Ink and Toner Buying Guide

November 2, 2021

Whether you’re printing at home or at the office, there will come a day when your printer runs out of ink or toner (depending on which type of printer you have). But how do you find replacement cartridges? Which brands will work with your printer? What is printer toner? Do laser printers use ink? And how do you tell the difference between ink and toner?

If it’s time to get new ink or toner for your printer you’ve come to the right place. This guide will go over how to choose the correct ink or toner for your printer.

Most Common Printer Types

The first thing you need to know before shopping for ink or toner is what type of printer you have. The type of printer will determine the ink or toner cartridge you need. Printers come in two major categories: inkjet and laser printers.

Inkjet printers use small nozzles to spray microscopic ink droplets onto paper. These printers are more common in homes or small offices, although any place that prints graphic-heavy material may use them, as well. These types of printers are great for printing high-resolution photos and images but work just as well for text documents. Inkjet printers also tend to be smaller and less expensive than laser printers.

Laser printers print using toner powder instead of ink. The lasers in these printers produce electrostatically charged spots on a drum. These spots attract the toner powder, which is then transferred to the paper and fixed in place with heat. This method allows laser printers to deliver crisp text and color prints.

Laser printers are typically larger than inkjet printers and are capable of printing at much faster speeds. This is why they’re often found in larger businesses or offices that have high print volumes. Although laser printers are often more expensive — both in terms of the printer itself and the toner powder replacement cartridges — they can end up being more economical due to the large print volume you can get out of each cartridge.

The Difference Between Ink and Toner

You might have guessed from the previous section that toner works great for high-volume printing and ink is better for lower-volume printing or situations in which photo-like print quality is called for. Whether you purchase ink or toner when your printer is in need, however, ultimately depends on whether you have a laser printer or an inkjet printer.

The ink in inkjet printers usually consists of a varnish containing linseed, soybean oil, or petroleum distillate. This is combined with pigments to get each of the basic colors. Black ink is often a combination of carbon black (a pigment similar to soot) and varnish, while colored inks may contain salts, nitrogen compounds, or dyes. Exact recipes vary by company.

Unlike ink, which comes in liquid form, toner comes as a powder. This powder is essentially finely ground plastic particles with other additives that help in the printing process — such as ground iron, chromium, or zinc, which helps maintain the charge on the particles — and pigments like yellow 180 or red 122.

How to Know If You Need Toner or Ink

Inkjet printers need ink while laser printers need toner, but how do you tell which type of printer you have? There are a few ways you can check:

On your computer, open up your printer dialogue box. Under “Properties,” you should be able to find a “Maintenance” or “Options” tab. If you find any options that say “Nozzle Check,” “Print Head Cleaning,” or “Print Head Alignment,” your printer is an inkjet printer.

You can also open up your printer and look at the cartridges it contains. If you find small, inexpensive-looking cartridges with yellow, blue, red, and black circles, your printer is an inkjet printer. If, instead, you see one single long cartridge, you have a laser printer.

Most printers will have a label on them somewhere indicating their name and model. This label may specifically state that the printer is inkjet or laser. If not, you can look the model number up online to find out.

How to Choose a Printer Ink Cartridge

If you’ve determined that you’re shopping for ink and not toner, you then need to determine the right cartridge size for your printer. Each ink cartridge typically has a number printed on it somewhere. You can remove the cartridge to find this number.

Alternatively, you can look for the printer cartridge number or cartridge type in your printer’s manual. If you no longer have your printer’s manual, you might be able to find this information online by doing a search for your printer’s model number, which is often found on the printer itself. This information is important because not all printers take all ink cartridge types.

There are typically two options when purchasing replacement cartridges. You may purchase replacement cartridges from the printer manufacturer or from a company that manufactures compatible cartridges. These cartridges may be available at different price points than the manufacturer’s prices, so it’s a good idea to shop all options for your printing needs.

Once you’ve identified the type of cartridge that’s compatible with your printer, depending on the type, you may also have the option of choosing between standard or high-yield cartridges (sometimes called XL or even XXL cartridges). Standard cartridges contain a standard amount of ink, while higher-yield cartridges are designed to take up the same amount of space in your printer while supplying more ink. Not all cartridge types have these options, but many do.

Is It Worth Buying XL Ink Cartridges?

Often, the answer is yes. While XL ink cartridges cost more than standard cartridges, the fact that they contain more ink means they are designed to print more pages before needing replacements. The advantage is that the cost per printed page using XL cartridges is typically lower than the cost per printed page using standard cartridges.

