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The Difference Between Inkjet and Laser - Ink and Toner Skip to main content

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The Difference Between Inkjet and Laser - Ink and Toner

Tue Jan 22, 2019 | Lasers Resource

Many people know the workings of an ink printer. You put ink cartridges into the machine and then a print head moves back and forth over the page as it slowly inches its way out of the machine. Is that really all there is to an ink printer though or has technology expanded?


Do you really know how a laser printer works? Toner and lasers, right? Well, you’re not wrong, but there’s a bit more to it than just laser magic, it isn’t a CD after all (the working of a CD still baffles me). 

How Does It All Start?

Printer Control Language and PostScript

First off, the document or picture you want printed needs to get from your computer to the printer. This process is the same for both Ink and Laser printers. Computers and printers use digital languages to transfer code. This is normally done with Printer Control Language (PCL) or PostScript. 

HP Logo

PCL was developed by the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) and is very common. It relies on the printer to create some of the graphical data and, although rare, can appear different depending on what printer you use.

Adobe PostScript

PostScript (PS) was developed by Adobe and is used with graphic applications. It is device independent and does not rely on the printer, this means that the output on any device will be consistent.

To simplify, when you hit ‘print’ on your computer, tablet or phone, your document or picture is broken down into code and sent to the printer or copier to be applied to a piece of paper.


Ink Printers and How They Work

HP ink cartridges - different types and sizes

There are two common types of ink cartridges. One kind is a large cartridge that contains all 4 printing colors within it.  The other kind of printer has four different cartridges, one for Cyan (C) Yellow (Y) Magenta (M) and Black (K). Normally with these types of printers, the Black (K) cartridge is larger than the other three colored cartridges.

All the colors that you see from a printer come from a mix of those four colors. There are some exceptions, but that is if you are a print shop or a design agency normally with a large-scale plotter printer.

The most common way of inkjet printing is the same as mentioned above. The code from the computer determines where a drop, or mix of drops, of ink belong on a page, and as the print head moves back and forth over the paper, it will apply those drops in the correct places.  Because of the small print head that has to travel over the page, this is usually a slow printing process.


HP PageWide Printers

HP developed an ink printer that has laser printer speeds. This is called HP PageWide and these devices differ because of the print head they use. In place of the small print head that travels over the page as its being printed, PageWide devices have a print head as wide as the piece of paper that is stationary.

This technology allows business to reconsider ink in their office. Normally, Inkjet printers are too slow to keep up with business demands, but with PageWide ink can be as fast or faster than some laser printers and sometimes easier on the budget. The print head for the PageWide devices can be seen below. The yellow area is as wide as a piece of paper and the grey areas are where the ink gets applied to the page through 42,240 print nozzles in a waterfall type style (but much more accurate than that leads on). 

HP PageWide printhead and ink cartridges


Factors That Apply to Ink Printers

Ink is liquid, this can bring up some challenges when printing. The main factor when printing with ink is the paper you use. If you use a cheaper paper, more rough and more absorbent, can cause the ink to spread further than wanted when it hits the paper and cause the print to become blurred and fuzzy. 

Ink shines on a high end glossy paper. This will give you the best results for high quality prints. This is also true for bright paper. If a page is bright and white, instead of dull and creamy, this means that it is a smoother sheet and will react better with an ink-based printer. You want just enough of the ink to settle and not spread. Often spread happens when you apply a highlighter to the page or other forms of moisture are introduced it to.

If a page has a lot of ink applied to it, it also has a tendency to curl and roll up on itself. To counter this, make sure to use a higher grade, thinker piece of paper when printing high coverage prints with an ink printer. 


Laser Printers and How They Work

hp toner cartridge

Laser printers work with a series of cylinders that the paper passes by called drums or rollers.  A first drum, often called a photoreceptor drum, gets a positive static charge. As this drum is being charged, a laser is used to draw the image or content of the printed page onto the drum.  The laser uses a mirror to move its beam around the drum instead of the laser itself moving. As the laser beam hits the drum, it erases the positive charge in the spots of contact.

A second roller drum adds the positive charged toner particles to the first drum. The toner is only applied to the drum where the laser drew the image and removed the charge. A third roller drum moves the blank piece of paper over the drum with the positive charged toner, transferring the toner from that drum to the paper.

Finally, the paper, with the toner now applied to it, moves through a final roller drum that is called a fuser. The fuser is heated and applies pressure to the paper to melt and bind the toner to the page. After this, the page comes out of the device to the output tray. You may notice little wires that look like hair sticking out of the end of your printer. These are used to remove any remaining static charge on the page.

single toner laser printer

Of course, this is a very simplified process of a laser printer. Some laser devices will be a bit more completed depending on how it was built.

The introduction of color toner cartridges makes this process a little more complex as well. With four cartridges applying toner to a page instead of just one, many color laser devices use something called a transfer belt.  Color laser printers work the same as above, but each cartridge will have a drum and a laser that applies toner using a static charge, the transfer belt rolls over all four drums, like a treadmill belt, collecting the toner in the correct place for a smooth transfer of the image to the paper before the process continues as described above.

four toner laser printer

Though I like to pretend that each printer has a planetarium style laser light show to a Pink Floyd album, I guess we'll never know for sure.

laser light show


Factors That Apply to Laser Printers

The main thing to remember when using a laser printer – they have fusers which get hot. This only really applies when printing labels or envelopes. Sometimes the heat from the fuser can seal envelopes or bind labels to their backings. they can also go rouge and get stuck somewhere in the printer or copier and cause a service issue. This is rare, but if you are printing either of those things, remember to check the packaging and verify that the labels and envelopes are laser printer friendly.


Comparison of Ink Printers and Lasers Printers

Mostly, this boils down to user preference. Laser printers are the most common devices out there because of their speed.  With the introduction of HP PageWide, ink can now compete with laser in the high demand business world. So, since I believe it is up to you to decide which you prefer, I wanted to give you some of my thoughts on the issue. 


large scale photo printed

Why go for Ink – My Thoughts

If you need to have high quality image output, I still believe that ink gives you the best results with the right paper.


fast pace busy office

Why go for Laser – My Thoughts

Laser printers and copiers are fast and can produce large documents quickly. The toner does not smear when a highlighter is used on it and is prefect for an office environment. 


On a related note—if you're interested in finding out the best laser printer for a home or small office, you can read more on that here.


Related Posts You May Be Interested In:

1. Toner is Expensive. Don't Stock It.

2. 3 Reasons Why the Way You Order Supplies Needs to Change

3. Off Brand Clone Toner Cartridges - What Are They and The Dangers They Bring

4. The Top 3 Benefits of OEM Print Supplies

5. Making Sure Your Toner Gets to Where It's Going, Easily and Effectively



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