Laser Printers Buying Guide

To help you in your decision making process, we present some of the issues and questions you should be considering when choosing a laser printer.

Laser printers have long been used by medium to large businesses, but they are now much more affordable for small businesses and home offices as well. These days, monochrome laser printers can be bought for as little as $100, while decent colour laser printers start from around $600. Laser printers are still more expensive than their inkjet counterparts but they also offer advantages like faster print speeds and, often, lower running costs.

There are a number of factors you should consider when looking to buy a laser printer.

Printer consumables

Laser printers' consumables are typically cheaper than inkjets'. However, the cost of running a printer will still far outweigh the initial price tag in the long run, so considering the costs of a particular model's consumables is a good first step.

Toners are the biggest cost, as you'll need to replace them most frequently. They aren't the only consumables, though: you might also need to replace the printer's drum, fuser unit and waste toner unit.

The best way to compare different models' consumable costs is to calculate their cost per page. You can do this by finding the cost of the printer's individual consumables as well as their lifespan, which is often quoted in page yield (the number of A4 pages it will last). Then use this formula:

Cost of consumable / Page yield = Cost per A4 page

Calculate this for individual consumables then add them together to get the overall cost per page. Page yields aren't always accurate, but the cost per page is still a good comparative point between models, particularly from the same manufacturer.

It's worth checking if you can pick up a remanufactured toner cartridge from Cartridge World or similar stores. Printer manufacturers discourage buying third-party consumables but it can be a more cost effective way of purchasing toners.

You can always try to lengthen the lifespan of consumables by printing at lower resolutions or using toner-saving modes where available. The reduction in document quality is sometimes minimal and you will use less toner powder.

Print resolution

The quality of a printer's output is partially indicated by the number of dots per square inch (dpi) that it can distribute across a sheet of paper. This figure depends on the accuracy of the printer's hardware, and you can usually expect of range of 600 to 2400 dpi on monochrome and colour laser printers depending on their price. It isn't always necessary to go for the highest possible resolution — in most cases you can produce good quality text documents using 300 or 600 dpi. However, for graphics a higher print resolution can mean greater detail.

Printer manufacturers may also quote an "optimised" print resolution, which uses both printer hardware and software to smooth images for better quality results.

High-end text laser printers also offer halftone printing, which can produce increased shades of grey, and lines per inch (lpi) quality settings, which determine how detailed halftone graphics are. This is mainly important if you're looking for the highest possible text quality or plan to print lots of graphics from a monochrome printer.

A high print resolution doesn't necessarily mean that text documents will look fantastic or that colours will be accurate. Ultimately, the best way to compare is to find a store that offers sample printouts and examine them, as well as read independent reviews that rely on real-world tests (like PC World's).

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Print speed

The print speeds quoted by manufacturers aren’t always accurate, as printers are tested in the best case scenario. PC World reviews use a standard test across all models and measure speed in pages per minute (ppm) in order to give you an indication of how fast a laser printer can spit out each page.

Other factors can affect speed, like a printer’s warm-up time and the time it takes to spool a job to the printer.

Memory and hard drives

You can often upgrade the memory (RAM) in laser printers by purchasing compatible memory modules or ordering an optional part from the manufacturer. Installing more memory will mean your printer can deal with a greater number of print jobs in a more timely fashion.

Hard drives are available as an optional accessory on some network-equipped laser printers to store documents for reprinting or with password protection. This isn't to be confused with RAM, however, and won't contribute to the printer's processing power.

Fonts and emulation

Resident fonts allow laser printers to print certain jobs quicker and at a higher quality, as they don’t have to constantly communicate with the computer. However, the difference isn’t always noticeable.

All laser printers offer some form of printer emulation, but some models offer more languages than others. These determine what functions on the printer a computer can control without a proprietary software driver installed, and what operating systems the printer is compatible with. PCL is the most common for laser printers and means that Windows, Mac OS X and Linux machines can all access most of a printer’s functions without drivers. Other common emulation languages include GDI (Windows-only), HP LaserJet (for specifically written software) and Adobe PostScript, for high quality graphics.

Special media support

There is usually a big price difference between laser printers that only accept A4 paper and those that can handle A3 as well. It's also worth checking whether the printer can handle special media like envelopes or cards. Inkjets tend to handle these media types better than laser printers, so it might be more cost effective to purchase a second, inkjet printer for these jobs.

