Should I go the color laser printer route?
January 21, 2009 11:22 PM   Subscribe

College student looking to buy a laser printer. I've only needed to print papers in black ink during my past two years of college. But what's this - I can buy a color laser printer for the same price as a regular one? Are there any downsides to a rarely-used color roller?
posted by Xere to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm... well, the problem with rarely used ink cartridges is that the ink dries up, or clogs the pores on the cartridge. But toner is dry; it must be dry in order for the whole scheme to work. So you have the opposite problem: humidity causing the toner to clump.

That being said, I help administer some labs that during the summer are closed. We don't do anything with the printers (Dell 5100's) before closing for three months, and the labs are HUMID (even though they are air conditioned). Like, so humid that paper is damp to the touch. Yet when we open in the fall the printers work just fine.

So I probably wouldn't worry about it.

Note: no one talks about "color rollers". There are these things called transfer rollers, but what you're thinking of is the color toner cartridge(s).
posted by sbutler at 11:52 PM on January 21, 2009

The downside will be the price of replacement toner. Be sure to look that cost up for the model you're considering, because while black toner for a B&W printer will likely be less than $80, you're commonly looking at 4x that for a color box.
posted by rhizome at 12:04 AM on January 22, 2009

I agree w/ rhizome; look at toner costs and whether the cartridge is refillable. 3rd party refill kits tend to work quite well, but if you have to replace the (seldom used) color toner as well, you'll be paying far too much.
posted by bsdfish at 12:24 AM on January 22, 2009

Considering the vastly greater number of pages you get from a toner cartridge, the replacement cost is actually quite low, over the lifetime. It does feel like a hit when you do need to replace it, though. Plan ahead.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:35 AM on January 22, 2009

Is the amount of black toner that comes with the printer substantially less due to the inclusion of color?

I've been going strong with my Brother HL-20's free "starter" cartridge for more than a year. Yeah, it's not the best printer in the world, and I can't do color, but it was super cheap and (more importantly, in the long run) the toner has just kept going and going.

In the rare occasions that I've had to print color, I've gone to one of my school's labs- or Kinko's- and printed with their really nice color printers and high quality paper. Sure, it's like 30 cents a page, but as you say, how often do you do it?

Another factor to consider: I'm nearing the end of college, and I'm seriously considering selling my printer when I pack out. I just don't see why I'll need it in "adult" life, seeing as my workplace will undoubtedly have printers, and Kinko's is all over the place.
posted by charmcityblues at 3:51 AM on January 22, 2009

I have a colour printer, and during school I was glad that I could replace the (larger in size) black toner without having to buy new colour toner cartridges. I assume this is a standard feature, but make sure!

The only downside was that printer would not print if any one of the cartridges was empty. This meant a few snafus as I wanted to print in B&W, at the last minute, but could not because I had not bothered to keep rarely used colour cartridges at the ready.

If I could buy another printer, I would make sure that when you set a job to black ink only, the printer can print while the other cartridges are empty.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:16 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to repair these things.

For like sized laser printers the paper, you will generally have less toner on a color printer than a B/W printer. This is because i the same space is housing 4 different colors.

The way a color laser printer works, or the ones I've seen (they were still new when I gave up the trade) have a wheel that basically rotates four different, and usually independent, toner cartridges around the transfer roller. Sounds annoyingly complicated? It was to repair.

It was annoying to maintain too, 4 different cartridges? Toner is typically more expensive than ink.

So color laser printer gives you: more moving parts and expensive/more frequent refills for a feature you admittedly don't use that much. More moving parts = more things that can break (like inkjet printers :).

You're investing in a laser printer. Something you won't throw away like a $100 deskjet. Stick with the B&W. I have a laserjet 4000n that "fell" off the "truck". Best printer series ever made. I'll go to Kynkos for that biannual color job.

As for the comment/s in this post about ink "gunking" things up... this is not entirely improbable... your printer will get gunky. This happens with laser printers. Expect maintaining it. Toner is effectively colored dust that is literally melted on to the paper. It may not stain clothes but it can get EVERYWHERE.

Also see this comment on Wikipedia:

Color laser printers use colored toner (dry ink), typically cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK), with a printing pass for each toner color.

Color adds complexity to the printing process because very slight misalignments known as registration errors can occur between printing each color, causing unintended color fringing, blurring, or light/dark streaking along the edges of colored regions. To permit a high registration accuracy, some color laser printers use a large belt the size of a full sheet of paper to generate the image. All three or four layers of toner are precisely applied to the belt, and the combined layers are then applied to the paper in a single step.

