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Printer Guide

How Do Printers Work: Everything You Need to Know

From how printers print to how much they cost.

We take printers for granted. We press a button and a printed page comes out. Simple. But how do printers work, exactly?

The answer depends, in part, on the type of printer. Inkjet printers function differently from laser printers. The entire process of going from an image on your screen to an image printed on the page is dramatically different, depending on which type you own. They also have different insides and different ways of printing and require different cartridges and types of paper to print.

In fact, the question itself, “How do printers work?” is deceptively complicated. From a printer’s duty cycle to the hidden operating costs of using a printer, how a printer works encompasses a wide field of variables and circumstances. Let’s break it down.


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How Do Printers Work: Laser Printer vs Inkjet Printer


So, how do printers work? It depends on the type. Inkjet printers use tiny nozzles to spray microscopic ink onto a page. Laser printers use a rotating drum that generates a static charge to transfer powdered ink onto a page and then apply heat to bond it.

    Printer costs

  • Inkjet printers typically have a lower upfront cost than laser printers.
  • Inkjet cartridges also usually cost less than toner cartridges.
  • Laser printers make up for this cost difference with a lower cost per page.
  • Printing with a laser printer costs around nearly half of the cost per page of printing with an inkjet, making laser printers a better long-term investment.

Other factors to consider

Printing Quality

Both laser printers and inkjet printers can produce high-quality images. Inkjet printers are able to create precise color mixes, but their ink can smudge, reducing image accuracy. Laser printers, on the other hand, produce highly accurate images but lack the depth of color of an inkjet.


Printing speed

If speed is your concern, then laser printers are the hands-down choice. With their pages per minute (ppm) speeds starting at around 20, laser printers easily print faster than inkjets. Plus, most laser printers can hold more paper, meaning more print jobs before adding paper, and toner doesn’t need time to dry like ink does.


Maintenance is an often overlooked consideration that can add to the costs of operating a printer. Inkjet ink can dry up if left unused, leading to clogged nozzles. This can reduce the lifespan of the inkjet printer. Laser printers, however, tend to last longer and have a higher volume of print jobs.

Read more about the difference between laser printers and inkjet printers in “Laser Printer vs Inkjet Printer: 5 Key Differences.”

Did You Know? The RICOH 132 MF black and white multifunction laser printer has 4-in-1 functionality. It can scan, fax, print, and copy. Click here to learn more. 

Printer Toner

Printer toner is a fine, powdery substance that is permanently applied to a piece of paper via an electrostatic charge created by the printer’s drum. Printer toner comes in different varieties but is most often made up of polyester fibers. The plastic in the polyester is essential to the triboelectric process used by laser printers.

    How printer toner works

  • The printer receives an image.
  • The printer draws an inverted copy of that image on its drum using a laser, creating an electrostatic charge.
  • The printer releases toner onto the drum, and the toner is attracted to the parts of the drum that have been charged by the laser.
  • The printer passes a sheet of paper over the drum, transferring the toner.
  • The printer heats the paper to melt the toner and fix it in place.
  • The finished page emerges from the printer.

Things to know about printing with toner

Toner cartridge replacement

Replacing a toner cartridge can be a complicated affair. Many printers require that you remove sections of the printer to get at the cartridge and then install it in a lengthy process that can lead to printing errors. Look for a printer that makes changing toner cartridges easy.

How long toner lasts

There is no one answer to the question of “How long does printer toner last?” It depends on factors like the printer itself, the type of toner you have installed, and what kinds of documents you are printing. However, standard printer toner cartridges may last for 2,000 pages or more.

Official manufacturer cartridges are best

Laser printers are precision machines, and toner is an integral part of their process. As a result, toner manufactured by the maker of the printer is usually best. Using “off-brand” toner can cause problems and potentially shorten the life of your printer.

Read more about printer toner in "Printer Toner: 5 Things to Know Before You Buy."

Printer Recycling

It’s going to happen eventually: Your printer will reach the end of its life and need to be replaced. But before you get excited about shopping for a new printer, take a moment to ensure your old one is disposed of properly.

    Why recycle a printer?

  • It still works: Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with your old printer; you just want an upgrade. Recycle so that someone else can use your old printer.
  • It requires minor repairs: Your old printer might be made new again for someone else with a little TLC.
  • It might have valuable parts: Even a printer that doesn’t work has value. Its internal workings can be recycled to service other printers.
  • It might contain toxic chemicals: Like many electronics, printers sometimes contain elements that can break down over time releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.

Where to recycle printers

Local e-waste recycling depots

Many localities have dedicated recycling facilities just for electronics. These installations are often operated in partnership with private companies that provide recycling services. Call ahead before showing up with your printer. Many of these locations have specific hours and rules and only take certain items.

Donation drives

If your printer still works, consider donating it to a local charity or donation drive. Charitable organizations often re-sell or recycle items like printers to raise funds for their operations. Be sure to check with a group before you donate, though, as they often have rules about what they will accept and what they will not.

Big-box stores

Many national chain stores are increasing their commitment to protecting the environment by offering recycling services. You may also be able to earn store credit for recycling your printer, depending on the store. Check with your store before recycling a large number of items, as there may be a fee required.

