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.
Laser printers existed back then - a desktop model was introduced in 1984 - but were so expensive that 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.
Lasers for home use have not only continued to come down in price (solid performers are available for $200 and less) but also have gotten even faster and easier to use. They're also generally less expensive to operate then their inkjet brethren.
But now the 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 documents.
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 the inkjet vs. laser dilemma, I tested two recent models aimed at the home and home-office market. In the inkjet corner: Canon Inc.'s Pixma iP4200. And representing lasers: Hewlett Packard Co.'s LaserJet 1022.
I printed three identical files on both - a Microsoft Word text document, a document in Adobe System Inc.'s Portable Document Format (PDF) and a color brochure, also in PDF.
The LaserJet 1022 (about $200) processed and printed out the documents with great speed. The Word file and black-and-white PDF document took just 37 seconds, slightly slower than the advertised 19 pages a minute.
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. But of course the printouts were in black and white.
The quality of the text and graphics was razor sharp.
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 1:19, 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 more sharp. 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.
Still, it is ink and will run if a page gets wet.
The brochure took four 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.
The great color printouts from the Pixma were of photos, printed on photo paper - a 4x6-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 vs. 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 ISO'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.
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 color photos at home.
In any case, keep in mind that 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 downward.
David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.