The Differences Between Ink and Toner Cartridges

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The Differences Between Ink and Toner Cartridges

Back in the mid 1980s, printers for home or office use were almost exclusively dot matrix and mono, in that they only printed out black or near-black on white paper. Colour printers were big, and above all, expensive machines that were the preserve of print shops or university campuses. Colour copies cost many times that of their mono counterparts, and were for the main part almost exclusively for the wealthy.

By the mid 1990s, technology had developed to enable high-quality mono and colour printing to be achieved at home, but more importantly, at a reasonable cost. Early home printers were 'bubblejet' type machines that could print just a couple of pages a minute, and the user had to wait several minutes for the ink to dry before handling them, for fear of smudging their delicate features.

From there, printing developed on two separate fronts, namely those of ink-based and laser-based printing. As the name suggests, ink cartridges are for inkjet printers, while toner cartridges are for laser-based printers

The differences between ink and toner cartridges are many and varied, but by learning the differences between the two, the buyer will easily be able to discriminate and choose the right kind of printer and cartridge to suit his or her needs.

Choosing Printer Ink or Toner

If the user owns an inkjet printer, or in fact the name of the printer has the word "ink" in it, then he or she needs to replace the ink cartridges. If the printer has the word "laser" in the title, then the user should replace the toner cartridges. Even though, in the vernacular, the words "toner" and "ink" are interchangeable, in the strictest sense, the word "toner" should only be used when referring to laser printers, be they colour or mono.

The Differences in Printing Methods

Ink-based and laser-based printers work in entirely different ways. An ink-based printer contains liquid ink which is sprayed onto the paper in very fine droplets; with the droplet size being the main gauge of resolution. In a mono ink-based printer, this is black. Even with advances in ink technology to allow fast drying, the printed output from an ink-based printer is still wet to the touch, and will most certainly smudge for a few seconds after a page emerges from the printer.

Laser-based printers work by using electrically charged toner which is transferred electrostatically onto the paper, then very quickly heated up in a fuser to melt into the page. This is why after a few pages, laser printed copies are warm to the touch.

Ink Cartridges

Ink cartridges are used exclusively in inkjet printers. While there are mono inkjet printers available for small to medium-sized offices, most are full-colour models which can double between letter quality mono printing and full-colour, photographic reproduction.

Ink cartridges are generally physically much smaller than their laser counterparts, therefore taking up much less storage space. However, they can store less ink than laser cartridges, so if the user is needing to print many full-colour copies, then an inkjet printer may not be the most suitable type.

Toner Cartridges

Toner cartridges are used exclusively in laser printers, and many offices have at least one mono laser printer in them. Mono laser printers are fast, quiet, and very efficient for printing large volumes of letter quality printing. Colour laser printers, while much bulkier than their mono cousins, have the advantage of producing very high-quality, full-colour printing.

Toner cartridges are generally much larger than their ink-based counterparts, so they take up more storage space than ink does. However, toner cartridges generally store much more colourants than their ink-based counterparts, so they need replacement far less frequently. Colour laser printers can print many hundreds of full-colour sheets very quickly, so if the user is after fast, high-quality printing, then a laser-based printer may be the answer.

Changing Ink Cartridges

In the early days of inkjet printers, changing the cartridges could be a fiddly and quite messy job. The print head had to be in the 'park' position to enable the user to actually get to the cartridge that needed changing. As there was no standard way to put a printer into 'park', this often means pressing control buttons, usually at random, until the head returned to the correct position. Since the middle of the last decade, this has largely been overcome, meaning even the most inept of printer users can now successfully change cartridges with a minimum of fuss and frustration.

If the printer is a single colour, or mono printer, there is usually only one cartridge to change, namely the black. Occasionally, some mono printers may sport two cartridges, both of the same colour, with one for main use, while the other is used in an emergency, such as the main one running out in the middle of a large print job.

Full-Colour Ink Cartridge Changes

If the inkjet printer is a full-colour model, then there is almost certainly separate cartridges for the different colours used. These cartridges are usually kept separate within the printer because when in full-colour mode, the different colours run out at different rates, depending on just what is being printed. Most inkjet owners have a full spare set of colours in case one colour runs out, then replacing it at their convenience.

Changing Toner Cartridges

A toner cartridge, on the other hand, is usually very easy to change. It is merely a case of opening the front or top cover and carefully lifting it out. Toner cartridges, by their very nature, have to be the full width of the printed page, so they are much larger than inkjet cartridges.

Full-Colour Toner Cartridge Changes

Changing the toner cartridges on a full-colour laser printer can seem a daunting task when the user first opens the front or top flap to reveal all the individual toner cartridges, but with a little care and attention, it need not be so. In some printers both the top flap and the front flap have to be opened, whereas with others, it is merely the front that needs attention.

Before removing individual cartridges, especially if this is the first time the user has attempted a cartridge change, it may be worth noting which colours go where. There are often markings on the printer chassis to aid the user in putting the right ones back in their correct positions.

Shaking a Laser Toner Cartridge

Unused laser toner is a very fine powder. If the printer is starting to show that the toner on a particular cartridge is running low, the user may be able to get a few extra copies from it by first removing the cartridge from the printer, then very gently shaking it in a side-to-side motion a few times before putting it back in the printer. While this does not make toner magically appear within the toner drum, it often prolongs the life of the expensive cartridge for a few extra copies, as the side-to-side shaking distributes the toner more evenly within the cartridge, therefore cancelling out the warning lamp.

Numbers of Copies for Ink and Toner Cartridges

The guide below is a very rough estimate or the numbers of copies to be expected from ink and toner cartridges. Printers often have an "economy" button which can be pressed, or selected from the printer menu on the computer, and that greatly increases the numbers of copies able to be printed, but obviously, at much lower quality.

Printer Type

Numbers of Pages

Ink Jet




This shows an average number of page prints before the ink or toner needs changing. Of course, different manufacturers offer different numbers, but before choosing between an inkjet and laser printer, the buyer must also be aware that the cost of laser toner is much higher than inkjet ink.


As the user can now appreciate, there are big differences between printer ink for inkjet printers and toner cartridges for laser printers. Inkjet printers work by depositing wet ink onto paper, while laser printers deposit dry powder onto the paper surface, then use a laser to melt the pigment into the paper itself.

Colour inkjet printers are often favoured by photographers who need just a few absolute, glossy prints of their photos. Many offices use mono and colour laser printers for producing high-speed copies that, while not being the ultimate quality of inkjet printers, are perfectly adequate for letters, reports, and for mailing clients with.

Replacing a laser toner cartridge is often much easier and less complicated than changing an inkjet cartridge, and toner cartridges generally last much longer and produce more copies per change than an inkjet cartridges. On the downside, they are generally much more expensive than ink cartridges, and while they may give a slightly lower quality of print output, they make up for this by their speed and ease of use.

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