Choosing the right printer for your business starts with understanding your company's needs.

An ideal printer for a small Internet startup may be quite different than the kind of printer required by a toy company's distribution and sales office. A freelance photojournalist will likely require something more geared to her business than a boutique hotel, cookbook author, or music teacher. You get the idea.

With this in mind, the first decision you must make when buying a printer for your business is whether to invest in an inkjet printer or a laser printer. There are other technologies, too (such as dye-sublimation or thermal wax printers), but inkjet and laser are the biggies. And, of course, you will need to make further choices, such as black-and-white or color, desired paper size, and if you want an all-in-one multi-function printer that can also copy, scan, and fax.

This discussion, however, focuses on the pros and cons of buying an inkjet or laser printer.


How it works

Inkjet printers work by spraying small amounts of quick-drying ink through a nozzle onto a sheet of paper; tiny deflective plates alter the ink's path to create the desired shapes.

Ink is stored in disposable ink cartridges. Low-end inkjet printers use three ink colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow), and usually black as a fourth, compared to a "photo printer" that will have anywhere from a 5- to 10-color ink system (e.g. light magenta, red, blue, or light cyan). Because a business user may print certain colors more frequently, single-color cartridges have become more common, as you only need to replace these individual tanks as needed.

Pros and cons

"Inkjet printers offer outstanding photo and document quality at a great value," says Justin Joseph, spokesman for Canon's printer division. "With features such as automatic double-sided printing and individual ink tanks to limit wasted ink, inkjet technology has really grown for the business consumer."

Another advantage to inkjet over laser is they can be used on all types of paper and enjoy quality that rivals your local photo mat; this is why inkjet printers are more ideal for photos than laser printers.

While inkjet printers are relatively inexpensive (typically about $100), be aware replacing ink may become costly as you'll burn through these cartridges faster than laser printers.


How it works

Laser printers apply lasers to an area of a photoconductive drum. The electrical charge causes toner particles to cling to the rotating cylinder, forming a shape that will be transferred over to the printed page through heat and pressure.

Multi-pass color laser printers use one imaging drum repeatedly for each CMYK color (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). A faster solution, however, is single-pass (a.k.a. inline) color laser printers that contain four imaging drums, allowing the page to be printed in just one pass.

Pros and cons

Laser printers are ideal for producing high volumes thanks to the high-yield inks, plus they are faster at spitting out documents than inkjet printers. If you only need black-and-white printing, consider a monochrome laser printer over an inkjet printer. Other advantages to laser printers include high-volume paper trays, multiple finishing options, and more network options than inkjet printers.

"Another key advantage for a business using a laser printer is that the cost per page can be reduced by using laser technology," adds Joseph.

But laser printers cost more than inkjet printers. A decent monochrome laser printer typically costs about $300 on the low-end (add another hundred or two for a good color laser printer), which is considerably more than a sub-$100 photo lab-quality inkjet printer. It should be noted prices for color laser printers have dropped considerably over the years.

And don't forget about the laser printer shortcomings -- inkjet can print to more paper types and are overall better picks for printing photos.

Key questions

Before buying an inkjet or laser printer for your business, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

* What is my budget for a new printer and its consumables?

Hint: Inkjet is a cheaper investment to start, but likely more expensive in the long run.

* How many documents will I be printing on a day-to-day basis?

Hint: If you print a lot -- especially documents (not images) -- go for laser instead of inkjet. Laser printers are also faster than inkjet printers.

* What kind of paper will I be printing on the most?

Hint: Inkjet printers offer more paper options, including photo lab-quality prints.

* Do I need black and white or color (or both)?

Hint: For black-and-white print jobs, go with a monochrome laser, but if you need color for photos go with inkjet.

* How many employees will be using this printer?

Hint: Laser printers are easier to network than inkjet printers, plus they offer more finishing options.