Read more about recycling printers in “Printer Recycling: A How-To Guide for Replacing Your Old Printer.”

Printer Paper

Paper differs in size, weight, brightness, material, and glossiness. What type of paper you use will be determined, in part, by your printer. But for a lot of paper options, you will need to choose based on the kind of document you are printing.

    Qualities to look for

  • Size: Some printers will only take one or two sizes of paper. The most common paper size is “letter” which is 8.5x11”, but there are other sizes. Choose the size that matches your documents and filing system.
  • Weight: Paper weight refers to how much 500 sheets (one ream) weigh. Heavier weight means stiffer paper. The most common weights are 20 and 24.
  • Brightness: This refers to how much light reflects off the paper, on a range of 1-100. Only paper with a brightness of 80 or higher is considered suitable for printing.
  • Material: Most paper is made from wood pulp, but other materials offer advantages and disadvantages. Hemp paper is more durable than wood paper, while banana paper is more firm.
  • Coatings: While uncoated paper is the most common type of printer paper, coatings offer some benefits. A glossy coating is great for high-quality photos, while a matte coating will enhance text-based documents. A satin coating strikes a balance between the two.

Types of printer paper

Copy paper

This thin, light paper is typically used for photocopying and can also be used for printing. It is economical, but too much ink will cause it to bleed. This type of paper is not suitable for double-sided printing or printing images.

Inkjet or laser printer paper

Specialty paper is available for inkjet printers and laser printers. Both tend to be thicker than copy paper but for different reasons. Inkjet paper absorbs more ink to reduce bleeding and blurring. Laser paper is thicker to resist the heat from the laser printing process.

Photo paper

This type of paper is very thick and suitable for printing high-quality images, like photographs. It comes in either glossy or matte. In both cases, the coatings help protect and enhance the image, but glossy is more common.

Read more about printer paper in "Printer Paper: A Complete Resource."

Did You Know? The RICOH 132 MF black and white multifunction laser printer has fast printing speeds of up to 34 pages per minute. Click here to learn more. 

Printer Duty Cycle

A printer duty cycle is the maximum number of pages a printer can produce in a given month. It’s not a recommendation but rather a boundary. It is the highest amount of printing the manufacturer recommends. As such, it is both a useful guide for how to maintain a printer and a good marker for measuring similar printers against each other.

    What is a printer duty cycle?

  • The number of pages you can expect to print in a month before experiencing problems.
  • The industry average is around 20,000-40,000 pages.
  • Different manufacturers measure duty cycles differently, with different ink and different types of paper.
  • A duty cycle is a good ballpark measurement to use when comparing printers.

Other considerations

Higher is better

A printer with a higher duty cycle is generally better than one with a lower duty cycle.


A higher duty cycle will mean you can print more before experiencing problems. This reduces the amount spent on maintenance.

Recommended monthly print volume

This useful metric is typically lower than the duty cycle and tells you how much printing you should aim to do with your printer to keep it running smoothly.

Read more about printer duty cycles in "What Is a Printer Duty Cycle and Why Is It Important?"

Printer Cost

Printer costs can be deceptive. While every printer has an upfront cost, they also all have ongoing operating costs, which are how much it actually costs to use them. Often a printer with a lower upfront cost will have a higher operating cost, and vice versa.

    Operating costs

  • Toner or ink: Printers use toner or ink to produce images, and all printers will run out at some point. Many manufacturers price their printers lower on the shelf and make up for that low price with higher-priced ink.
  • Paper: Printers require paper, and the cost of paper can add up.
  • Accessories: You may need an additional paper tray or a Wi-Fi dongle to set up the printer how you want it.

Additional costs to consider


Installing a printer isn’t always as easy as putting it in place and turning it on. If you want your printer to be accessible on your network, you need to configure it properly. This may require network cables or specialized configuration, depending on your network and your needs.


Many manufacturers offer a warranty to help defer the costs of replacement or repair if something goes wrong. Ricoh’s Advance Exchange service program provides next-day replacements before the malfunctioning equipment is returned. This gets you back in service quickly and without the delays caused by longer warranty terms of other manufacturers.

Cost per page

Ink or toner cartridges will only print a certain number of pages. If you divide the cost of the printer cartridge by the number of pages a cartridge will print, that gives you the cost per page for the printer using that cartridge. Multiply that number by the number of pages you expect to print in a given month or year, and you will get a rough estimate of your expected operating cost.

Shop Printers Now

Ricoh Printers--built on a legacy of quality and dependability.

Shop Now

Shop Ricoh Printers

If you’re in the market for a printer, you have no shortage of options. We take great pride in having spent the last 50+ years researching, designing, and developing some of the most advanced and powerful electronics in the world, including our professional-grade line of printers.

Offering powerful printing in a compact size, Ricoh printers are built with the highest quality materials and can fit seamlessly into any office space. And with flexible connectivity options, you can connect your new printer to your business network wired or wirelessly.

Our printers are easy to set up, easy to operate, and can offer printing speeds as high as 34 ppm, maximizing your efficiency and enhancing your productivity. Whether you are looking for black and white or color or want a single-function or multifunction printer, Ricoh has a model that will suit your needs. Click here to shop our selection of printers.



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