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Choosing A Color Printer

From producing business documents to greeting cards to photos, color printers have changed the way we work and print at home and in the office. In fact, color printers are such a common computer accessory that today many retailers even offer a free one when you purchase a computer.

Traditionally, color laser printers were kept in the workplace while inkjet printers were the popular choice for home and home-office users. With the ever-improving printer, toner and ink technology, along with the drop in prices on different types of printers, you now have more choices now than ever.

With more choices, of course, comes more decisions. In this "Did You Know..." article we'll discuss standard types of color printers for home and office use to help you better understand the technology and the different types of color printers available today.

Laser Printers — How They Work
Laser printer use a laser beam to produce an image on a drum. The light of the laser alters the electrical charge on the drum wherever it hits. The drum is then rolled through a reservoir of toner, which is picked up by the charged portions of the drum. Finally, the toner is transferred to the paper through a combination of heat and pressure.

Because an entire page is transmitted to a drum before the toner is applied, laser printers are sometimes called page printers. Two other types of page printers fall under the category of laser printers even though they do not use lasers at all. One uses an array of LEDs to expose the drum, and the other uses LCDs. Once the drum is charged, however, they both operate like a real laser printer.

Laser Color Printing
In addition to the standard monochrome laser printer, which uses a single toner, color laser printers use four toners to print in full color. However, each color is applied in a separate pass over the drum, meaning that color lasers are four times slower and four times more likely to encounter problems (e.g., paper jams) than a monochrome laser printer. Also, color laser printers tend to be about five to ten times more expensive than their monochrome siblings.

Key Terms To Understanding Color Printers

color printer
A printer capable of printing more than one color. Most color printers are based on the CMYK color model, which prints in four basic colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

laser printer
A type of printer that uses a laser beam to produce an image on a drum.

inkjet printer
A type of printer that works by spraying ionized ink at a sheet of paper.

solid ink-jet printer
A type of color printer that works by melting wax-based inks and then spraying them on paper.

Related Webopedia Categories

Ink-jet Printers — How They Work
ink-jets printers work by spraying ionized ink onto a sheet of paper. Magnetized plates in the ink's path direct the ink onto the paper in the desired shapes. Ink-jet printers are capable of producing high-quality print approaching that of photographs. In general, the price of ink-jet printers is lower than that of laser printers. However, they are also considerably slower. Another drawback of ink-jet printers is that they require a special type of ink that is apt to smudge on inexpensive copier paper. Because ink-jet printers require smaller mechanical parts than laser printers, they are especially popular as portable printers. In addition, color ink-jet printers provide an inexpensive way to print full-color documents.

Most inkjets have one cartridge that holds black ink and a second cartridge that holds the cyan, magenta and yellow ink needed for color printing. Newer color ink-jets have one smaller cartridge for each of the three colors, allowing you be buy inks more efficiently.

Solid Ink Printers — How They Work
Solid ink printers melt sticks of colored wax-based inks and then spray them on paper. The solid ink is applied through a stainless steel print head with very tiny holes. The ink is jetted from the print head to a heated drum where it remains in a malleable state that ensures precise transfer to the paper.  Solid ink-jet printers produce vivid colors and can print on nearly any surface. Early models of solid ink-jet printers were quite slow and expensive. Today, however, you can purchase color office solid ink-jet printers for about $1,000 price range with an output of 24 color pager per minute (ppm).

Comparatively Speaking — Laser, Solid Ink & Inkjet
The start-up costs of buying a color laser printer are higher than that of an inkjet. Over long-term use, however, the cost of running a laser printer is cheaper. The printer itself and toner is more expensive when compared to the purchase cost of an inkjet, but both the machine and toner will last longer than an inkjet printer and color print cartridges.  Solid ink printing provides a cheaper operational cost, but does not produce the quality of an inkjet or speed of a laser printer.

Laser and solid ink printers do offer better speed than an inkjet and you'll find less smudging and less color fading on color documents printed on a laser printer. The trade-off is lower resolution (most affordable color laser printers in the $400 range and under offer a resolution of up to 600dpi, compared to inkjet printers which can be purchased for under $150 and offer anywhere from 2400 to 4800 dpi resolution), along with a higher initial purchase cost.

When choosing a type of printer, you first must determine your printing needs. If, for example, you expect to print a smaller quantity of color documents or photographs then an inkjet printer will most likely be the best choice. Laser and solid ink printers will print faster than an inkjet and you can print double-sided documents without the ink showing through the paper as it often will with ink-jets. If you expect to print documents, manuals or business cards and brochures in larger quantities you really don't want to do this on an inkjet.  For a business looking to print a larger quantity of color documents, including manuals or brochures then you're going to want to look at laser printers, and if you need to print color, at a faster rate on a variety of media types, then a solid ink printer may be worth further investigation.

Did You Know...
The mechanism by which a liquid stream breaks up into droplets was described by Lord Rayleigh in 1878. In 1951, Elmqvist of Seimens patented the first practical Rayleigh break-up ink-jet device. [Source]

Vangie 'Aurora' Beal
Last updated: July 29, 2005

Related Links

Small Business Article: Inkjet Versus Laser Printers
Color inkjet printers have been fixtures in most small businesses for many years. They're cheap (under $60 in some cases), last a couple of years and everybody uses them. So they must be the perfect office tools, right? Maybe not.

High Performance Solid Ink Technology
Introduced over twelve years ago, Xerox's exclusive solid ink technology ... matching the convenience and quality offered by solid ink technology.

Progress and Trends in Ink-jet Printing Technology
Journal of Imaging Science and Technology 7 Volume 42, Number 1, January/February 1998

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