Buying a printer for your home — whether for work, school or recreation — begins with a basic choice: inkjet or laser.

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Buying a printer for your home — whether for work, school or recreation — begins with a basic choice: inkjet or laser.

A decade ago, the choice for most home users was an inkjet, which hit the market in 1992. Sure, the ink smudged if the pages were not handled gingerly, and the machines were slow. But inkjets were wonderful replacements for those old dot-matrix printers that not only produced inferior results but also made enough screeching racket to wake half the neighborhood.

Laser printers existed back then — a desktop model was introduced in 1984. But they were so expensive they were far outside the grasp of most home users. Then about five years back, black-and-white laser printers plunged in price, becoming affordable for those who wanted fast, professional-looking documents at home. They didn’t offer color, but many of us got around that for special occasions (party invitations, for example) by printing on colored paper.

Lasers for home use have continued to come down in price (solid performers are available for $200 and less) and have gotten even faster and easier to use. They’re also generally less expensive to operate than their inkjet brethren.

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But now the printer landscape has shifted again. Inkjets have gained speed tremendously, even at the $100 price level, and their printing quality has improved to the point where it’s often tough to tell the difference between inkjet- and laser-produced documents unless you examine them closely.

And inkjets retain one big advantage over low-cost lasers — the ability to print color, not only for documents but photos, too.

To check out the current state of inkjet versus laser, I tested two recent models aimed at the home and home-office market. In the inkjet corner: Canon Pixma iP4200. And representing lasers: Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet 1022.

To test speed and print quality, I printed three identical files on both — a Microsoft Word text document, a document in Adobe System’s Portable Document Format (PDF) and a color brochure, also in PDF.

The LaserJet 1022 (about $200) processed and printed the documents with great speed. From clicking on “print” to completed copies in the tray, the Word file and black-and-white PDF document took just 37 seconds.

This was slightly slower than the advertised 19 pages a minute, but I think printer companies have a secret, low-gravity location where they get results seemingly impossible to duplicate under real-world conditions. (Maybe it’s the same place where auto companies test gas mileage.)

The color-brochure print test took longer because of the increased processing needed for graphics, but the laser printer completed it in an impressive 1 minute and 9 seconds.

Of course, the printouts were in black and white.

The quality of the text and graphics was razor sharp. It looked as if they had been bonded to the page, which indeed is exactly what happens during the laser printer process.

The toner used in the printers is made up of pigment and plastic.

The final step in the process uses heat to melt the plastic and thus seal the toner into the fibers of the paper.

The heat can cause the paper to curl somewhat in laser printers, but there was no sign of that with the LaserJet 1022.

Moving on to the Pixma iP4200 inkjet (about $120, normally, but it can be found for as little as $99), the Word document printed in 1 minute and 17 seconds, and the government PDF finished in 1 minute 17 seconds.

That’s excellent speed for an inkjet.

As for quality, the inkjet did a beautiful job.

This type of printer works by spraying tiny droplets of ink — each of which is less than the diameter of a human hair — precisely onto a page.

Because ink is a liquid, there is danger of smudges, but the inks now used dry quickly, making the text far sharper.

In blind tests, several colleagues found that the inkjet text pages looked just as pleasing as those done on the laser printer.

Some testers even liked the inkjet pages better, as the print seemed slightly darker.

Ink is ink

Still, it is ink and will run if a page gets wet.

The brochure took 4 minutes and 27 seconds — more than three times as long as on the laser. But the fact that it was in color made up for the longer wait.

On paper stock specifically for color inkjet printing, the colors in the brochure were quite passable for a document that is not a final, commercial presentation.

The truly great color printouts from the Pixma were of photos, printed on photo paper — a 4 x 6-inch print of a snapshot from a digital camera rivaled what could be gotten from a consumer lab.

When it comes to operating cost of inkjets versus lasers, it’s difficult to make comparisons.

But that will change next year when the International Organization for Standardization in Switzerland releases its standards for testing the efficiency of inkjet cartridges.

(The organization’s standards for laser toner cartridges are widely accepted in the industry.)

Meanwhile, some consumer inkjets are becoming so efficient that they are getting close to challenging lasers in terms of operating costs, said David Spenser, head of one of the leading independent printer-testing labs in the country.

Which to buy?

So, which type of printer to buy? A laser model is still probably the right choice if you do a lot of text printing and don’t mind going elsewhere when you need color.

The inkjets are more versatile machines and give you the option of printing your color photos at home.

In any case, keep in mind the consumer printer field is continually evolving. On the horizon: color laser printers for home use.

They’ve already broken through the $400 barrier and are headed ever downward in price.