The Best Laser Printers
How We Found the Best Laser Printer
3 experts interviewed
10 printers tested
2 top picks
The Best Laser Printers
The best laser printer should print quickly while maintaining precise text and simple graphics. It should be easy to maintain and work efficiently without a lot of bells and whistles. To find the best, we spoke to IT experts, scoured consumer reviews, investigated specs, and gathered the top laser printers from reliable brands. We then ran them through a gamut of print quality and usability testing and compared their results with a magnifying glass.
How We Chose the Best Laser Printers
A laser printer’s output is measured as a duty cycle — the number of pages it can handle printing every month. We wanted at least 10,000 pages per month (just over 300 pages per day) to meet the minimal needs of any home office or small business. In order to avoid paying for industrial strength capacity, we limited the duty cycle to no more than 40,000 (approx 1,300 pages per day).
Unfortunately, duty cycles aren’t consistent between brands. According to Thomas Craig, an IT expert with 25 years of experience, “there is no standard of specifications between manufacturers — the duty cycle should only be used when comparing models from the same vendor.” So that’s what we did.
Pages per minute
We made sure all of our printers could print 15+ pages per minute to ensure they had reasonably fast output. We found most laser printers have an output between 20 and 40 pages per minute.
Laser printer memory ranges from 32 MB to upwards of 256 MB. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how memory size tracks to document length, as it depends a lot on how graphic-heavy your document is. If you only plan on printing shorter documents, you should be fine with 32MB, but if you regularly print lengthy documents and want to avoid sending them to your printer piecemeal, you should be looking in the 128 MB range or above.
We ended up with 10 final contenders, a black and white and color option from each of the big five brands. We gave bonus points to printers with clear instructions and a quick installation process. Some contenders, like the Canon LBP151dw, had vague infographic instructions that confused us. Our top pick, the HP LaserJet Pro M203dw, took a comparatively long time to install — about 15 minutes — but aside from some desk-tapping, the process was straightforward and painless.
We loaded and reloaded each printer with paper and replaced toner cartridges to see if any printers were easier to operate. None of our contenders were particularly difficult, but we appreciated the designs of some over others. For example, the HP LaserJet Pro M203dw has streamlined toner cartridges and drums that are less bulky, making them easier to handle and slide into place.
We looked at features that might improve the overall experience. The Dell 5310dw offers two-sided (duplex) printing, but requires you to manually reinsert the paper in order to print on the other side, which we could simply do with one-sided printing anyway. The Samsung B&W Laser Xpress M2835DW’s paper tray extends about an inch past the back of the printer, making for awkward placement, and requires you to either pull the tray all the way out, or reach around the back, to adjust for different paper sizes.
Trave Harmon, founder of Triton Technologies, told us, “Laser printers are designed for people who need to produce a lot of documentation but with not amazing print quality.” While we agree that speed is the priority for laser printers, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality. Laser printers are an investment and jagged text and blurry graphs are a disappointing return. So we created a black and white test sheet for all our printers with different fonts, text sizes, and lines.
We tested each printer’s ability to print standard paragraphs and sentences from 2 pt. up to 18 pt. font. Seeing how a printer handles text, especially white-on-black, will show how precise your printer is. Most contenders were able to print clear and legible text, but a closer look showed some flaws.
Simple graphics and shades
Although it isn’t designed to print complex graphics, a laser printer should be able to handle simple graphs, tables, and charts. We used images, like a graph with black and grey lines, to see how accurate our printers were and how well they could handle lighter shades.
Extra testing for color printers
For color printers we created an extra test sheet with various hues, color swatches, and colored lines.
Granger rainbows are a tool for testing the hue, saturation, and brightness of color output. A good printer will have smooth transitions between colors with minimal imperfections. All of our color printers had trouble with lighter colors, but differences in overall quality were noticeable.
Most printers struggle with radial lines, but they’re a good indication of printing precision. The less jagged the lines, the more precise the printer, and green ink adds the challenge of mixing colors.
Vibrancy, saturation and resolution
Laser printers aren’t designed to handle high-resolution photos, but we wanted to see if any handled it better than others in case you need an image in a pinch. On low-quality printers, images will appear faded instead of crisp.
We used Pantone swatches and CMYK process colors to see how well the printers could mix cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toner. We compared our swatches to a Pantone Uncoated CMYK Guide Book. Full disclosure: none of the printers were great at it, but some were “less okay” than others.
Long document printing
Next, we tested each printer’s ability to print long documents. Our goal was to see if any printers were better at maintaining consistent printing speed and quality across 30 pages. In the end, finding the best came down to fine details. But even with small quality differences, we were able to identify two printers that were better than the rest.
The 2 Best Laser Printers
Why we chose it
Clear text and graphics
The HP M203dw simply excels at printing. It was one of only two printers that didn’t lose any detail with serif font — fonts like Times New Roman with small decorative lines attached to letters. And for those who need to print graphics with straight lines for their documents, the HP M203dw is hands down the best. In both the line graph and radial line tests, it was able to produce the straightest and least pixelated lines.
In terms of consistency, the HP M203dw excelled at maintaining its print quality in our long document test. Our 30-page document came out clearly and quickly. According to Fernando Leon, Vice President of Sales for IT company Single Point of Contact, “HP is a brand of printer that has been well known for quality and reliability.” Harmon agrees: “From experience, stick with the HP.” He told us other brands, like Brother, usually cause more problems for his clients.
