Printers have changed substantially in the last 30 or so years, not just in technical capabilities but in cost and usage as well. Printers were originally used for interfacing with the operator, not necessarily for printing copy or pictures.
In this article I will discuss the various printer types and uses in hopes to help you make an educated decision when purchasing your next printer. I will avoid brand names and models and stick with the basics.
Common Printer Types
Drops of ink are ejected from the print head and shot onto the printed material (i.e. paper). Most inkjet printers today are color printers, using dyes or pigments. These inks are in a liquid state stored in one or multiple cartridge(s).
Ink cartridge types vary by printer model. Printers intended for photograph printing may have up to nine different colors, usually each color in its own cartridge; while printers intended for everyday printing typically have four colors (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black) and the colors may be in individual cartridges or combined into one multi-tank cartridge.
Generally inkjet printers cost less up-front than the other color printing technologies, however per page printing costs are often higher due to the price of ink cartridges. Printers with individual cartridges per color reduce waste and help lower price per page, while multi-tank cartridges waste money when the cartridge is discarded simply because one of the colors ran out and the other colors still have ink.
Liquid inks have a tendency to wick into the paper or other medium which is being printed upon. Inkjet technology allows other materials than standard paper to be used, such as photo paper, fabrics (i.e. cotton canvas), wood, or metal. Specialty mediums may require more drying time before prints can be handled.
Static electricity and fine tone powder (toner) are the key to printing with laser printers. The drum of this printer attracts the loose toner to the drum with static electricity in the pattern charged by the laser and then the paper is rolled past the drum transferring the toner, similar to an ink printing press. The printer then passes the paper through a heating element that fuses the toner to the paper.
Advancements in laser technology have allowed color printing to become a possibility, however colors do not blend as they do with dye sublimation and inkjet. Color laser printers use a pattern of small dots (dithering) to create the illusion of shading. Average quality photograph prints can be obtained from laser technology, but high photo quality is uncommon.
Laser printers have a higher up-front cost and use more electricity, however the price and typical capacity of toner makes the cost per page for prints often much lower than the other printing technologies.
Prints will be warm or hot when ejected from the printer due to the fusing process, but can usually be handled right away. The toner in these prints will not smear when wet and can withstand ultra-violet light without fading. Be aware that loose toner is messy and difficult to manage if it escapes the toner cartridge or fails to be fused to the printing material.
Other Printer Types
Ball and Daisy Wheel
Similar to electric typewriters, daisy wheel and ball printers use a spinning head containing preformed, molded characters that strike a pre-inked ribbon to transfer the character's image to the printing paper.
This style of printer maintains very consistent type since the characters are molded on the print head, however the font is very limited to that featured on the head. These printers cannot print graphics. Bold characters are usually formed by double-striking the same character, underlining is performed by striking the character then an underscore below it, and italics are not possible without changing to an italic styled head.
These printers are rare today due to the amount of noise they produce, slowness, and their other limitations.
Also known as impact or line printers, dot matrix printers create characters by use of pins that transfer ink from a fabric ribbon to the printed material. This results in a series of dots on the paper to resemble characters or graphics.
Print heads contain eight or nine pins for low resolution printing, while some units have 24 or 25 pins to create a higher resolution print. The printing on these printers is typically loud due to the pins impacting the print material as the print head moves across the page, line by line.
The nature of impact printing limits the ability to blend colors resulting in most dot matrix printers being monochrome or limited to a few colors.
Once inexpensive and a popular printer type, these have become less desirable and are harder to find than inkjet and laser printers. Dot matrix printers are still practical for certain business applications - such as printing multi-part forms; something non-impact printers cannot do.
Using heat, these printers transfer dye from a plastic ribbon onto the printed materials. The plastic ribbon is coated with a section of dye the size of the maximum printing area in sequence Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black or Overcoating (most common). Each coated section is only used once, regardless of the coverage amount for the print. This one-time use per coated section makes printing expensive.
The transfer of dye varies with the temperature of the print head, allowing for varying tones of color. As the dye is transferred from the ribbon, a negative-like image is left behind on the ribbon. The image remaining on used ribbons raises some security concerns and dye sublimation printing should be avoided when printing subjects of private or confidential nature.
