Both ceramic and laminate flooring are essentially imitations of nature. Ceramic is basically man-made stone, created by firing clay and other materials at high temperatures. Laminate flooring is generally particleboard topped with hardwood laminate to make it look like solid hardwood. Laminate flooring generally has a 20-year lifespan, while ceramic can last almost indefinitely. On the other hand, the installation process for ceramic flooring for can feel like it lasts forever, while installing laminate flooring is almost as simple as rolling out a throw rug.
Characteristics and Applications
Ceramic is the harder of the two materials--it feels like slick stone, while laminate is softer than wood because of its foam underlayment. Ceramic is also moisture-resistant; laminate isn't. Thus, ceramic is preferred in high-moisture-areas like bathrooms and kitchens. Ceramic in a bedroom, on the other hand, might not be the best way to greet your feet in the morning, while laminate wood is almost as coddling as carpet.
Ceramic is by far the more complicated material to install; only a very capable do-it-yourselfer should attempt it. It requires a solid cement board underlayment, then mortar to hold in the tile, which requires a special tile cutter or wetsaw for cuts. Then it has to be grouted and sealed. The whole process takes several days. Laminate flooring can be installed by almost anyone in an afternoon with a standard miter saw. It snaps together like a puzzle, sits on a layer of hard foam and isn't attached to the house in any way (it's just pinned under the floor trim).
The cost of ceramic varies widely based on which tile you choose, but won't be as affordable as laminate in most cases. Generally, you can get good laminate flooring for $2 per square foot or so (as of 2009). Factoring in the underlayment, the project will usually be less than $4 per square foot total. Good ceramic floor tile will cost around $3 per square foot, and the other materials--cement board, mortar, grout, saw rental--can more than double that cost. If you use professional installers, you're talking a few hours' work for laminate, versus days for tile.
Laminate flooring is marketed for its ease of maintenance. There's no regular sealing, waxing or other requirements, and it's cleaned with mild cleansers and very little water. Ceramic tiles are highly stain-resistant and easy to clean, but the grout between the tiles isn't; it requires scrubbing, bleaching, occasional resealing and sometimes removal and regrouting.
Ceramic is less likely to suffer damage than laminate flooring, and easier to repair if it does. If something is dropped on ceramic and cracks it, the damaged tiles can be cut out with a grout saw and chisel and replaced without affecting the rest of the floor. If part of your laminate floor is damaged by trauma or moisture, there's no practical way to patch it or do a partial replacement, since the floor system is all locked together by tongue-and-groove connectors that have to be installed from one end of the room to the other.