Color laser printers typically require four times as much memory as a monochrome printer to print the same size document, because each of the three CMY or four CMYK color separations needs to be rasterized and stored in memory before printing can begin.

posted by teabag at 5:53 AM on January 22, 2009

Colour laser printers generally cost more per page even for straight B&W. This is easy to check as the expected pages per cartridge will be listed in the specs on the website for any decent printer.
posted by Mitheral at 6:07 AM on January 22, 2009

The way a color laser printer works, or the ones I've seen (they were still new when I gave up the trade) have a wheel that basically rotates four different, and usually independent, toner cartridges around the transfer roller. Sounds annoyingly complicated? It was to repair.

Newer laser printers I've dealt with no longer use the wheel. They're now on a sort of rack, so you don't have to worry about the rotary wheel going out. The paper shoots down along the rack where the page gets printed.

our printer will get gunky. This happens with laser printers.

Yea, I'll agree that color lasers gunk up, much moreso then b&w.

One thing to worry about with cheaper color laser printers: If you need to print en mass for whatever reason, they much more likely to loose their print quality as the print job goes along.
posted by jmd82 at 6:10 AM on January 22, 2009

I am a grad student and we have two HP laser printers in our office:
-HP 3700. It is HUGE, I personally would not want this in my house, but it produces gorgeous color printouts, and we use it to print poster slides for conferences and stuff, very nice.
-HP p2015d. This is a smaller, b&w only, duplexing unit. I would recommend looking for a printer with a duplexing unit, especially if you are going to be printing off a lot of notes or PDF's; (I print off a ton of research papers from journals in PDF form) the duplexing unit allows you to print double sided.

The HP 3700 is several years old, and the p2015d is only a year or two old, so they may have updated the models since then. They've been relatively good printers.

Although I think the you could probably get a newer color laser printer with a price comparable to b&w, the cartridges for color laser are way expensive. For the b&w, we pay $75 for a regular cartridge and $150 for a high-capacity cartridge, and this is for a printer that serves about 8 people. For the color printer, the cartridges run about $150 EACH, so it gets mega expensive when ink runs out, although you can get non-HP brand for closer to $100-120. If it were me, I'd buy a good, duplexing b&w printer, and find a good color printer in a lab on campus that only charges you 25 cents a page or something like that. I know we have one in our department for students to use.
posted by sararah at 6:37 AM on January 22, 2009

Oh yeah, there are 4 toner cartridges for the HP 3700, for CMYK, so a full toner replace on the 3700 runs anywhere from $400-600. Obviously you wouldn't need to do this very often since you are only one person, but it is a very expensive toner purchase once you do need to. Ours get used often enough that we don't have problems with the color not being used, but we have had cartridges "fail" and they give this horrible stripe down the middle of the page, etc and you just have to buy a new one.
posted by sararah at 6:41 AM on January 22, 2009

I also have the HP p2115d and highly recommend it. Great smaller unit with duplexer. I have had mine nearly a year with zero maintenance and the same toner cartridge.
posted by DJWeezy at 6:45 AM on January 22, 2009

I would recommend looking for a printer with a duplexing unit, especially if you are going to be printing off a lot of notes or PDF's...

Yes, duplexing is amazing and addictive. You might want to buy 24-lb. weight paper to avoid text showing through from one side to the other, but the ability to print two-sided at the click of a button is wonderful for printing things like datasheets and slide sets. It's also nice to have a networkable printer. I've loved my Brother HL-5250DN in college.
posted by musicinmybrain at 6:46 AM on January 22, 2009

If you usually print in B/W, I recommend just buying a B/W laser printer. Samsung has a line of very reliable ones that start from around $100 on sale. Replacement toner cartridges run around $70, but you get 3000 pages of B/W out of each cartridge. My Samsung printer is specifically designed for home use and it is fairly lightweight and doesn't take up much space like office printers do.

I've found that online stores usually have a better selection of B/W laser printers intended for home use. I believe I bought mine from or Amazon. It's faithfully served its purpose for years.

By the way, I have no affiliation with Samsung, and if I misunderstood your question, please ignore my answer!
posted by vincele at 7:11 AM on January 22, 2009

The only downsides are price per page and black toner capacity. Everything else is almost identical to the b&w printer, but with a little more complexity.

I only work with large expensive machines, but I recently got to play with a home color machine. The black toner cart was pretty small. Perhaps 1/3rd or 1/4th the size of a typical black toner.

That's not much of a downside. If you have to buy four black toners instead of one this year and you can afford it then just go for it.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:53 AM on January 22, 2009

IANYITG (I am not your IT guy)

Second for the Brother line:
I own HL-5250 Brother (without duplex unit) that I got from Costco (same price at Amazon ) and I have been really happy with it. The duplexer is only 150$USD, and I would have got that for the price. I have worked with and am very familiar (too familiar) with the HP line, and these are fine if someone else is paying for them.

