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The ABCs of printer inks

Marco Tabini, | May 26, 2011
When buying a printer, the choice of ink technology often dictates the ultimate capabilities of your device. Here's a handy guide to the most common ink-transfer systems, how they work, and what they are best suited for.

Buying a printer shouldn’t be difficult, but often, it is. That's partly because of the vast abundance of technologies, manufacturers, and models to choose from.

In order to make an informed decision, you need to consider issues far beyond the basic cost of purchasing and owning the printer and focus on factors like speed, paper capacity, and ink technology.

Inks can be particularly esoteric; the terminology surrounding printing inks is often confusing and manufacturers don’t always offer a good overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the choices available.

Fear not, however, for this handy guide will shed light on the most common ink technologies, and provide basic information on how they work and which tasks they're best suited for. Hopefully, this guide will to steer you in the right direction and help you eliminate large classifications of printers from consideration so you can concentrate on the choices most useful to you.


Ribbon inks

It’s only fitting that we start with what is probably the oldest of all the mechanical ink technologies: the trusted ribbon. This remnant of the typewriter era somehow doesn’t want to vanish completely, despite the advent of more modern ink-transfer methods.

Once very popular, ribbons today are limited to specialty applications. For example, old-school fabric ribbons are still used in environments that emphasize reliability at the expense of quality, such as receipt printing.

However, other ribbon types, like thermal transfer ribbons, can produce very high quality output and can often print specialty dyes, like metal foil, that are not easily replicated with other technologies.


Thermal paper

Thermal paper is infused with a chemical substance that turns dark when exposed to heat. It has a number of advantages over traditional printing technologies because there's no need to keep an ink reservoir filled. That makes the mechanical design and use of the printer both simple and extremely quiet.

For this reason, thermal paper is often used in applications where reliability and ease of maintenance are paramount; at the consumer level, this usually means label printers, like the ones made by Dymo and Brother.

On the downside, thermal paper is expensive and can generally print only in one color. Another major disadvantage is that its quality decreases quite rapidly in the presence of a hot surface—like, say, the dashboard of a car on a hot, sunny day, to which I personally have lost several rolls of labels.


Liquid inks

If you’re using an inkjet printer, you’re using liquid ink, whose formulation is often not very different from what you would find in, say, the fountain pens of yesteryear. Inside the printer, the ink is forced by a variety of methods through very tiny nozzles in the printing head, thus “painting” dots on paper that eventually form an image or text.


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