A Guide to Laser and Laser-Class LED Printers

LED arrays and laser printer mechanisms work similarly

OKI Data C531dn single-function Color LED printer
OKI Data C531dn single-function Color LED printer. OKI

Laser and LED printers are great for printing high-quality documents in black-and-white or in color. Most create sharp-looking text and excellent color graphics. They're often more expensive to buy than inkjet printers (although prices continue to drop) but more and more, the per-page cost, or cost per page, gets cheaper and cheaper on inkjet printers, but stays the same on laser-class devices, making them too expensive to use for most people.

How They Work

Laser printers put images on a piece of paper by melting plastic toner powder onto paper. Here's how it works. Inside the printer is a rotating drum is positively charged with static electricity that attracts toner powder to it. As the paper is pulled through the printer, it receives a negative static-electricity charge and then slides across the drum. This pulls the toner off the drum and onto the paper. The paper then is squeezed between heated rollers that melt the toner to the paper. Laser printers use a laser as the light source to melt the toner; LED printers use a series of LED lights, or arrays of lights.

Consumables

Just like an inkjet printer’s ink tanks, laser printer toner has to be replaced. This is a pretty easy process, involving not much more than opening the printer, pulling the old toner cartridge out, and sliding the new one in.

New toner cartridges don’t come cheap (you’ll spend from about $40 to well upwards of $100 for replacements), but, depending on the printer, they can last a long time.

Again, depending on the machine and the cartridge's "yield," toner cartridges can hold from 2,000 to 12,000, to 15,000 pages and beyond. At one time they printed much cheaper on a per-page bases than inkjets. Keep in mind that often laser-class printers are high-volume machines, so, as discussed in this About.com "When a $150 Printer Can Cost You Thousands" article, not paying attention to the CPP can cost you plenty.

Price

Usually, you’ll pay a lot more up front for a laser printer than you will for an inkjet printer, depending on several factors. Entry-level prices for a decent monochrome laser printer start about $160, and about $200 for an entry-level model with some decent features. Still, that’s twice what you’d pay for a color inkjet printer or even an all-in-one machine that includes a fax and a scanner.

Color laser printers are getting cheaper (Dell offers a decent one for about $230) but low-end versions are still light on features such as duplexers that allow printing on both sides of a page. Color laser printers use multiple toner cartridges, so you’ll spend big when it finally comes time to replace them (each one runs about $60).

Bottom line: If you print documents with text and graphics, and you don’t need to print photos, a monochrome laser printer is a good bet. The up-front cost is steeper than with an inkjet, but you’ll get a lot of printing done before you need to change toner. If you need an all-in-one or do a lot of photo printing, then stick with an inkjet. But keep an eye on sales since you can often pick up a great color laser or LED printer for a song.

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