The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing

Melissa Riofrio was the first editor of PC World's Top 10 Printers. Yardena Arar is a senior editor for PC World. Special thanks to Jim Aspinwall, Gary Funk, Robert Luhn, and Rick Scheerer.

Whether your printer costs $40 or $400, the purchase price is only the first item on your new list of ongoing printing expenses. Over time, buying the ink or toner and acquiring media (paper, envelopes, transparencies) will very likely make a far bigger impact on your wallet. These costs will vary depending on what you print, how much you print, and what kind of media you use. Some expenses are unavoidable: Printing an 8-by-10 photo on premium, glossy paper will never be dirt cheap. Shaving cents off of other kinds of printing, however, involves just a little thought, effort, and advance planning. Read on for tips on how to choose and use your printer wisely--or perhaps not at all in some cases.

Know Before You Buy

Saving money on printing starts (ideally) before you buy the printer. Before you begin researching new models, make sure that you'll be getting the best printer for the types of documents you plan to produce. For more on the criteria you should use, see "The Right Printer for the Job," and read our comparison of pricing versus print quality trade-offs in "The Best and the Cheapest." Once you start looking at specific models, make a point of checking the recommended print volume; if you typically print 100 pages a day, for example, don't buy a printer that's rated for 500 pages a month.

How much is that cartridge in the window? Replacement ink or toner cartridge costs represent a major part of your long-term printing expenses. As we learned when we researched Hewlett-Packard's $40 Deskjet 3520 (see "$40 Printer, $40 Ink"), replacing the cartridges can cost as much as buying the printer (see "Pay It Again, Sam: Ink Costs Can Dwarf Printer Prices"). In general, expect to pay $10 to $40 for an ink cartridge, and $60 or more for a toner cartridge.

But don't judge a cartridge by price alone; its efficiency, or page yield--the number of pages it can print--matters just as much. Of course, that figure will vary depending on how much ink you use on a page, but the industry-standard assumption is 5 percent coverage per page for each color. Some companies make yield information available on the Web along with other printer specifications; others will provide it if you ask, either by e-mail or phone.

You can use yield information to calculate per-page costs, which can be useful in determining what your printing costs for different printers would look like over time. Laser printer toner cartridges may cost a lot more than ink jet cartridges, but their higher yields make per-page costs lower.

Some printer manufacturers offer multipacks of inks, which can knock a few dollars off the price per cartridge. The standard-capacity black ink for Dell's $79 J740 ink jet, for instance, costs $30 alone; a two-pack is $56.

A few colors more: Some ink jet printers produce superior photo quality by using additional colors beyond the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. But all the color cartridges may not come with the printer. For instance, Canon's $200 i960 printer is bundled with all six of its inks (including Photo Cyan and Photo Magenta), and they cost $12 each to replace. But HP's $100 Deskjet 5150 includes only the standard HP 56 black and HP 57 tricolor cartridges ($20 and $35, respectively); the HP 58 photo cartridge is a separate, $25 purchase.

The incredible, shrunken starter cartridge: Many lower-cost laser printers come with starter cartridges that last anywhere from 60 percent to as little as 33 percent as long as a regular cartridge. Granted, if you don't print much, that first cartridge could last you a while; but if you know you'll be printing at least 100 pages per month, either find a printer that comes with a full-size cartridge or factor in the cost of an early replacement. Of course, if you get a great deal on the printer, your overall cost may still be quite affordable.

The cheapest paper for the job: The heavier, brighter (whiter), or more specialized the paper is, the more it will cost. You'll generally pay as little as a half-cent per page for typical, 20-pound office paper, or as much as a dollar for an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of glossy photo paper.

Save the pricey stuff for final prints; for everything else, use the cheapest paper you can find. It will affect the print quality from your laser printer minimally, if at all, and it will work fine for producing drafts and other internal documents on your ink jet printer. Third-party brands often cost less per page than the printer manufacturer's media, but test ink jet-specific media on your printer to see if you like the results. You may have to buy a full pack to do this, unfortunately.

Cable not included: Some printer manufacturers save on costs by omitting the USB or parallel cable that you may need to connect the device to your computer. If you can't use the same cable you had for your last printer, shop around: You don't need the expensive models with gold connectors and heavy shielding unless you have a lot of interference in your work area from other devices.

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