What Should I Consider When Buying a Color Laser Printer?

Brendan McGuigan

A laser printer is a specific type of printer, which operates on a similar principle to a photocopier or multifunction printer. Unlike an inkjet printer, however, in which small bursts of ink are sprayed on to paper, laser printers work based on the simple principle of static electricity. Basically, a laser writes on a positively-charged central drum, creating an electrostatic image of whatever is going to be printed. Once the laser has drawn its image, the drum is coated in a fine black powder, the same sort of toner used in photocopiers, which it then rolls out on to paper. The powder sticks to the positively charged sections of the drum, the same way a sock might cling to your clothes if it was charged with static electricity, and only the powder on the negative image is let down on to the paper.

Laser printer cartridge.
Laser printer cartridge.

It’s pretty easy to see how this can produce great black-and-white pages, but a color laser printer is a bit more complicated. Essentially, it goes through the same process four times, once for each of the colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, a so-called CMYK process. There are a few different ways this can be done, and how it’s done affects the quality and speed of the print, and the price of the printer.

Laser printer.
Laser printer.

The simplest color laser printer would have just one drum, and would roll four different colors for each page. A slightly more elaborate set-up would do a similar thing, except it would first print the four colors to a plate, and then print the plate to the page. The most complex, and therefore the most expensive, type of color laser printer has a complete system, drum, toner, and laser, for each color that needs to be produced, making an assembly-line style print.

When looking to buy a color laser printer, there are a number of different things you can look at. First and foremost, you need to decide how much you are willing to spend. If your funds are limited, the options you’ll be able to choose from will be limited to, as most printers that cost less than a few hundred US Dollars (USD) will be of the simplest variety. If you have more money available, you can start to look at different numbers and options.

One of the most important numbers to look at when buying a color laser printer is the print speed, given in terms of pages-per-minute. Because a black-and-white copy needs to only use one drum head and one toner, they are normally much faster, so different numbers will tend to be given for black-and-white and color prints. Unlike inkjet printers, which have a huge difference in speed between sheets of images and text, a color laser printer will be roughly the same. A high-end fast color laser printer will have between 16 PPM and 26 PPM for color prints, and perhaps even higher for black-and-white prints.

You’ll also want to look at the cost of toner for your printer. One reason people tend to like laser printers is that although the initial unit is much more, over time the lower cost of toner compared to inkjet cartridges more than pays for the unit. Make sure that the unit you’re looking at has affordable toner cartridges, and remember that although the initial price for a cartridge is high, it lasts for many pages. Resolution may also be important to you, and you should know that many laser printers are designed primarily for text and presentation documents, so if you plan on printing images make sure to buy a significantly more expensive photo-quality laser printer.

Multifunction laser printer.
Multifunction laser printer.

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