Technology Explained

Inkjet vs. Laser vs. LED: Printer Types Explained

Mihir Patkar 24-05-2017

When you set out to buy a new printer, the first thing you’ll have to choose is the type of printing technology. Printers can be inkjet, laser, or LED. What exactly is the difference between the three?


Inkjet and laser printers have been around for some time now. LED printers are relatively new, gaining popularity in the past few years. But just because it’s new technology does not mean it’s better technology.

Understanding the different technologies can help you decide which printer to buy 4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a New Printer You don't have to spend a ton of money to get a reliable and versatile new printer Read More and which to avoid.

How Inkjet Printers Work

Inkjet printers are the most common types of printers found in homes and small offices. That’s largely because they are cheaper than laser printers to purchase, and they can print in full color. They also work better for special papers like photos or labels.

Inkjet printers use ink cartridges. These can be two cartridges (black and color) or four cartridges (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). The cartridges contain liquid ink, which is fed to the “print head”.

The “print head” is the main component of an inkjet printer. It has thousands of tiny nozzles that drop ink onto paper. The print head moves back and forth at a high speed to perfectly position these ink droplets, forming the image or letters you want to print.


The printer needs to ensure only the amount of ink needed is being fed. Otherwise it will keep leaking and the cartridge will run out in no time. So the nozzle in the print head contains a resistor, which heats up the ink rapidly. This causes the ink to vaporize and form a bubble. The bubble escapes the nozzle, the resistor cools down, and new ink from the cartridge takes the place of the “escaped” ink.

Inkjet printers are the simplest of all printers, and are cheaper to produce. The ink cartridges are the expensive items How To Save Printer Ink & Make It Last Longer Read More , rather than the hardware itself.

How Laser Printers Work

As the name suggests, a laser printer uses lasers for the printing job. And as versatile as lasers are 6 Uses For An Old Laser Pointer Here are 6 things do with a laser pointer once you're all pointed out. Read More , there are other important components inside like the “drum” and the “toner”.

The cylindrical drum is coated with a photosensitive chemical. Once a print job is sent, the drum gets a positive static charge. The laser in the printer bounces off a mirror and hits this drum to form the image of the page. The laser does not move, only the mirror moves.


Wherever the laser hits the drum, the positive charge turns to negative charge. Now you have a positive charged drum with a negative charge for all the letters and symbols needed to print.

As the drum rotates, it comes in contact with the toner, which is also positively charged. The toner is made of powdered ink. This powdered ink sticks to every part of the drum that is negatively charged. This means the drum now has powdered ink sticking to all the letters and symbols needed to print.

The drum continues rotating to come in contact with the paper you feed in the machine. Before the paper and drum connect, the paper is rendered a negative charge by the printer. So now, when the negatively charged paper and the positively charged drum and ink come into contact, the powdered ink falls from the drum onto the paper. The drum’s job is done.

The negatively charged paper now has ink powder sitting on it at the right places to form letters. To make the powder stick, the paper goes through “fuser”, which is two heated rollers. This fuses the ink to the paper, and then releases it out of the machine.


This entire process happens faster than you can imagine. The powdered ink particles are also smaller than you can imagine. Don’t open up your printer to try and watch this whole thing in action!

How LED Printers Work

An LED printer is not too different from a laser printer. Both the technologies use a similar combination of drums, toners, and static electricity for positive and negative charges.

The main difference is lasers and LEDs. Instead of a laser and mirror, an LED printer has an array of light emitting diodes to burn letters and images into the drum. The rest of the process is the same as a laser printer.

So why use an LED instead of a laser? Simple: because it’s cheaper. A laser and the moving mirror is much costlier to manufacture and maintain than a fixed array of LEDs.


Color Printing in Laser and LED

Both laser and LED printers are primarily used for black-and-white prints. While there are color printers available, they cost a lot more and are bulkier.

This is largely because how color printing works for these machines. You know how a drum and toner interact to create a black-and-white print. Well, for a color print, you will need a separate drum and separate toner for each of the major printing colors How To Learn Color Theory In Less Than One Hour Basic knowledge of color theory can mean the difference between an "amateur" aesthetic and a "professional" one – and it really doesn't take long to learn. Read More (i.e. cyan, magenta, yellow, and key AKA black). That means four toners and four drums, and usually five or more mirrors so that the same laser can bounce around everywhere. That’s a lot of hardware inside one machine.

The result is a large printer, best suited for large offices. And even though it can print colors, remember, we are talking about “solids” like pie charts and graphs. If you want to print photographs, a laser printer won’t do the job well.

What Should You Buy?

Now that you know how they work, the question becomes what you should buy. As a thumb rule, inkjet printers better serve the needs of a home or small office. Laser printers are ideal for a business environment with 10 or more people working together.

Our guide to choose the best all-in-one printer The Best All-in-One Printers for Homes and Small Offices on a Budget Printers are amazing tools that don't get much love. But when buying budget printers for a home or small office, how do you choose the best? What are the features to look for? Read More is the best place to start. It should help you figure out if you need a laser printer or an inkjet. We also dive into other features and what you need or don’t, like Wi-Fi or an automatic document feeder.

Do You Print Photos?

When choosing between inkjets and laser, this is the big question to ask yourself: do you print photos on photo paper? If so, how regularly do you do that?

If you aren’t going to be printing photos, a laser printer might work out better for you. But nothing beats the Canon PIXMA (UK) series if you like to print out what you snap.

What is your printing setup? Do you prefer an inkjet to a laser? Have you upgraded to an LED? Let us know your printing tips and tricks in the comments below!

Image Credits: Sarawut Padungkwan/Shutterstock

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  1. UncleJack
    August 23, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Inkjet printers are for suckers that can't do math.

    The dirty secret manufacturers don't factor in to their cost per page figures is that inkjets consume ink whether you use them or not. If the printer sits too long without being used, it will launch a cleaning cycle on its own which uses up lots of ink.

    Laser and LED printers have a lower cost per page, and toner never dries out and clogs up the machine.

  2. Doc
    May 25, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    "If you want to print photographs, a laser printer won’t do the job well."
    Funny, I work for a print publisher, so I've seen a wide variety of color laser printers, and they do an exquisite job of reproducing color photos. We used them for paperback covers as well.

  3. William B. Peckham
    May 25, 2017 at 11:35 am

    This does not address the price per page over the average year of printing. This can be critical for a small business or home office. When inkjet and laser were the only choices the laser was the clear winner if you print more than 30 paged B+W per month. I would like to know how LED changes this factor.