What Is an Inkjet Printer?

Learn how they work, their advantages, and their disadvantages

An inkjet printer is the most popular choice for home printing needs. These printers work by propelling droplets of ink onto paper, as opposed to laser printers that use toner and are designed mostly for high-volume printing in office settings.

If you're considering purchasing an inkjet printer, take a look at how these printers work and are used.

Inkjet printer
tankist276 / Getty Images

Inkjet printers are typically inexpensive, small, and print both high-quality images and text documents.

What Is an Inkjet Printer?

An inkjet printer is a peripheral that attaches wirelessly or by cable to a computer. In the home, it receives documents or images from the computer and prints on bond paper or high-quality photo paper. In the case of a wireless printer, anyone in the household can print from a wireless device to the printer, as long as both are on the same home network.

Inkjet printers perform best on nonporous paper, so a slightly heavier weight bond paper that is typical in offices—24 lb. vs. 20 lb.—is desirable. Paper explicitly designated for inkjet printers has a hard surface that prevents the colors from bleeding. This type of paper is slightly more expensive than typical office copy paper. High-quality photo paper is also manufactured for inkjet printers, but it is more expensive than bond paper.

Inkjet printers described as all-in-one printers come equipped with scanning and photocopying capabilities, in addition to printing. These two options are done directly on the printer, the same as on a copy machine, usually by placing a document face-down on a glass area.

Characteristics of an Inkjet Printer

Most home inkjet printers are inexpensive, relatively small, and lightweight. Commercial-quality inkjet printers are larger, more expensive, and print on a broader range of materials.

The speed of an inkjet printer is usually rated in how many pages per minute it prints in black ink only and how many pages per minute it prints in color. The speed of different printers varies, but a typical rating for many models is 10.5 pages per minute in black-only ink and five pages per minute in color ink. Commercial inkjet printers are faster than the smaller home counterparts and more expensive.

Most home inkjet printers handle standard letter and legal-size paper. A subcategory of inkjet printers—dedicated photo printers—is smaller and designed for photos only, not documents. These are available in paper sizes of 4 by 6 inches, 5 by 7 inches, and other sizes.

Inkjet ink cartridges are relatively expensive. It isn't unusual for the cost of consumables to surpass the cost of the printer within a year, depending on the volume of use. If you're shopping for a new inkjet printer, estimate the printer's cost per page before buying it.

How an Inkjet Printer Works

An inkjet printer creates an image by spraying tiny droplets of ink onto the paper. The print head moves back and forth as the paper feeds through a set of rollers. The complete image is built from many minuscule dots, like the pixels on a TV or phone screen.

The quality of an image is determined by the number of dots per inch (DPI) the printer is capable of producing. Most laser printers have a resolution of 1200 dpi or 2400 dpi. Some low-end printers have a resolution of 300 dpi or 600 dpi. The lower range is acceptable for documents that consist primarily of text and everyday graphics. However, for high-quality photos, the higher resolutions are preferable.

Yellow, magenta (red), cyan (blue), and black are the commonly used ink colors in an inkjet printer. Used together, these can reproduce most colors. Each ink color is usually contained in a separate replaceable cartridge, but some models combine the inks into one cartridge.

Refilling a third-party printer cartridges, inkjet.
Patrick Daxenbichler / Getty Images

Inkjet cartridges have tiny computer chips that monitor the cartridge's ink level. When the ink gets low, you are prompted to replace the cartridge.

Inkjet Technologies

Most consumer printers use the thermal drop-on-demand (DOD) method to dispense the ink. In this process, ink is pumped from the cartridge to a tiny reservoir sitting directly behind a nozzle. A small electric heating element is located in the reservoir. When a pulse of electrical current passes through, the ink's solvent vaporizes, causing an increase in pressure, which propels a drop of ink out of the nozzle. The bubble of vapor then condenses, contracts, and draws more ink into the reservoir.

Large commercial printers use a piezoelectric material instead of a heater. In these devices, a piezoelectric diaphragm, similar to a small speaker, sits at the back of the ink well.

The nozzle for piezo and thermal inkjet nozzles

The print head contains the nozzle, reservoir, and heater or piezoelectric. In many consumer printers, the print head is part of a disposable ink cartridge, meaning it's replaced whenever new ink is required. Expensive printers use a fixed head.

Other technologies appear in large-scale commercial inkjet printers, but not in home printers. These often use a combination of ultrasonic vibration and electrical charge to propel and direct ink droplets in a continuous spray. Such printers are faster and use a greater variety of inks and dyes, including those that are solvent-based and ultraviolet-curing. This results in more durable and waterproof prints than can be achieved with consumer printers.

Other Uses for Inkjet Printing

An inkjet printer is a low-cost printer that prints photos and documents. However, commercial inkjet printing has an extensive range of uses. It's used for printing signs, billboards, T-shirts, and the "best before" dates on food,

Laser printers have to meet the demands of a workplace, so these are faster—sometimes much faster—than inkjet printers.

  • What should you do when the inkjet printer's output is streaked?

    To reduce streaking, clean the inkjet printheads. In Windows, open Control Panel and select Hardware and Sound > Devices and Printers, and find your device. Right-click on it and select Properties > Maintenance > Clean Heads > follow on-screen prompts. To clean printheads on a Mac, go to Applications and select Utility.

  • What's the difference between an inkjet printer and a laser printer?

    An inkjet printer uses dye or pigment to recreate an image or text, while a laser printer uses toner. Many believe laser printers are faster and produce better quality, but that's not always the case.

  • How can you make decals with an inkjet printer?

    To make decals on an inkjet printer, you need waterslide decal transfer paper. Once you print an image onto the decal paper, use a craft knife to cut a quarter-inch border around the decal if the transfer paper is clear; if the transfer paper is white, don't leave a border. Next, put the decal in a bowl with two inches of water until you can slide it easily between two fingers.

  • What is the best inkjet printer?

    Lifewire recommends the Brother MFC-J6935DW Inkjet Printer for excellent print quality and extensive paper capacity, but it's quite expensive. If you're looking for a good printer on a budget, you should research the HP OfficeJet 3830. If you're mainly interested in printing quality photographs, the Canon TS9521C Wireless Crafting Printer can support various photography projects.

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