What’s the difference between ink and toner?

They both get your digital files onto paper, but the actual mechanics of printing with toner versus ink are vastly different.
© stada/iStockphoto, vladacanon/iStockphoto

Contemporary printing technology is faster and cheaper than ever before, but it's not always immediately obvious which type of printer is best for specific jobs. Make the wrong choice, and you could blow hundreds of extra dollars per year on printer consumables — namely ink or toner.

Ink is used in inkjet printers. It's a liquid tinted with pigments or dyes. Toner, on the other hand, is a fine powder that's used in laser printers.


Both inkjet and laser printers are used for home and commercial printing purposes, such as creating prints taken with your digital camera or zipping through dozens of pages of text. But the way they apply material to a piece of paper is very different.

Inkjet printers squirt tiny droplets of ink through equally tiny nozzles and onto paper. You can sort of imagine the nozzles as tiny water hoses, all turning on and off thousands of times per second. Sophisticated printer software controls all of the nozzles, shooting ink in precise patterns that make up your newest haiku or perhaps a picture of your cat lounging on your keyboard.

There are two primary categories of inkjet ink: dye-based or pigment-based. Dye-based inks consist of colorants that are dissolved in a liquid. Pigmented inks, on the other hand, use ultra-fine powder that's suspended in liquid. If you want to know exactly what's in these inks, good luck to you. Inkjet cartridges are a huge revenue generator for printer companies, and they carefully guard their formulas.

Laser printing technology isn't quite as straightforward. That's because toner doesn't adhere to paper the way that a liquid-based ink does.

Toner is made up mostly of finely ground polyester, which is a type of plastic. Like your slacks sticking to your legs, polyester powder can hold a static charge that grabs onto anything with an opposite charge.

In these printers, a laser creates an electrostatic template of your desired images on a rotating metal drum, which has an electrical charge. A cartridge dispenses toner onto the drum, but the toner sticks only to certain places — such as the outline of your kitty's soft belly — where the laser alters the drum's electrical charge.

Fittingly, the printer also charges the sheets of paper as they pass through the machine. As the sheet curls past the drum, it pulls off the charged toner in exact shapes that make up text and images. Then a hot fuser basically melts the polyester in place, making sharp, smudge-free prints.


Liquid or powder?

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.


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Author's Note: What's the difference between ink and toner?

My first home printer wasn't an inkjet or laser printer. It was, instead, a dot-matrix printer. That old-school printer worked something like a typewriter, using a print head that smacked against an ink-laced ribbon to make iconic dotted, grainy text. The sounds that printer made were just as memorable. It was an industrial whirring that after a few pages would drive you right out of the room. Our modern inkjet and laser printers, although far from silent, are quieter and better in every aspect.

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  • Adorama. "FAQ: What's the Difference Between Dye-Based and Pigment Ink?" April 26, 2011. (July 23, 2015) http://www.adorama.com/alc/0013006/article/FAQ-Whats-The-Difference-Between-Dye-Based-and-Pigment-Ink
  • Consumer Reports. "Printer Buying Guide." July 2015. (July 23, 2015) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/printers/buying-guide.htm
  • Ganson Engineering. "Color Laser vs. Inkjet Printer." (July 23, 2015) http://www.ganson.com/TCO-For-Color.html
  • Image Specialists. "How Inkjet Printers Work." (July 23, 2015) http://www.image-specialists.com/ink_int_injet_printer.aspx
  • Nadel, Brian. "How Laser Printing Works." IT World. Oct. 4, 2010. (July 23, 2015) http://www.itworld.com/article/2749724/hardware/how-laser-printing-works.html
  • Robinson, David. "Inkjet or Laser Printing: Which Is More Cost-Effective?" The Guardian. March 30, 2013. (July 23, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/mar/30/inkjet-or-laser-printing-cost-effective
  • Simmons, Lee. "Inside Laser Printer Toner: Wax, Static and Lots of Plastic." Wired. March 23, 2015. (July 23, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2015/03/whats-inside-printer-toner/