What are the differences between toner and ink cartridges?

Posted By  
11:00 AM

When your printer’s run out of ink and you need to get a hard copy of a document fast, it’s tempting to try to grab the first compatible replacement you can get your hands on. Finding the right cartridge for your specific printer model can be a time consuming, not to mention frustrating, process. And there’s a lot of confusing information out there for those not in the know.


But it would be a mistake to think ink and toner are the same thing – and here’s why. Toner cartridges use powder; Ink cartridges use liquid. At an elementary level, toner and ink are quite different in composition and, while both are used to print documents and more, they work in very distinctive ways. And to understand your options thoroughly, you'll need to have a rudimentary understanding of how laser and inkjet printers work under the hood. Let’s take a closer look.


  • Toner contains iron oxide and plastic resin that makes a laser printer’s image much more precise. Inside your laser printer is a rotating metal drum that’s covered in photosensitive material. The laser then changes the toner’s electrical charge from positive to negative or vice versa depending on the image your computer sends it. The toner particles only adhere to where the drum is magnetically charged, at which point your sheet of paper – also magnetically charged – rolls past the drum and picks up just the fine particles the laser has defined. In the final stage, a fuser warms and melts the plastic in the toner on the page, setting the image.


  • Ink cartridges lock the liquid into an airtight foil container. When loaded into your inkjet’s printer head, the ink is pushed through microscopic nozzles that create an image dictated by your computer as the head moves across the paper. The technology controlling these nozzles and ink flow differs depending on the brand of printer you’ve chosen – thermal bubble technology uses heat while piezoelectric technology uses electric vibrations.


So, what’s better?


Toner and ink cartridges come with different benefits, too. It’s important to weigh up your printing needs to make the right decision.


  • Toner cartridges are initially more expensive; however, ink cartridges need to be replaced more often. Generally, the cheaper your inkjet printer, the more expensive your ink cartridge replacement. And, when it comes to the lowest cost per page, toner cartridges win out.
  • Laser printers can print more pages faster, so if you have a lot of documents or images to print and time is a factor (that is, if you’re using a printer for business), you’ll want to choose a printer that uses toner cartridges.
  • The toner printing process is much more precise and of higher quality than inkjet printing’s pixel method. If you want accuracy – particularly important if you're printing images, photos, or important business documents – a laser printer that uses a toner cartridge has got to be your first choice. Plus, ink will smudge much more easily and run if it gets wet.


In the long run, a laser printer that runs on toner cartridges will cost you more to purchase but save you money if you plan to print a lot of documents. But if you're just after a printer for home use now and then and you're not too fussed about achieving the best possible quality definition, a cheaper inkjet printer will probably fulfil your needs.