Choosing the right printer for your computer can be confusing. There are so many different types of printers that narrowing down your options and actually picking one can be a challenge. By reviewing how the three most popular consumer printers do their jobs and comparing what they do best with what you need, you can winnow down the field enough to make an informed decision.
Ink Jet Printers
The most common type of computer printer for the consumer market is the ink jet printer. Some of the cheapest printers available in computer stores are ink jet printers, while some of the best quality color ink jet printers can be the most expensive, and there are seemingly endless varieties in between. An ink jet printer places an image onto a piece of paper by spraying tiny droplets of liquid ink directly onto the paper. The inks tend to be an aqueous mixture of water, glycol, and dye or pigments, with the less expensive dye-based inks tending to fade faster than the more expensive pigment-based types. Ink cartridges can be removed and replaced as needed, with some printers using only one cartridge for all inks and others using separate cartridges for each color (typically cyan, magenta, yellow and black.) Ink jet printers tend to be the quietest of all the consumer printers, have a very quick warm-up time, are relatively cheap to use, and the quality of color prints made with photo-specific ink jet printers can be phenomenal. However, ink cartridges must be replaced frequently, and the ink can be expensive, plus the water-based ink makes prints that are exceptionally vulnerable to water damage. Most ink jet printers tend to have a resolution of 300 DPI.
A laser printer is a toner-based computer printer that uses a laser beam to produce an image on a drum, which then electrically attracts powdered toner to the paper to form an image. Laser printers tend to make crisp black-and-white prints very quickly and accurately, especially text. Laser printers use a disposable toner cartridge, much like a photocopying machine. Black-and-white laser printers use one toner cartridge, while color laser printers can either use one cartridge for all colors or separate cartridges for each color that can be replaced individually as the need arises. The resolution of laser printers can be much higher than those of ink jet printers---ranging from 1200 DPI on consumer models all the way up to 2400 DPI for professional machines---which makes for very crisp and clear text and line art. Color prints of photographs can be made with color ink jet printers, however the quality of high-end ink jet printers tends to be much smoother and more lifelike.
Dot Matrix Printers
An old stalwart in the realm of personal computers, the dot matrix printer continues to be utilized in homes and small businesses due to its rugged durability and low cost of use. Images are applied to paper by a print head that strikes the paper through a ribbon embedded with ink—much like an old fashioned typewriter. The print head transfers one line of text or one thin slice of a graphic at a time, using an array of little dots to assemble the print, and it moves back and forth across the page while advancing the paper little by little until the printing is complete. The paper used in dot matrix printers tends to come with removable edges that are perforated with a line of little holes that are used to advance the paper as it prints. While the quality of the printing delivered by dot matrix printers is not as high as that of ink jets or lasers, many of the latest dot matrix printers come with a Near Letter Quality feature that overprints words until they appear crisp and clean. These printers are noisy, however, and not nearly as fast as the other printers.