Does Printer Ink Dry Out? How Long Does Printer Ink Last?

Printer ink does have a finite shelf life. Because of this, sometimes buying the XL or XXL cartridges isn’t always a great idea. Typical shelf life usually ranges between one and two years. If you don’t print frequently, it’s possible for your printer ink to expire before it’s used up. Check the printing yield and expiration date of any ink you’re considering purchasing.

How to Choose a Printer Toner Cartridge

If you’ve determined that you’re shopping for toner and not ink, the next step is determining the right toner cartridge size for your printer. Note that if you have a monochrome printer, your machine will only contain one toner cartridge. If you have a color printer, you’ll have four cartridges — one each for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Each toner cartridge typically has a number printed on it somewhere. You can remove the cartridge from the printer to find this number. Alternatively, you can look for the cartridge number or type in your printer’s manual or online by doing a search for your printer’s model number. (The model number is usually found on the printer, although you can also find it on your computer in the printer dialogue box.)

You might be inclined to purchase the toner cartridges from the manufacturer of your printer, but this is not your only option. As with ink, there are companies that offer compatible cartridges at different price points than the manufacturer’s prices, therefore it’s a good idea to look at all the options.

For most toner cartridge types, you also have the option of choosing between standard or high-yield cartridges. Standard cartridges contain a standard amount of toner, while higher-yield cartridges are designed to take up the same amount of space in your printer while supplying more toner.

Unless you don’t expect to use up your toner before it expires (usually one to two years), it’s almost always more cost-effective to purchase higher-yield cartridges if the option is available. Not only are they designed to reduce the cost per printed page, but it also will mean you have to change the toner cartridge less often.

How to Check Printer Ink or Toner Levels

In most cases, you can check the ink or toner levels directly on the printer, your computer in the print dialogue tab, or both. If ink levels are not directly displayed on the printer, open the printer’s menu on your computer and find the status monitor. There should be an option to view ink or toner levels. If you have a color printer, you may even see a bar indicating how much of each color your cartridge contains.

Most printer software will notify you when your ink or toner is low with a pop-up message the next time you print. This gives you ample warning and time to purchase replacement cartridges before you run out entirely.

Printer Ink and Toner by Brand

Here are some brief descriptions of toner and ink for printers ideally suited for popular printer brands:

  • Toner and ink for Brother printers: Both toner and ink are available in standard, high-yield, and extra-high yield. You can also purchase a single color or a multipack containing black, cyan, magenta, and yellow.
  • Toner and ink for Canon printers: In addition to offering both standard and XL single and multipack toner and ink, Canon also offers combo packs that come with printer paper.
  • Epson ink and toner: High-yield and ultra-high yield are options for Epson’s products as well, many of which also boast smudge- and fade-resistant DuraBrite ink. Some of the top selling ink models include:​
  • HP ink and toner: With ink and toner packages for every printer HP offers, you can also find multipacks with three colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) or three colors plus black. Some of the top selling ink models include:

It’s important never to buy more ink or toner than you’ll use before it expires. While some people believe the expiration dates don’t matter, ink can change consistency over time, leading to poor print quality and even damage to your printer. The same is true of toner. The toner powder may eventually clump and not work as well.

Both ink and toner last longer if kept sealed in their original packaging until needed and stored in a cool, dry place free of dust and fumes. And although high-yield and ultra-high yield cartridges generally offer cheaper cost per printed page, if you aren’t printing enough to use up the cartridges before their expiration, standard yield might be a better bet.

Ink and Toner Cartridges by Printer Model Number

Your might not know the model number for the ink you need but you know the printer model by just looking at your printer

Ink for popular HP Printers

Ink for popular Canon printers:

Ink for popular Epson printers:

Another way to find ink and toner cartridges that are compatible with a printer is by visiting the Ink and Toner Finder. Select the printer brand, printer series and printer model to get a list of ink options for that specific printer.

If you need to replace all of your color cartridges at once, most brands can be purchased in a multipack containing cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, for convenience. If you or your business do a lot of printing and don’t want to run out of ink or toner unexpectedly, consider setting up an ink or toner subscription so you never run out again.

And if you are in the market for a new printer altogether, this printer buying guide will walk you through how to find a great printer to meet your needs.

About the Author

Jane Lucas is a freelance writer and former college instructor specializing in education and technology. 

All content provided herein is for educational purposes only. It is provided “as is,” and neither the author nor Office Depot warrants the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they assume any responsibility for errors, omissions, or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein.