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Different Types of Printer Ink: The Ultimate Guide

There are many different types of printer ink. In this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through your options so you can determine what you need.

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Inspirations for the computer printer date back to the late 1930s with the advent of the XEROX printing process. The 1970s saw the introduction of the first laser printers and inkjet printers began to gain popularity in the late 1980s. Printers have come a long way since those decades ago, with some of the latest models offering direct printing from your phone and other devices specializing in 3D printing. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the different types of printer ink, so you can find the right options for your needs.

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Ink for Laser Printers vs. Inkjet Printer

Two of the most common types of printers are laser printers and inkjet printers. These printers operate differently, however, and require specific types of printer ink to function:

  • Laser printers use powdered toner.
  • Inkjet printers use ink cartridges filled with tinted liquid ink and additives.

Each type of printer ink comes with its own price and style of printing. Consider the details about each kind of ink to guide your decision in choosing a new printer or ensuring you purchase the right ink or toner for your existing printer.

Ink for Laser Printers

Laser printers work by using a laser to beam the image onto the drum and transfer toner to the paper. These printers can be very efficient. While they can be more expensive upfront, users can enjoy lower long-term costs due to the fact that they tend to use less toner. Here’s what you need to know about the types of printer ink necessary for laser printers.

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Type of Ink for Laser Printer

Laser printers rely on toner to create the image on any printed page. Polymers, organic compounds, and a variety of minerals tend to be the key components of printer toner.

  • How It Works. Toner is a powdered pigment that adheres to the paper once it's heated.
  • Best Qualities. Printer toner affords convenience and swift, precise printing along with fine quality results for both images and text. As a bonus, toner won't dry out and the stuff lasts for ages, allowing you to print on demand for what feels like forever.
  • Cost Considerations. When comparing different types of ink for printers, toner tends to be more expensive but longer lasting, so the upfront costs often balance when it comes to the lifespan of the toner cartridges.
  • Possible Issues. Laser printers and laser cartridges may be less accessible to some based on their higher out-of-the-gate price point.
  • Best Uses. Printing lots of text-based documents works especially well with a laser printer. Laser printers handle marketing materials, company letterhead, labels and other business documents with ease.

Ink for Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers are widely accessible for many customers from college students to families and even businesses. High-grade inkjet also exists for professional needs. These devices allow for highly efficient printing and supreme photo clarity, and typically work best in an office with low printing volume.

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Types of Ink for Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers rely on pigmented or dyed printer ink that is largely made up of carbon black pigment, drying agents, binders, solvents, chelating agents and other components. Other additives can alter the printer's output, such as an opaquer quality of the ink, better permanence or even a dulling effect.

  • How It Works. The inkjet printer fires ink droplets onto the printer paper to reproduce the image sent for printing. The drops of ink are so tiny that they are smaller than a cross section of a human hair. Colors blend seamlessly and produce fine quality prints in brilliant color.
  • Cost Considerations. Inkjet may see a lower charge upfront for ink cartridges, but the printer output isn't nearly as high as with a laser printer. The cost per page of inkjet tends to be more expensive than the cost per page for laser printers.
  • Possible Issues. Ink in cartridges for inkjet printers can dry out, wasting money and causing potentially frustrating situations when an inability to print is discovered at an inopportune time.
  • Best Uses. Printing photos or photo-heavy documents may work out better using an inkjet printer. For professional, gallery-style photographs, look into a photo inkjet printer for best results.

Other Types of Printer Ink

We have so far focused our discussion around the types of printer ink for laser printers and inkjet printers, as these are the most common types of printers used. But there are more general ink categories to be aware of, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Liquid Ink. Just as the name implies, this ink comes in liquid form. Liquid ink is most often used in inkjet printers and can be found in either dye-based or pigmented forms.
  • Solid Ink. Some printers use solid ink instead of liquid ink. This is a waxy ink with a consistency similar to a crayon. Solid ink printers heat the ink and apply it to the printing surface, where it dries and cures.
  • Toner. As mentioned above when discussing laser printer ink, toner is a dry powder composed of a large number of plastic particles. The toner is heated and applied to the printing surface with a drum.
  • Ribbon Ink. Ribbon ink is most often used with dot matrix printers and thermal transfer printers. With impact and dot matrix printers, an ink-soaked ribbon is pressed against the page to print. With thermal transfer printers, the ribbon has a wax or resin coating that is melted by a heated print head to expose the ink and print it on the page.
  • UV Ink. UV ink is cured onto the printing surface in the presence of UV light. This type of ink dries very quickly, but it is among the most expensive.
  •  3D Printing Ink. “Ink” is not actually the best term to use when referring to 3D printing material. The materials that most 3D printers actually use is resin! While fairly pricey, 3D printing resin is available in a wide range of colors and with various materials to choose from.

Consider the different types of printer ink to ensure you match up the right kind of ink with your existing printer. If you have a laser printer, seek toner, and if you have an inkjet printer, opt for an ink cartridge. Be sure to match up makes and models or your printer and replacement ink if applicable. It can be prudent to stock up on printer supplies so that you never find yourself without the ability to print important documents at a moment's notice.

Features to Look for When Buying Printer Ink or Toner

Now that you know all about the different types of printer ink, what should you look for in the right ink for you? Here are some of the key features to consider when buying printer ink:

  • Color or Black & White (CMYK). This may seem obvious, but it’s important to check your cartridge to get the right colors for your printing needs. You may run low on one color before the others, and colors are often sold individually. CMYK stands for the most common printing colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black).
  •  Page Yield. When purchasing a new cartridge or comparing multiple cartridges, page yield is a key area to consider. This is the anticipated number of pages that you will be able to print before you will need to replace the cartridge. A higher page yield could mean reduced long-term costs.
  • Compatibility. Most printer ink cartridges are NOT one-size-fits-all. Be sure to check the specifications before buying to ensure your printer model is supported.
  • Warranty. Some manufacturers will offer a warranty. While this is not necessary, if there’s an issue with your cartridge, a warranty can help you to save money and hassle.
  • Remanufactured vs New. Depending on the type of printer ink you need, you may be able to find a remanufactured cartridge. Remanufactured cartridges are cartridges that have been recycled, cleaned and refilled with the same or similar quality ink. Remanufactured ink cartridges can be more affordable than buying new. Just be sure that you check the source, as there are some less than reliable providers out there.

Need help finding the right printer ink or toner for your printer model? Use the CDW Ink & Toner Finder to quickly find what you need.

Get the Printer Ink You Need

We hope that this guide to the different types of printer ink has helped you to match up the right kind of ink with your existing printer. If you have a laser printer, seek toner. If you have an inkjet printer, opt for an ink cartridge. Be sure to match up makes and models or your printer and replacement ink if applicable. It can be prudent to stock up on printer supplies so that you never find yourself without the ability to print important documents at a moment's notice.