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Printer ink vs toner: What's the difference?

From price per page to the finish, we weigh up the pros and cons of ink and toner

When it comes to selecting a printer, the decision might be made easier with a quick look at the type of printing fuel you'll be using.

What printer is right for you depends on the job it will perform, and your choice will largely fall on either inkjet or laser printers. Laser printers generally use toner, whereas inkjet printers work with ink-based cartridges, with both offering a slightly different end result.

Here we take an in-depth look at the differences in price, page yield and finish, to help you and your business make the right decision when it comes to business printers.

Printer ink vs toner: What's the difference?

A technician inspecting a row of ink cartridges inside an office printer

The first thing to point out is that both are drastically different substances.

Printer ink is usually a form of pigment-filled liquid or paste, which are the types of cartridges you'll find in inkjet printers. The pigment is what gives it colour and it usually comes from a variety of sources, namely dyes. Inkjet printers used this ink to spray tiny drops of fluid onto paper to recreate the digital image.

Toner, on the other hand, is a type of fine, dry powder, which is the type used in laser printers. It's a mixture of polyester or plastic particles, carbon, and various other colouring agents, which is filled into cylinders. This mixture is transferred to paper through an electrostatically-charged drum unit and then fused to the paper with the heated rollers of the printer. The fact that it comes in a powder form makes it cheap to store, ship, and use.

However, there are also three types of toner cartridges – 'OEM', 'compatible', and 'remanufactured', and they can each affect the overall quality of toner. OEM, or 'original equipment manufacturer', comes in the form of officially branded cartridges, such as those Canon or Epson, and are recommended for their own brand printers.

Compatible or alternative cartridges are sold by third-party manufacturers and are often cheaper options but they can be less reliable than OEM versions. And remanufactured cartridges are exactly as their name suggests – reused cartridges refilled with new toner. These can be faulty and troublesome, often prone to leaks, but nevertheless, they are cheap and provide more environmentally friendly printing.

When it comes to the printers themselves, typically toner-based laser printers are more expensive than ink-based inkjets – although this can vary considerably depending on the model you're buying.

Printer ink vs toner: Page finish

A woman holding a freshly printer test page for a magazine cover

The type of finish you're looking for is also important to consider when deciding over ink or toner. This means looking at the type of printer you want to use.

Inkjet printers are good for high quality coloured images as they offer a better tonal variety and colour blending. This makes them good for images and or graphic designs. What's more, ink printers can work across a variety of papers, including glossy. Paper type is also a reason to pick inkjet over toner, as the latter can't be used with heat-sensitive types of paper.

The benefits of toner and largely boil down to the fact it comes as a powder, which means it can be stored for lengthy periods without becoming unusable. Businesses can therefore stock up on toner without issue.

It's also good if you need lots of high quality black and white images. They don't do as well as inkjets when it comes to colour, but they are generally faster and have more capacity, whereas inkjets tend to be more compact, so they're a better fit for home offices.

Printer ink vs toner: Page yield

A business woman holding a stack of papers that have just been printed

When it comes to the end product, there's a fair bit of maths to do at the point of purchase. Initially, you'll pay less upfront for printer ink.

For example, HP's 364 printer ink cartridges come in a pack of 4 for £49. Each cartridge is cable of getting through 300 sheets of paper, so that's roughly £12.25 per cartridge and 4p per sheet of paper. It's worth noting that the '300' estimate is roughly based on a small sample of text on paper, rather than whole sheets. So if you use lots of ink-intensive graphics per sheet, it will run out far quicker and be much more expensive.

HP's three-pack of high yield toner cartridges also costs around 4p per page, but users will need to spend more for it initially, with the pack costing £305.99. The three cartridges can each produce 2,300 pages but, again, your usage may differ depending on your company's printing needs.

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