A special type of ink used by copy machines and laser printers. Toner consists of a dry, powdery substance that is electrically charged so that it adheres to a drum, plate, or piece of paper charged with the opposite polarity. For most laser printers, the toner comes in a cartridge that you insert into the printer.

The Main Differences Between Toner and Ink

The physical characteristics of ink and toner cartridges differ considerably, both in terms of design format and contents. For one thing, toner is a powder, while ink is a liquid. Toner and ink cartridges are both used to print documents and photos, but the methods by which inkjet and laser printers accomplish this are fundamentally different. In order to understand why toner cartridges are not equal to ink cartridges, consumers need a basic knowledge of printer technology. A closer look at inkjet and laser printer functionality can help to illuminate the ways in which toner and ink work differently.

Laser Printers Use Toner Cartridges

Because of the unique role of toner in the xerographic printing process, ink is not an acceptable substitute. The two main components of toner are iron oxide and plastic resin. Laser printers do not simply press toner directly onto the paper. Instead, a laser first draws an electrostatic template of the image onto a rotating metal drum inside the printer. The drum, which is covered in photosensitive material, starts out with either a positive or negative charge.

An extremely precise laser alters the electrical charge in certain spots according to data fed from the computer. The drum is then coated in magnetically charged toner, but the fine particles only adhere to the areas where the laser previously defined the image. Next a sheet of paper, which has also been magnetically charged, rolls past the drum and draws the toner away. Lastly, the fuser sets the image by warming and melting the plastic particles.

Inkjet Printers Use Ink Cartridges

Inkjet printer technology is a bit easier to understand, but no less innovative. As their name suggests, inkjet printers require ink cartridges. The liquid ink inside the cartridge is locked in an airtight foil compartment. The ink cartridges are loaded into the print head, which is fitted with numerous microscopic ink nozzles. As the print head moves back and forth across the paper, the nozzles create the image with droplets of ink.

The technology responsible for controlling the jets in an inkjet printer varies depending on the brand and model. For example, thermal bubble printers use heat to control ink flow, while piezoelectric printers rely on electrically charged vibrations. In either case, information sent from the computer dictates exactly how the printer applies the ink from the cartridges.

Comparing the Benefits of Toner and Ink Cartridges

Along with format and functionality, the benefits of toner and ink cartridges differ as well. After grasping the main distinction between these two types of printer cartridges, buyers can move on to comparing important secondary factors. Thoughtful buyers consider efficiency and cost-efficacy issues like machine speed, print quality, and overall price when assessing printer functionality. After doing so, consumers can decide whether they prefer the benefits of toner or ink before they buy their next printer.

Replacement Cost

Cartridge replacement cost is a crucial factor to consider, especially when buyers are trying to choose between toner and ink. Printer cartridges certainly vary in price, but in general, toner replacements are more expensive. While inkjet printers and replacement ink cartridges are initially cheaper than their laser and toner counterparts, the costs start adding up quickly. Though toner costs more up front, the longevity of these cartridges makes them more cost-effective in the long term. Ink replacements seem more affordable initially, but after examining the bigger picture, a pattern becomes clear: ink cartridges do not print as many pages as toner cartridges, so they must be replaced more frequently. While it is possible to find toner refills and ink refill kits, they can be a bit of a hassle. Most people prefer to purchase original equipment manufacturer (OEM) toner and ink cartridges.

Speed and Capacity

Laser printers are the preferred option for people who value speed. In general, printers that use toner are much faster than those that use ink cartridges, and once again, it all goes back to functionality. The electromagnetic process that takes place inside a laser printer is highly precise, and this allows it to run large print jobs quickly and efficiently.

Inkjet printers are rather slow in comparison, mainly because the jets that control ink output are not as precise as laser printer technology. Inkjet printers also tend to hold fewer sheets of printer paper, which means more breaks to refill. While some inkjets are marketed as having laser-quality print speed, these models are not generally capable of the speed provided by a high-end laser printer. When it comes to saving time, toner cartridges definitely take the lead.

Image Quality

As far as quality is concerned, laser printers generally prevail over inkjet models. While there are high-quality inkjet printers that produce remarkably vivid photos, not all models are capable of such detail. The process of applying ink in tiny pixels cannot quite match the exacting nature of laser-drawn imagery. Additionally, in most cases, pages printed in ink are more likely to smudge if they get wet. Ultimately, buyers must weigh their desired quality against total upfront costs and cartridge longevity.