require periodic replacement, especially in higher-end models. For a heavy-printing office, these numbers are key considerations.
Mind the Stock: Paper Handling and Duty Cycles
You’ll want to assess the paper trays in any laser model (AIO or single-function) that you are looking at: Will the tray volume meet the needs of your office, or will I constantly need to load paper?
Paper-tray capacities tend to scale up or down with the duty cycle of the printer (more on which, next). The key things to look for: adequate capacity, the ability to add an extra tray or trays (in models that support this, you oftentimes stack them below the printer’s body), and a “bypass” slot for a limited amount of extra media (such as letterhead or envelopes). The output tray, meanwhile, should be large enough for the biggest document you’ll commonly print on the machine.
“Duty cycle” is a specification issued by the printer maker that suggests the page-count limit you should heed on a given printer in a month to avoid overtaxing it. Duty cycle is often expressed as a “maximum duty cycle” (a hard limit to avoid surpassing) and as a “recommended duty cycle.” This spec, compared across printers (especially those within a given family), gives you an idea of how the maker perceives the relative ruggedness of a given printer. It also ties in to how big the paper trays ought to be; a 1,500-page monthly recommended duty cycle likely doesn’t merit paper trays that can hold 1,000 pages.
Speak My Language? PCL and PostScript
PCL and PostScript: Support for these two key page-description languages (PDLs) is mostly of interest to those who will use a laser printer or laser AIO for pre-proofing commercial print jobs in concert with desktop-publishing applications. Generally speaking, you’ll know that you need one or more of these PDLs if this is your business.
Conversely, if you don’t need them, you might be able to find an identical or similar laser AIO model in a given manufacturer’s laser line that’s cheaper, just minus the support. Don’t pay extra for it if you don’t and won’t need it.
Further Features to Look For
Many higher-end lasers include a touch-screen interface, secure (password-protected) printing, a built-in hard drive, and/or the ability to perform a range of functions over a network. Most have an automatic duplexer for printing on both sides of a sheet of paper, and many AIO models will have both a flatbed for scanning and an automatic document feeder (ADF) for scanning, copying, or faxing multipage documents. If scanning or copying stacks of documents is on your docket, an ADF is key.
Many higher-end AIOs now offer ADFs that can automatically scan two-sided pages. The feature will be either a reversing ADF (RADF), which scans one side of the page, flips the page over, and scans the other side, or a duplex scanner, which is an ADF that scans both sides of the page in one pass, making use of scanning sensors above and below the page. Duplex scanners are thus considerably faster, and they reduce mechanical complexity. They also add to the price, because of the additional scanning element. Note that some higher-end models let you add an RADF as an added-cost option, via an external mechanism that you install or snap on.
Finally, note that some laser printer and laser AIO models support office-centric security functions that may be handy—or overkill—for your specific printing situation. These are mostly an issue if you’re installing the printer in an open office environment and often print sensitive information that needs to be kept private. With an appropriately outfitted printer, you can have the printer generate a PIN that you’ll need to enter on the printer’s control panel to “release” the for-your-eyes-only print into your hands.
Also in this category are print-volume tracking and access controls that might, for example, enable you to limit who in a workgroup is allowed to print in color (with the aim being to save toner). These are resolutely business-focused features; see also our guide to the best business printers, which incorporates both laser- and inkjet-based models.
LED Versus Laser: Does It Matter?
LED printers—which use light-emitting diodes instead of lasers as a light source—share many of the characteristics of laser printers, and are considered “laser-class” devices. They tend to be somewhat smaller than laser printers that share the same capabilities, so they’re particularly suitable for smaller offices where space may be at a premium.
That said, for the purposes of comparison, LED printers are essentially laser printers in terms of their output quality, general features, and outward appearance, and can be compared as such. Key printer players that offer LED-based models (as well as laser ones) include Brother, OKI, and Xerox.
So, Which Laser Printer Should You Buy?
Laser printers have much to offer businesses of all sizes, from sole proprietorships to large corporations, and are worth considering, under the right conditions, for home use as well. Take a look below at the 10 best lasers we’ve tested, which span a wide range of prices and capabilities. We update these picks often, but also check out our printer category page for the very latest reviews, including many that didn’t make the cut here. For more printer buying advice and reviews, check out our top printer picks overall and the best inkjet printers.