This IS a tough one!  So many users today are opting for the inkjet solution because of the color factor.  But, what is best and why? Simple is better, so let’s make it simple.  Get both like I did!  Here are some basics.

Macs and PCs

Macs and PCs.  That’s another story.  I am an unabashed Mac enthusiast and look for products that will work with both Macs and PCs.  The common thread for most cross-platform printer connectivity is USB (Universal Serial Bus).   The lines are blurring today as more computers come equipped with USB, which is fast enough for most printing needs.  All the new Macs come with USB as do new PCs. Consequently, printer makers are re-evaluating their product line and providing USB either built-in or available through adapters, so both Macs and PCs can use the printers.  It then becomes a matter of software to drive, or operate, the printers whether with a PC or a Mac.

While some manufacturers do not advertise or well promote their new Mac compatibility, it’s worthwhile for Mac users to dig for it, including seeking third party solutions, such as the hardware and software products from Infowave.  In other words, sometimes a printer will work with Macs, but the manufacturer does a poor job of advertising that fact.  We already know that all printers will work with PCs!

Laser Printers

Laser printers are the workhorses.  They’ll print hundreds, even thousands of pages at a clip and never hiccup (some printers are more heavy-duty than others).  The cost per page is really cheap.  To me, it’s a non-issue.  Toner cartridges for popular models can run as low as about $50 for a yield of 4,000 pages or more.  See, it’s pretty cheap. Maintenance is generally quite low.  They usually only need toner cartridges and, as required a drum assembly once in a blue moon, at maybe 20,000 pages or more.  That’s it.  But, they’re black & white.  At least, the laser printers that you and I can readily afford today are black & white.

Laser printers today typically crank out from six to 10 pages per minute, or more.  They happily use standard copy paper which you will find for about $20, give or take a buck or two, for a box of ten reams, or 5,000 sheets.  As a rule, the brighter the white rating on the paper (actually a rating of apacity), such as 86 Bright, or 92 Bright, the crisper and sharper the images can be, and the more the paper costs, but not usually by a big amount.

Today’s laser printers, typically, produce their pages at 600 dpi, or dots per inch.  The higher the number of dots per inch, the better the output looks.  Don’t get carried away by the numbers, though.  Most users would do just fine with the older 300 dpi models if they were available.  How do I know?  Well, I have a couple of old workhorse 300 dpi laser printers, one an NEC SilentWriter2 Model 90 (ca. 1990) and the other an Apple LaserWriter IIg (ca. 1992).  Both STILL do a great job and are perfect for day-to-day text and even graphics printing, especially the Apple printer.  I also have a newer Apple LaserWriter 4/600 PS.  This personal printer is a 600 dpi model, and, while it does a better job because of the higher dpi, I don’t really notice such a huge difference on most printed pages and I doubt you would either.

This brings me to my next point.  You will also see 1200 dpi laser printers starting to be available at increasingly affordable prices.  I just don’t see the real advantage FOR MOST USERS, unless they are not priced at significantly more than comparable 600 dpi models.

Speaking of prices, laser printer start at under $400 for the basic models.  Paying more buys additional memory (takes the load off your computer), faster performance, heavier duty operation, built-in networking capabilities, multiple paper input trays and features (such as PostScript) not generally needed nor used by most consumers.  However, as homes today increasingly double as offices and also have multiple computer users within families, the need for networking capability grows.

Printer sharing

If, in the near future, you might wish to share a printer among more than one computer, be it a laser or inkjet printer, consider opting for a model with this capability built-in or available through third party adapters.  Another solution is through something new – the Home PNA solution.  The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (Click for more info) is a consortium of consumer electronics manufacturers, which also includes computer makers, joined together to set standards for networking a wide array of products.  To make a long story short, as Home PNA-compliant products are introduced, users will be able to use existing phone lines to join computers and other products and still carry on phone conversations over the same lines.  It will also be possible, for example, to have a printer connected to computer A and print to it via computer B in another location in the home or office.  The trick here is that this will be able to be accomplished with relative ease, regardless of whether you are using Macs, PCs or a combination of both.

Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers have become popular because they print in COLOR, they’re fun to use and can initially cost considerably less than laser printers, but that’s not the whole story.  Consumer models and even business model inkjet printers are not designed for the heavy-duty use that even modestly priced laser printers can handle.  Don’t let the low initial cost fool you.  The cost per page is usually much higher, too.

Inkjet printers usually have at least two cartridges; one for color ink and one for the black ink.  Most cartridges cost from about $10 to $40 or more.  Output is usually rated at about 200 – 400 pages from the black and less, much less, from the color cartridges if they are used for high-quality photo printing instead of colored text with smallish graphics on the pages.  In short, it can get downright expensive to use an inkjet printer for more than a page or two per day.  That’s where the hidden costs are.  It’s those supplies!  Some printers require separate periodic printhead replacement, while others have integrated printheads with their ink cartridges.

On the other hand, color sure is nice!  With inkjet printer prices starting at under $100, it’s an attractive option.  It’s that fun factor, too.  Printing in color is a fun and creative way to express oneself.

There’s another consideration here.  In order to see the real benefits of color inkjet printing, special papers are needed.  Higher-quality specialty inkjet papers are expensive, too.  Remember that dpi thing?  Inkjet printers, the good ones, can print at 1440 x 740 dpi, or more.  Photos can look exceptional if printed from a high-quality file on high-quality photo paper.  Even day-to-day printing at as little as 360 dpi, which can be found on the least expensive inkjet printers, looks much better on inkjet paper.  Output can rival the look of laser printing and often does.  Remember, ink dries out.  Most printer makers suggest that ink cartridges will last within a printer for about six months before it should be replaced, whether used up or not.

Inkjet printers are also considerably slower than most laser printers, though they are improving.  But, try to print a big graphic or photo file at the highest quality and you’ll experience the hurry up and wait for your image to print, sometimes as much as 15 minutes per page!

Some inkjet printer inks are more susceptible to moisture than others, and all are worse than laser printed pages.  In other words, moisture from hands that appear dry can smear an inkjet-printed page, even long after the print is made.  Just imagine what a little water can do!

For occasional use, low priced inkjet printers may be all you need, but beware of the hidden costs.

Conclusion

So, make up your mind and get one or the other, or one of each.  If you need lots of printed pages, opt for a laser printer.  This can include the growing numbers who use their computers as the primary fax-receiving product (as I do).  If you need to print the faxes and keep them, of if you need to print lots of faxes, a laser printer makes lots of sense.  If you need to print only occasionally, an inexpensive and basic inkjet printer may be best for you in the long run.  If you still want the best of both worlds, you’ll just have to buy both and switch off.  If your computer and printer are USB-equipped, connecting both at the same time is really easy to do.

The top ink-jet brands for both Macs and PCs to watch are:

Canon, Epson, Hewlett Packard

The top laser printer brands for both Macs and PCs to watch are:

Brother, Hewlett Packard, Lexmark

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