An automatic duplexer is extremely handy for printing double-sided documents — it will help you save paper and, of course, money. They aren't always included as standard, but may be available as an accessory.

Trays and paper feeds are mostly a matter of convenience: how often you have to refill the tray, or whether you have to manually load A3 paper every time you want to use it, for example. Larger printers will have multiple tray options.

Colour laser printers

Most colour laser printers still have lofty price tags but are becoming much more affordable, with a current starting price of around $200. As with monochrome laser printers, colour laser printers are often faster at printing colour documents than inkjets, but quality and colour accuracy are typically poorer.

If you're looking to print lots of basic colour documents, a colour laser printer will certainly be beneficial thanks to lower consumable costs and higher print speeds. However, since toner powder is heat-fused onto paper instead of bonding with it, these printers aren't suited to printing on glossy media or producing accurate photos.

LED printers

LED printers work in much the same way as lasers; the only difference is that these printers use an array of LEDs instead of a laser to alter the drum’s magnetic pattern. LED printers are typically smaller, cheaper, quieter and more durable than laser printers. LED printers can also produce more accurate text characters but usually have a lower maximum print resolution.

You may not even know you're buying an LED printer, as some manufacturers simply market them as laser printers without advertising the difference.

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Networking support

Gone are the days of hefty print servers and dedicated computers; these days you can easily connect most laser printers directly to a wired or wireless network. Even some of the most basic monochrome laser printers offer an Ethernet port or integrated Wi-Fi, and set up is usually quite easy.

The more computers you add to a network, the more congested a print queue can become, so be sure that the laser printer has enough memory to meet your office’s needs. Though wireless printers can usually create an ad-hoc network that connects directly to multiple computers, it is best practice to connect the laser printer to your existing wired or wireless network.

Networking a printer can raise security issues, which some manufacturers solve through features like password-protected printing and network authentication. As with any network, make sure your printer workgroup is secured both at the router and at the printer if possible.

Green credentials

A laser printer may include environmentally friendly features. These include overall power consumption, power saving modes and green cartridge disposal. For instance, Fuji Xerox’s solid ink consumables have no external packaging, so you just need to dispose the resulting thick wax after you're finished with them.

Jargon Buster

CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black

The four colours used in most colour laser printers. In combination, they can replicate just about any colour in the visible spectrum.

Consumable

A part of the printer that needs to be replaced regularly. Though the toner is the most common consumable, others include drums, fuser units and waste toner units.

DPI (dots per inch)

A measure of a printer's resolution. It refers to how fine the dots are, and consequently how noticeable they are (the higher the dpi, the better).

Automatic duplexing

The ability to print on both sides of a sheet of paper without manual intervention. Some printers offer a manual duplex option; this means that the printer will print the odd pages, then allow you to reinsert the printed pages before it prints the even pages.

LED printer

LED printers are considered to be part of the same category as laser printers (and are sometimes marketed as 'laser printers'). LED printers use an array of light-emitting diodes (which are also used to backlight some recent TVs) instead of a laser to etch an image on the printer's drum. LED printers offer several advantages, including being cheaper and smaller than laser printers while providing comparable speed and quality. They work best for long, continuous print runs rather than frequent short runs, as the drum will wear out faster if it constantly has to stop and restart.

Memory (RAM)

Used to store fonts and documents in the print queue. Memory (RAM) is generally more useful for networked printers, as it allows the printer to spool more documents from a range of sources, or temporarily store documents for reprinting or under password protection.

Emulation languages

The page formats that the printer understands and can translate into printed documents. These formats make little practical difference to most users as the printer's software driver will convert digital documents to printed pages. However, emulation languages can be beneficial in network printing and when using an operating system that a manufacturer doesn't support.

Toner

The 'ink' that a laser printer uses. Toner is fused onto the paper's surface, rather than absorbed into it (as is the case with ink), and so it does not bleed or smudge like ink does.

OPC (organic photoconductive) drum

The drum is important to all parts of the printing process. The printer's laser (or LED array) strikes the drum, reversing the polarity of its static charge and magnetising certain parts of the drum (the parts where the toner is meant to stick). The drum is then rolled through the toner, which 'sticks' to the magnetic parts of the drum. Finally, the drum is rolled over the paper and the toner is heat-fused onto the paper.

