Small Printers, Big Problems

The Dilemma

We are often asked to recommend an outstanding, sleek, and small printer for home use. After years of trying, it’s safe to say we still haven’t found one.

Printer Mechanics

To understand why this dilemma is so challenging to solve, we have to take a step back and look at the general mechanics of printer hardware. For the vast majority of people, there are two types of printers to choose from – laser printers and inkjet printers. Laser printers use large, dry powder based ink called “toners,” and inkjet printers use small liquid based inks called “cartridges.” (for those more interested in the technical differences, here is a great guide: While toners generally sit in one fixed spot and work their magic as a page rolls through them, inkjet cartridges sit inside a little print head that moves back and forth across a page as it prints. On the most basic level, the nature of the way the ink system works is what gives inkjet manufacturers more flexibility in the size and design of the printer hardware.


Laser Printer Toners

Inkjet Printer Cartridges

However, with this design there are also many more things that can go wrong. For example, the back and forth movement of a print head over the course of thousands of pages can cause a tremendous amount of wear and tear on the motors inside the printer and on the print head itself. Then there’s the issue of the ink being liquid based. Like any liquid, the ink in an inkjet cartridge can dry up or evaporate when it isn’t used frequently. It can even cake together and clog the print-head, rendering the entire printer useless if the clog is too severe (see

The other problem with having all these moving parts in a smaller package is that there’s less room to clear out a jam. On a laser printer, when a paper jam occurs you can generally remove the toner cartridges and gain access to the entire set of “rollers” that pull the paper through. As a result, most jams are not catastrophic and even the smallest shards of paper are likely to be found and removed. With an inkjet printer on the other hand, removing a paper jam often means navigating your hands through a tiny space in between the print head (which usually is not removable).

Cost Considerations

Last but not least, inkjet printers only provide the illusion of being low-cost. In reality the printer hardware is extremely cheap but the ongoing ink costs are quite high. On average, the cost per page printed on an inkjet printer is double that of a laser printer. And that doesn’t even account for the times that the inkjet cartridge clogs or dries up and the only solution is to replace it (or replace the entire printer).

The Verdict

Despite all these drawbacks, inkjet printers do have their merits. They offer much more vibrant colors, better photo printing, the ability to print on a wider range of materials, and of course – smaller size. If any of those needs are a priority for you, then by all means consider one. But before you run out and buy the smallest, most aesthetically pleasing model available, keep one general rule in mind: the smaller the printer, the less reliable it is likely to be. When it comes to printers – good things usually do not come in small packages.

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