Computers, Laptops & Tablets Accessories & Hardware What Is an Inkjet Printer? Learn how they work, their advantages, and their disadvantages by Jody Emlyn Muelaner Writer Dr. Jody Muelander is a former freelance contributor to Lifewire who's writing has appeared in peer-reviewed journals and aerospace industry reports. our editorial process Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Jody Emlyn Muelaner Updated on May 25, 2020 Guide To Buying a New Printer Guide To Buying a New Printer Introduction Printer Basics What is an Inkjet Printer? Why Printer Ink Is Expensive A Printer's Cost per Page Guide to All-in-One Printers Guide to Laser and LED Printers Best Printers Best Printers of 2019 Best Home Printers Best AirPrint Printers Best Canon Printers Best Epson Printers Best HP Printers Best Inkjet Printers Best Black & White Laser Printers Best Printers for Under $100 Best Photo Printers Best Portable Photo Printers Best Printers for College Students Best Sublimation Printers Best Laser/LED Printers Best Home Photo Printers Best Office Multifunction Printers Best Mobile Printers Best Wide-Format Printers Best 3D Printers Best 3D Printers Best 3D Printers for Beginners Best 3D Printers for Under $500 Best Printing Essentials Best Wireless Printer Adapters Best 3D Printer Filaments Tweet Share Email An inkjet printer is the most popular choice for home printing needs. They 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. tankist276 / Getty Images If you're considering purchasing an inkjet printer, take a look at how they work and how they're used. Inkjet printers are typically inexpensive and small and can 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 them 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 than is typical in offices—24 lb. vs. 20 lb.—is desirable. In addition, paper explicitly designated for inkjet printers has a hard surface that prevents the colors from bleeding. This type of paper is only 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, just as you would 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 able to print on a broader range of materials. The speed of an inkjet printer is usually rated in how many pages per minute it can print in black ink only and how many pages per minute it can print 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 much faster than their smaller home counterparts and much 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. They are available in paper sizes of 4 by 6 inches and 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 volumn of use. If you're shopping for a new inkjet printer, you can estimate the printer's cost per page before you buy. 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 on the market nowadays have a resolution of 1200 or 2400 dpi. Some low-end printers have a resolution of 300 or 600 dpi. The lower range is acceptable for documents that consist primarily of text and everyday graphics, but for high-quality photos, the higher resolutions are preferable. Typically, yellow, magenta (red), cyan (blue), and black are the most commonly used ink colors in an inkjet printer. Used together, they can reproduce most colors. Usually, each ink color is contained in a separate replaceable cartridge, but some models combine the inks into one cartridge. 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 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. Although they are not found in home printers, other technologies appear in large-scale commercial inkjet 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 much 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 For most people, an inkjet printer is a relatively 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 they are faster—sometimes much faster—than inkjet printers.