A printer is an external hardware output device that takes the electronic data stored on a computer or other device and generates a hard copy. For example, if you created a report on your computer, you could print several copies to hand out at a staff meeting. Printers are one of the most popular computer peripherals and print text and photos. The picture is an inkjet printer, the Lexmark Z605.
Types of printers
Below are different types of computer printers. Today, the most common printers are inkjet and laser printers.
- 3D printer
- AIO (All-in-One) printer
- Dot matrix printer
- Inkjet printer
- Laser printer
- LED (light-emitting diode) printer
- MFP (multifunction printer)
- Thermal printer
There are a few different ways a printer can connect to and communicate with a computer (referred to as interfaces). Today, the most common connection types are by USB (universal serial bus) cable (wired) or via Wi-Fi (wireless). Below is a full list of cables and interfaces used to connect a computer to a printer.
- Cat 5
- Parallel port
- SCSI (small computer system interface)
- Serial port
- USB (universal serial bus)
What are the benefits and uses of a printer?
Each type of printer has different types of uses. Examples of more frequent uses of printers include the following.
- Print tools or parts needed to build something.
- Print replacement parts for something broken.
- Print toys for children.
- Print objects to be sold.
- Print a copy of a document for school.
- Print a paper that can be physically signed.
- Print colored pictures that can be viewed without a monitor or mobile device.
- Print receipts for purchases made online.
- Quickly print hundreds of text documents or pages.
- Print hard copies of professional or legal documents.
Who invented the printer?
Over the evolution of the printer, there were several types of printers developed. So, there is no single inventor cited for the printer. However, the first person to invent a mechanical printing device was Charles Babbage, who created it with his Difference Engine in the 1800s. See the next section for a list of other people and companies behind the other types of printers used today.
History of various printers and how they work
Charles Babbage invented the first mechanical printer that was used with the Difference Engine, which Babbage developed in 1822. Babbage's printer used metal rods with printed characters on each rod to print text on paper rolls fed through the device.
Dot matrix printer
IBM created the first dot matrix printer in 1957. However, the first dot matrix impact printer was introduced by Centronics in 1970. To create letters and images, the print head, which contains pins, sits over an ink ribbon. This ribbon rests above a piece of paper. As the print head moves across the ribbon (usually horizontally), the pins press into the ribbon to imprint ink onto the page (like a typewriter). As these pins print several dots, you can see where this printer got its name.
While inkjet printers started being developed in the late 1950s, it wasn't until the late 1970s that they could reproduce decent digital images. These higher-quality inkjet printers were developed by multiple companies, including Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard. Inkjet printers are similar to dot matrix printers in that the images they create are composed of dots. However, the dots on an inkjet printer are shot onto the page rather than using a ribbon and pins. Furthermore, an inkjet printer's dots are smaller, and their print speed is faster. See our inkjet printer page for further information about this printer.
In the early 1970s, Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer while working at Xerox by modifying one of their model 7000 copiers. However, it wasn't until 1984, when Hewlett-Packard introduced the LaserJet, that laser printers became more widely available and affordable. The following year, Apple introduced the Apple LaserWriter, which introduced PostScript technology to the printer market. Laser printers are more complex than their predecessors. For information on how they work, see our laser printer definition.
Chuck Hull created the 3-D printer in 1984. 3D printers take a digital blueprint of an object and reproduce it layer-by-layer using various materials such as plastic and metal alloys. See our 3-D printer definition for further information.
See our computer printer history page for a complete history of computer printers.
What is the most commonly used printer?
The most commonly used printer can vary depending on where it's used. For home and family users, inkjet printers are the most commonly used because of their initial price. For office environments, laser printers are the most common.
As color laser printers become cheaper and more people realize how expensive printer ink can be, laser printers are starting to become a popular choice for home users.
Do I need a printer with my computer?
A computer printer is considered a peripheral, meaning it's not required. Many people use a computer every day without a printer. However, if the time comes when they need to print something, they'll have to visit somewhere with a printer.
Does a printer require a computer to be used?
Older printers did require a computer to be used and operated. However, with the popularity of smartphones, tablets, and Wi-Fi, newer printers can connect to your wireless network and be used without a computer.
For these printers to be used, they require a Wi-Fi network to communicate with other devices. Also, you may need a smartphone or tablet connected to the Wi-Fi network to set up the printer.