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Laser printer buying guide

If you need to produce tonnes of printed material at high speed, a laser printer is your best bet. Join us as we run through all the different features available, so you can decide which laser printer is best for you.

There may be many different types of printer on the market, but one thing is for sure -- if you need to produce tonnes of printed material at high speed, a laser printer is your best bet.

Laser printers are not only generally much faster than inkjet printers, but they're also cheaper to run. What's more, whereas most inkjet printers are only designed to cope with low-volume print jobs, laser printers are generally more robust, and, as a result, happy to pump out page after page of crisp text and graphics.

Laser printers need little in the way of maintenance too, and only rarely require a change of cartridge. But laser printers are best for black and white printing. Although there are colour laser printers on the market, they tend to be expensive and more suited to printing graphics than photos.

Laser technology

Laser printers work by using a laser or LED to project an image of the page that's being printed onto an electrically charged, rotating drum. This drum is coated with an organic photoconductor that removes the charge from the areas that have been exposed to light. Toner particles are then picked up, via static electricity, by the printer's drum and printed onto the page using both direct contact and heat to fuse the ink to the paper.

This is a faster printing technique than inkjet printing. As it's also smudge-free, it produces very high quality results, especially when printing text documents.

Cartridges and cost

With inkjet printers, the initial cost of the printer is low, but the cost of ink refills is high. Laser printers, on the other hand, are more expensive to buy, but cheaper to run in the long term.

A laser printer usually uses a single toner cartridge that includes the imaging drum, toner supply bin, waste toner hopper and wiper blades. Replacing the cartridge replaces all these parts, which is why cartridges can seem expensive.

But laser cartridges typically last far longer than inkjet cartridges. For example, a laser cartridge might print around 1,500 pages, whereas a black inkjet high-capacity cartridge is likely to last for a mere 500 pages. As a result, the cost per page of printing is considerably lower with laser printers.

Print speed

One of the big benefits that laser printers have over inkjet models is their speed. As with inkjet printers, the speed of a laser printer is measured in pages per minute (ppm). The higher the ppm figure, the faster the printer will be. Although figures from manufacturers aren't always accurate, they do serve as a rough guide to how fast a printer is likely to print pages of black and white text.

Since laser models need to print an entire page in one go, they store pages in their RAM before printing them. Models with larger amounts of RAM often offer faster print speeds, as they don't have to wait around for individual pages to be loaded into their memory one at a time before they're printed. It's worth bearing in mind, then, that some models allow you to upgrade their memory via RAM modules, thereby increasing the printing speed.

Print quality and duplex printing

The print quality of a laser printer is measured in dots per inch (dpi). The higher the dpi figure, the finer the print quality that the model can produce. Many laser printers can now output graphics at a resolution of up to 2,400dpi. But, for text output, a resolution of 300 to 600dpi is more than good enough.

You might also want to consider models that support duplex printing. These models are dropping in price all the time and allow you to print on both sides of a sheet of paper automatically, so you don't have to take a sheet out of the tray and manually turn it over to print on the other side.

Colour printing

Most laser printers are monochrome and designed primarily for printing text, and black and white graphics. There are, however, colour laser printers that use cyan, magenta and yellow toner, alongside black, to produce colour images.

Nevertheless, although fine for printing graphics, charts and flyers, colour laser printers aren't recommended for photo printing, as their colours aren't as precise or vibrant as those of inkjet models. Colour laser printers are also considerably more expensive than monochrome models, in part because they need more than one laser assembly to produce colour.

Ethernet and Wi-Fi

If you're planning on sharing a printer with multiple users around your home, then look for one with network connectivity. Many mid- and high-end laser printers come with an Ethernet port so they can be plugged into a network and shared with all the computers that are connected to that network.

If you don't want to have a cable running to your computer, check out one of the increasing number of Wi-Fi models available. With a Wi-Fi printer, the only cable you'll need to connect to your printer is the power cable. It's worth bearing in mind that many Ethernet laser printers can be upgraded to support Wi-Fi via a plug-in module.

All-in-one functionality

If you're buying a printer to use in a home office, it's seriously worth considering a multi-function model. These printers, also known as all-in-ones, add a scanner to the top of the printer. The scanner means they can be used as a photocopier too, allowing you to run off multiple copies of a document just as you would on a normal photocopier.

Many of these models also include fax capability, so you can connect the printer to your telephone line to send scans of documents as faxes. Because they combine so many functions into a single unit, they can be real space savers, which is often important in small home offices.

If you're likely to make extensive use of the photocopying and faxing features, it may be worth paying extra for a model that includes an automatic document feeder. These allow you to photocopy or fax multi-page documents without having to manually place each sheet in the scanner, saving you time and effort.

Those who plan to use the scanner for more than just photocopying and faxing should check that it has a high native optical resolution. Optical resolution is given as a dpi figure, and the higher the number, the finer the detail that the scanner can capture. A high dpi figure is key if you want scanned photos, artwork and diagrams to look their best.