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What’s the difference between ink and toner?

Liquid or powder?
One drawback of toner: That powder can really make a mess.
One drawback of toner: That powder can really make a mess.
© elmakif/iStockphoto

Inkjet printers require ink cartridges, usually one each for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. You can replace individual cartridges as the colors are depleted.

Most laser printers, particularly inexpensive models, print only in black. Once the black toner cartridge runs out, you install a new one. Pricier laser units do print in color and require separate toner cartridges for various hues.

At the consumer level, inkjet printers tend to be the most common technology. That's because the printers themselves are inexpensive, starting at less than $100. Yet by the page, ink costs may surprise you. Depending on whether you print mostly text or you throw in a lot of pictures, too, an inkjet's cost-per-page may be $0.05 ... or as much as $0.75.

The cheapest laser printers cost more than $100 and print only in monochrome. Color laser printers cost (at least) twice as much as their monochrome cousins, and in some cases their toner may ultimately be even more expensive than inkjet ink.

It's worth remembering that although toner is always initially more expensive than ink, the cartridges last longer than ink. If you stick with printing mostly text, you can't beat the per-page cost of a laser printer. If you install a higher-capacity cartridge, the price can drop dramatically, to just a couple of cents or less per page.

Volume may dictate the cost-effectiveness of your choice in printer. If you print only a few hundred pages per year, an inkjet is fine. If you print thousands of pages, though, a laser printer will save you serious money in the long run.

In addition, the type of jobs you print will determine which type of printer is best suited to your needs. If you need an all-around printer that creates images, graphics and text, an inkjet will be a solid investment. They produce fairly good text quality, and photo-specific models often trump laser printer quality, with deep, rich hues on glossy photo paper.

If you print primarily text, a laser printer is a better choice. These versions crank out pages at 20 pages per minute or faster (which is two to three times as fast as many inkjets), and the text quality is crisper and more precise than any inkjet.

Whether you want an ink- or toner-based printer, be sure to research customer reviews on every model you consider. You'll wind up with the kind of printer you need without breaking your technology budget.