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A Guide to Laser and LED Printers

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Laser and LED printers are great for printing high-quality documents in black-and-white or in color. They create sharp-looking text and excellent color graphics. They're more expensive to buy than inkjet printers (although prices continue to drop) but are cheaper to own in the long run, as toner cartridges last a long time. And prices are getting very competitive, particularly for Laser and LED Printer Best Buys.

How They Work

Laser printers put images on a piece of paper by melting plastic toner powder onto paper. Here's how it works. Inside the printer is a rotating drum is positively charged with static electricity that attracts toner powder to it. As the paper is pulled through the printer, it receives a negative static-electricity charge and then slides across the drum. This pulls the toner off the drum and onto the paper. The paper then is squeezed between heated rollers that melt the toner to the paper. Laser printers use a laser as the light source to melt the toner; LED printers use a series of LED lights.

Consumables

Just like an inkjet printer’s ink tanks, laser printer toner has to be replaced. This is a pretty easy process, involving not much more than opening the printer, pulling the old toner cartridge out, and sliding the new one in.

New toner cartridges don’t come cheap (you’ll spend around $60 for a replacement), but they do last a long time. For example, HP claims its LaserJet cartridge will last for 2,000 pages, and all evidence is that they’re right. That’s a lot of printing for $60! And you don’t need any special paper to make your documents look their best, as you do with an inkjet printer.

Laser printers are pretty fast, putting out a page of text in 10-15 seconds (be skeptical of manufacturer claims of how many pages can be printed in a minute; often those refer to print jobs run at low quality). Because there’s no ink, there’s nothing to bleed into the paper, so text and graphics come out looking sharp. Laser printers are also a lot quieter than inkjet printers. So what’s not to love about them?

Price

Well, price is probably the biggest drawback. You’ll pay a lot more up front for a laser printer than you will for an inkjet printer. Entry-level prices for a decent monochrome laser printer start about $160, and about $200 for an entry-level model with some decent features. Still, that’s twice what you’d pay for a color inkjet printer or even an all-in-one machine that includes a fax and a scanner.

Color laser printers are getting cheaper (Dell offers a decent one for about $230) but low-end versions are still light on features such as duplexers that allow printing on both sides of a page. Color laser printers use multiple toner cartridges, so you’ll spend big when it finally comes time to replace them (each one runs about $60).

Bottom line: If you print documents with text and graphics, and you don’t need to print photos, a monochrome laser printer is a good bet. The up-front cost is steeper than with an inkjet, but you’ll get a lot of printing done before you need to change toner. If you need an all-in-one or do a lot of photo printing, then stick with an inkjet. But keep an eye on sales since you can often pick up a great color laser or LED printer for a song.

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