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Types of Printers

If you're shopping for a printer, it's easy to get bogged down in all of the terminology. How can you decide which type of printer to buy? There are three major types of printers that are most commonly used in homes and offices: dot matrix, deskjet, and laser. Let's take a look at how each works and what each has to offer.

Dot Matrix Printers

The dot matrix is an impact printer, which means it produces images and text through the use of small wire pins attached to a print head. These pins strike the ink ribbon and in turn physically contact the paper as the print head moves back and forth like a typewriter. The other two types of printer we mentioned are non-impact printers, which means they produce images and text without physically striking the paper.

The printing cost per page is fairly low with a dot matrix compared to other types of printers and, unlike a laser or inkjet, it can be used to print on continuous form paper and continuous labels. These printers, like much old technology, are reliable and durable. However, the print quality and definition is low compared to lasers and inkjets, and dot matrixes are slow and noisy. While some businesses still use dot matrix printers to print carbon copies and multi-part forms, for the most part, the dot matrix printer went out of fashion in the 80's, and in the future it will likely be increasingly difficult to find replacement parts.

Inkjet Printers

These printers function by spraying little droplets of ink, in liquid form, onto paper. In piezoelectric inkjet printers, a crystal in the printer nozzle morphs in shape and size in response to an electrical current, and this in turn forces small drops of ink onto paper. In thermal inkjet printers, however, the liquid ink is heated into a vapor bubble that compels the ink to drop onto the paper through the nozzle.

Inkjet printers, sometimes called deskjets, are the most popular type of printer for home use, probably because they are very affordable (sometimes under $100) while still producing high quality text and images. Inkjet printers can print in color, have no warm up time, are relatively easy to use, and print fairly quickly, at least compared to a dot matrix.

On the other hand, the print head in inkjet printers can occasionally become clogged and ink cartridges are costly to replace; in fact, the current money-making strategy of manufacturers seems to be to sell inexpensive printers but to overprice replacement cartridges to make their real money.

If you have to print a large number of documents, you'd probably prefer a laser, which is much faster. In an inkjet printer, the ink is also sensitive to water and can bleed if it comes in contact with it. Bleeding may also occur if you use a highlighter to highlight text printed with an inkjet printer.

Laser Printers

Laser printers do not use liquid inks; instead, they employ a black or colored powder called toner. Paper feeds through the printer with the aid of a rotating drum cartridge. A laser beam, which is deflected by a mirror across the drum's surface, generates a charge that forces the toner to adhere to the drum. Toner is then pressed against the paper as the drum rotates.

Laser printers have both a higher resolution and higher print speed than inkjets. The ink does not smear or bleed as it sometimes does with inkjets. Although toner cartridges are expensive, it actually costs less per page to print with a laser than an inkjet since a single toner cartridge usually lasts for thousands of pages. On the other hand, lasers printers themselves are considerably more costly than inkjet printers. They are much larger and take up far more space in your home or office. It also takes time for your laser to warm up, so that you cannot simply turn on your printer and print right away. Color laser printers are especially expensive, and unless they are very good, they may not print color as vividly as a color inkjet. Usually color laser printers are very good at the type of printing common in business, such as charts and graphs, but inkjets tend to make better photo printers with smoother color gradations and more realistic skin tones.

What About Thermal Printers?

You may also have heard of thermal printers. Thermal printers are not to be confused with thermal inkjet printers. Most thermal printers must use a special heat-sensitive paper, called thermal paper. The thermal paper has a coating that turns black when an electrically heated pin is pressed against it. Thermal printers are durable, but thermal paper is sensitive to light, water, and heat, and the text and images produced by thermal printers can fade over time. They are faster and quieter than dot matrix printers. Although used in cash registers and ATMs, they aren't really useful for everyday printing.

Choosing a Printer

Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages of the three types of printers, you should be able to choose the one that works best for you. If speed and quality of output is of utmost concern, for instance, you'll want a laser. Lasers are also a good choice if you do a lot of printing, despite the higher up front cost, because of the lower cost per page. If, however, you have an extremely low budget, a dot matrix or inkjet printer would be better. You can also purchase printers for specified uses. For instance, you might want to buy a photo printer if your only concern is printing color photographs. Or, you might wish to purchase a portable printer if you travel frequently.

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