Maintaining the printer is equally effortless. Unlike other printers, there’s a toner symbol that indicates where you can open the printer to replace toner. We also liked the clear window on the paper tray door that let us see the paper levels — a smart design choice that enables you to easily check the paper level before printing.
Points to consider
A basic toner cartridge costs around $64 compared to, say, the Brother HL-L2340DW’s $45 cartridge. But then, the HP M203dw cartridge contains more toner and will give you 400 more pages than the Brother cartridge before it needs replacing. We recommend going with the high yield cartridges that cost $90 and hold twice the amount of toner as a basic cartridge. The HP M203dw also follows standard practice by arriving with a starter cartridge.
Awkward single-sheet tray
The single-sheet tray for single-prints is located further inside the paper tray door, and we had to physically bend over, as if reaching under our desk, in order to feed smaller media like envelopes into it. Not a dealbreaker, but kind of annoying. That said, laser printers aren’t really designed for single-sheet printing, so it’s an understandable design oversight.
Why we chose it
The HP’s ability to avoid any fuzz or distortion extended to the green radial and straight lines we used to test precision and color mixing. Again, the HP M252dw had little trouble producing crisp lines with minimal imperfections when it came to graphics and text. The Samsung C1810W actually produced the straightest and most crisp lines, but delivered more of a blue than green ink, which indicated poor color mixing.
High resolution and vivid color
We were surprised to see the HP M252dw reproduced a high resolution photo of colorful fruits and vegetables without it looking dull. While the image and coloring with the HP M252dw is a bit darker than the original image, tomatoes came out in a deep red hue without looking grainy. The closest competitor, the Canon LBP612cdw, had better color accuracy, but a closer look revealed fuzzy white spots in the image.
The HP M252dw’s touch screen controls are responsive and all the menu options, such as checking toner levels or calibrating print quality, are easily accessible. It also displays an animated tutorial that shows you how to insert a blank sheet of paper to clean any lingering toner — a thoughtful touch that actually helped us complete the task.
The HP M252dw offers a 30,000 duty cycle and 256 MB memory, pretty impressive stats that, surprisingly, don’t come at the cost of print quality. We were impressed with this printer during every stage of testing and are confident recommending it as the best color laser printer.
Points to consider
Tricky letter tray
We had trouble fitting the letter tray back inside the printer when reloading the main paper tray. We soon realized there was a trick to putting the letter tray back first. We didn’t have any issues again once we solved this puzzle, but it’s a noticeable and confusing flaw in a machine otherwise designed with ease-of-use in mind.
Just like its black-and-white counterpart, the HP M252dw’s toner is on the expensive side. But honestly this is pretty much par-for-the-course with any laser printer. Toner costs about $80 for each color cartridge, or you can buy all four for just under $300.
Guide to Laser Printers
How to find the right laser printer for you
Evaluate your needs
You should ask yourself a couple of questions in order to help you find the best printer for your needs:
- Are you printing for business or personal use?
- Will you print a lot of pictures or mostly text documents?
- Will most of your printing be from a desktop computer?
Knowing the answer to these questions can help your figure out whether you should go for black-and-white or color, as well as what kind of duty cycle to look for, and if you need extra features, like wireless printing from different devices.
Shop around online
You might be tempted to go shopping for printers at your local Best Buy or Staples. However, buying a printer can be just like buying a car and you could run the risk of being upsold on a more expensive printer with features you don’t need. By shopping online first you can see all the features — duty cycles, wireless, color range, etc.— laid out and you can take your time coming to a decision.
You’re probably not going to do the same amount of testing we did — and good news: you don’t need to. You can get a sense of what it’s like to use different printers by reading customer reviews for each product. Getting insight from users like yourself on the quirks and perks of specific printers is a great way to learn which printers will suit your home business needs, and which are more hype than help.
Laser Printers FAQ
Are all-in-one printers worth it?
Multifunctional laser printers, or all-in-ones, include functions like faxing, scanning, and copying, but our experts advised we should steer clear. If one feature breaks down, that could leave you unable to print while waiting for repairs. Harmon says if you need a laser printer for personal work or a small business, “Don’t get an all-in-one printer. Buy a printer that does its job.”
Should I pay for premium toner?
All of our experts warned us against using knock-off or bargain toner. Leon told us, “using brand toner would be highly advisable as recycled toner tends to explode and spread throughout the printer.” While toner can be expensive, buying the correct cartridge from your laser printer’s manufacturer will prevent heartache in the future. Black toner cartridges can cost between $60 and $90, but typically last for 2,000-3,500 pages. Color printers use four CMYK toner cartridges instead of one black cartridge. The cyan, magenta, yellow, and black cartridges (CMYK) can be replaced separately and typically cost around $40-60 each. Our experts recommend buying in bulk to save money and have backups when you need them.
How do I ensure my laser printer keeps working?
We learned from Craig that the biggest favor you can do for your printer is “ensure that the environment is kept clean and dry because this will eliminate small particles from accumulating in the machine and keep dust from entering when the covers are opened.”
In addition, he explained that the location of printer paper can have an effect too. “Paper that is sitting out will accumulate dust that will be distributed into the printer, and paper may have absorbed moisture causing it to stick together which can lead to a paper jam.” Luckily the solution is simple. Keep your printer paper in a box or drawer and gently fan it to shake off any dust before placing it in the printer.