Pros of the Brother: Simple, inexpensive initial cost, inexpensive toner 65$ for 7000 -which is less than a penny a page (king of the hill here), small, FAST wake & print, reasonable quality, works with pretty much everything, well reviewed and a top pick at its old price of 250$USD! And I just stuck some old laptop ram in it and it worked without hassle (looking at YOU HP).

Cons: UPS (battery power dodad for computer) has issues if printer is on same circuit, due to power spike, printing envelopes (and card stock, etc) takes a trick (or read the manual! - there's a switch). 24lb paper looks better (personal preference). Others complain about it being too simple, and photo quality, but I have no issues with it.

Aside: HP continues to manufacture tumbler color printers - anything built on the LaserJet 25** engine is a tumbler (at least till last year). They are expensive and slow. Not particularly more error prone than other models in the 2*** category, which isn't a high bar. The 25** are small for a color machine, but fussy, requires flat spot and not to be bumped. I am a huge fan of the 4005, solid machine that is relentless. It's real money and if you ain't printing more than 5000 a month you don't need it. While getting an inexpensive color sounds attractive, the color control and image quality often suffer and you end up paying a pretty penny for the disposables, like the HP 26** line, which is a fine series for a light amount of color printing of middling quality.

AVOID at all cost any HP multi-printers (sorry DJWeezy). I have thrown over a thousand dollars of these things in the recycling bin, and actively discourage anyone from getting them. One of them was mine, the rest belonged to the office. Ideal on paper, terrible in practice, they simply don't last and minor component failure often results in the remaining components not working.
posted by zenon at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2009

I own a HP laserjet 2605dn -- it's a color laser printer on a rack configuration... Have had it for about a year and a half now, still on the first toner set (the one that shipped with the printer). Meters on the printer read at a quarter capacity, and i've fed at least 1500 sheets through it. I've gone through 2500 sheets of paper in that year and a half, but some was used for writing, so i'm guessing at the capacity difference. Print quality is great, printer's a bit slow. Long story short, my rarely-used color rollers are doing just fine. Granted, buying a new set of toner cartridges will likely cost me more than the printer did new, but they've definitely lasted.
posted by frwagon at 9:17 AM on January 22, 2009

HP's 2600 series of color printers (like Frwagon's, above)frequently ship with half-full toner cartridges. Replacements are @$80/ea.

They also use the Q6000 series cartridges that, last I checked, still had a pretty expensive and unreliable remanuf. market - From what I saw in the refill instructions, it looks like they deliberately made the cartridge hard to remanuf.

OTOH, My $20 yardsale laserjet 4 just got dropped 6" by the maintenance department last week, and it's still cooking along just fine. Refills are stupid cheap.

Agree with everyone else: Get duplexing and network support. Add: Postscript support is nice if you plan on using it with Linux.

Once you've picked a model, forums will probably give you a clear idea of what sort of problems you might expect with it. (I found out about this site on AMF, great resource!)
posted by Orb2069 at 9:29 AM on January 22, 2009

When you say you can get one for the same price, is this a specific model, or are there a couple you are looking at?

teabag mentions a carousel-type mechanism with 4 separate cartridges. You can tell if the printer uses this if it says it prints 17ppm black but only 4 ppm color (because it takes 4 passes). If a printer has the same speed black and color, it's a single-pass, and I have found these to be a little more reliable. (I used to repair these as well)

The downside of a color printer is that color makes the whole process more complicated, and therefore more likely to fail. Many color printers have extra consumables that monochrome printers do not. Also print defects that are not noticeable in monochrome printouts are glaringly obvious when printing out color pictures, or even color text.

Of course, sometimes you want color, and I prefer a fused output to inkjets, which bleed. If I were to recommend a color printer, I would probably recommend a Phaser, which Xerox now sells. (used to be Textronix) They have beautiful output and seem simple to operate, and I have heard nothing but good things about them. (But I never serviced them, or any other wax printer)
posted by MtDewd at 11:23 AM on January 22, 2009

Not all of the Xerox phasers use the solid/wax inks. We got one that uses traditional toner (6180DN, I think). So far so good, but we haven't used it much. I would have picked up the inexpensive Brother with the built in network interface and duplex unit, but my wife wanted the option of printing on heavier stock which it wasn't supposed to handle.
posted by Good Brain at 8:25 PM on January 22, 2009

The solid wax Xerox printers have gorgeous output and the wax "toner" is very simple to use. The cost per page is pretty high though and the black wax isn't much cheaper than the other colours.
posted by Mitheral at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2009

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