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PPM (pages per minute)

The rate at which the printer can output finished pages.

Monthly Duty Cycle

The recommended number of pages a laser printer should produce over a month. It is important to distinguish between maximum monthly duty cycle (how much a printer can theoretically endure) and a recommended monthly duty cycle (the manufacturer's recommended monthly page limit for a printer). The latter is often a fraction of the former.

Downsides

Is it important to have a lot of memory?

Memory (RAM) is an important specification when dealing with large workgroups. Most low-end printers will ship with 32MB or 64MB of memory, which is suitable for use with one or two computers, but may be troublesome when dealing with a network of five to 10 computers. It isn't always important to purchase a more expensive model just because it has more memory, as it is often possible to upgrade RAM later and at a cheaper overall price.

Do I need a hard drive?

Hard drives are a useful accessory for laser printers if you require reprinting and password-protected printing facilities. Some printers store these documents on embedded memory rather than hard drives but may not be able to store as many documents at one time.

What's the difference between laser and inkjet printers?

Laser and inkjet printers use two different printing technologies to produce documents and images. Inkjet printers transfer ink from a cartridge to a printhead, which then bonds with the media. This makes inkjet printing useful for printing high quality images on glossy media or producing accurate colour.

Lasers (and LED printers) etch a digital image on a magnetically charged drum, which is then rolled through toner powder and pressed onto paper. The toner powder is heat-fused onto the paper, rather than bonding with it, so it won't produce bleeding or running on the page. Laser printers are very useful for producing accurate text documents but typically don't do so well when dealing with colour and photos.

LED — isn't that a type of TV?

LED stands for light emitting diodes. LEDs are used in a wide variety of technologies from car headlights to the backlight in some LCD televisions. In printers, LEDs can be used instead of a laser to etch the digital image onto the printer's drum. There are several advantages to using LEDs instead of a laser, including cheaper initial cost and smaller printers.

Do I need to have emulation languages?

Emulation languages are most useful when using Linux or an operating system that may not be supported by the printer manufacturer. For most users, however, the vendor's software driver will provide all of the functionality you need to run and administer your printer, so additional emulation languages won't be necessary.

How do I connect my printer to a network?

As every network is different, it is impossible to give you a step-by-step guide to setting up a specific printer on a specific network. Make sure to research your chosen printer before purchasing to see if it has the right network connectivity (Ethernet or Wi-Fi) to suit your workgroup.

If connecting to a wireless network, check to see if your printer offers button-based setup compatible with your router. Most new routers offer Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), which makes it easier to connect wireless devices, and many wireless laser printers are beginning to support this option.

Is print speed important?

Print speed can be important if you need to produce a document quickly or work in an environment where several computers are constantly printing documents. However, basic print speed isn't the be all and end all of productivity. There are a number of things that can also slow down a printer, including lack of memory, a slow computer or a congested print server. The time it takes for a printer to wake from sleep, or to print the first page can often add two to three minutes to the printing time, so make sure to ask the sales representative the true print speed of your chosen model.

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Shopper's Checklist

A low consumable cost will ensure you aren't paying an arm and a leg every time your printer requires new toners or drums.

Adequate print resolution

Print resolution is mostly important when printing graphics. Take resolution into account when considering how you will be using the printer. If you need the utmost text accuracy, consider a higher-end monochrome laser printer with lpi (line per inch) quality settings.

Low power consumption

Laser printers can be much more power-hungy than a desktop PC, particularly if constantly printing. Look for a model with energy-saving modes and Energy Star certification.

Adequate operating system support

Check to see that your laser printer will be compatible with the operating system (or systems) used in your office. If driver support isn't included, ensure that the printer has an adequate emulation language so you can still print and control its functions.

Suitable connectivity

For older computers, you may still need a parallel port connection, though in most circumstances you will only need a USB 2.0 connection for local printing. If you want to network the printer, however, ensure it has an Ethernet port or integrated Wi-Fi.

Enough memory

A laser printer with 32 or 64MB of RAM may not cut it out for a workgroup of five to 10 people who need to print regularly. You don't necessarily need to buy a printer with loads of memory from the get go, but ensure you can at least upgrade the memory later on if you need to.

Suitable accessories and paper handling

Ensure the laser printer can handle your paper requirements, such as A3 media or envelopes. Also look for accessories that can cut consumable costs, like an automatic duplexer.

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