Dye sublimation printing yields high-quality color and contrast control, along with water and ultra-violet light resistance, making it ideal for photograph printing.
Similar to an inkjet printer, solid ink is heated to a liquid state by the print head and shot onto the printed material. Once the ink hits the cooler material surface it solidifies, adhering to the material.
Like dye-sublimation printers, the output of a solid ink printer is usually water and ultra-violet light resistance.
Serial or Parallel
Those original, old printers were connected to the computer with a serial interface. That is an interface which transfers data to the printer one bit at a time (in series). That's just zeros and ones sequentially to send all of the printed data to the printer.
Later the communications were changed to parallel, where one byte (eight bits) were sent to the printer at a time. Think of it as eight serial connections working together to transfer the data eight times faster.
Parallel communications were the most common for modern printers until USB was developed. This technology still exists, but is less common in computers and printers.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology was developed to create a simple, standard interface for computers and peripherals. This technology is the most common for computers and printers manufactured today and is much faster than the Serial or Parallel technology of older printers.
Network (Wired and Wireless)
Several years ago, connecting printers to the network was something done in a commercial application. Businesses used network printers to allow efficient printing amongst numerous persons.
Networked printing has come home with the expansion of internet and network connections into residences. Some households now have more computers than televisions - mine does, double-fold.
What to Buy
Armed with some basic knowledge of the printing technologies, you can begin evaluating what type of printer you may acquire.
In thinking about your next printer, consider the following
What will you print?
Text, graphics, or pictures
What quality do you expect?
Simple inexpensive, high-resolution or photo quality, or somewhere in-between
How much will you print?
A few sheets or hundreds of sheets per day
How fast do you want to print?
Printed pages come casual/slow or lightning fast
Printer specifications will often list how many black pages and color pages can be printed per minute (PPM). These are an "average" page and do not normally apply to pages with pictures or heavy graphics.
Do you want any special features?
Multi-function printers have introduced faxing, copying and scanning technologies to printing. Some printers can even print on Optical Discs (CD/DVD/BR)
How will you interface with the printer?
Parallel, USB, or network
How much money do you want to spend on printing supplies?
Printing supplies can be expensive, like dye-sublimation or laser versus relatively inexpensive ink-jet.
Check the price of cartridges and other supplies necessary to use a printer you are considering. Many ink and toner cartridges will list a number of "average" pages you can expect from the cartridge. This information is used to help determine the Cost Per Page (CPP) for the average printout. Many printer reviews online and in magazines will reference cost per page in their evaluations.
How much money do you have to spend on a new printer?
This is the real question. Regardless of your answers to the other points, this one will dictate what you choose as a compromise.
Of the bullet points above that you are considering, you need to decide which one is the most important. This most important point is your starting point.
The better the printer the more it will cost. Naturally. If you are willing to compromise speed for quality or quality for speed, then you can bring down the price of your printer.
For most home-use purposes, an inkjet printer will do the job well. Usually in the home printing is at a low volume and speed is not important. Your best bet in this case is to get an inkjet printer that uses separate cartridges per color
Other Points to Consider
I have given you a lot of information to digest and I have only skimmed the surface. Here are just a few more points that you should keep in mind as you decide which printer to purchase.
I strongly discourage refilling ink and toner cartridges. Personally, I have destroyed printers and print heads by using refilled cartridges. Even if you don't damage the printer, you may not get the expected results in print quality as designed by the printer manufacturer.
Double-sided print saves paper, but make sure your printer is designed for this purpose. Especially in older Laser and solid ink printers, reusing paper for printing on the other side can damage the printer or yield unsatisfactory results.
Find a printer with a duplexing unit installed to be sure it is designed to print on both sides of the paper.
Printers with winding paths often have trouble with thick printing papers, special materials and labels. The straighter the path which the paper travels through the printer, the less chance of paper jam or other issues. Some printers have a secondary feed to allow for a straight path, but that usually requires hand-feeding any non-standard materials.