Smartphones and tablets may have removed the need for physical documents in many cases, but we’re still a long way from being a paperless society. That’s why printers remain a useful device to have around the house.

As we tend to buy them infrequently, it can be a bit puzzling to know which type to choose: Should you go for a HP laser model or is an Epson inkjet better?  So, here’s a quick guide on the main differences between inkjet and laser printers.

How do printers work?

While either type will perform general printing duties, inside they’re not the same. Inkjets, as the name suggests, have a large array of nozzles that shoot ink onto the paper. They also use ink cartridges or (in models like the Epson EcoTank ET-3750) reservoirs. These usually need to be replaced or refilled more often than the toner in a laser printer.

inkjet vs laser

Laser printers, aside from sounding space-age and potentially lethal, don’t use ink at all. Instead they have toner cartridges which contain a powdery substance that is fused onto the paper by heat. It's the laser that creates the image.

What do you intend to print?

The most important question, as with so many buying decisions in technology, comes down to what you actually intend to do with the device. The rule of thumb in this area is that if you want to print lots of photographs then an inkjet is the way to go as they produce better quality results. 

On the other hand, documents tend to look sharper on laser models and usually print at a faster rate. This is why it’s more common to find laser printers in small offices.

If you’re going to be using the printer for everyday duties that include reports, school homework, a few photos, the occasional A4 poster, and things along these lines, then either will fit the bill. At this point, the main differentiator will become price.

How much do they cost to buy and run?

Inspecting our other ruling thumb reveals that Inkjets tend to be cheaper to buy upfront, but incur higher printing costs across their lifespan. This is due to the fact that ink is more expensive per page than toner and comes in cartridges with lower capacities.

 inkjet vs laser

You can shop around for third-party ink, which is usually cheaper than the name-brand cartridges, but in our testing over the years this has proven to be a false economy as the high-priced ones behave better and produce more consistent results. However, things aren't as clear cut for laser printers: we have got by just fine with significantly cheaper third-party toner cartridges.

As an example of how cheap inkjets are to buy, we found this HP Envy 4527 available at Currys/PCWorld for only £35. This deal includes a 4-month trial of HP Instant Ink which charges a low monthly fee to keep your ink supplies automatically replenished.

By contrast the cheapest colour laser printer we could find on the same site was the Brother HL3150CDW which was on offer at a reduced price of £129.99.

Don’t let the ticket price be the sole deciding factor though. Before clicking the buy button, do a little research to see how many pages each one prints before you need to replace the cartridge, and how much those replacements cost, as this will give you a clearer picture of the real cost of owning the device.

Also, take into consideration whether you can use it via Wi-Fi, Apple AirPrint or Google CloudPrint because it's likely you'll want the convenience of printing wirelessly from your phone, tablet and laptop.

Finally, check the dimensions of the printer, as some can be quite large and bulky, which isn’t always easy to accommodate in a home. 

For our money, we’d go with an Inkjet as it offers flexibility and a low entry cost. But, if you want to produce lots of documents quickly for work purposes then the laser route might be best for you.

To see the latest offers from around the web, check out our Best printer deals page, as well as looking at the devices that currently make up our Best Printers 2018 chart.