Save Money With These Penny-Pinching Printers

Ink and Toner Costs: Do the Math and Don't Get Reamed

Illustration by Dan Page
Before you buy a printer, it makes sense to look not only at its price tag and reviews, but also at its cost of operation. For many printers-especially inkjet models-the price of replacement ink or toner can quickly outstrip the machine's initial cost. Here's how to find out what you're in for before you buy.

A little shopping: We get the current price of each cartridge from the vendor's own Web site. If the vendor doesn't sell the cartridges directly, we average the prices collected from three or more major online retailers. The price differences can be surprising, so it pays to shop around.

A little research: All printer vendors publish yield data for their ink or toner cartridges-how many pages a cartridge can print before it runs dry. Most vendors' yields are based on industry-standard measuring tools developed by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), using a particular suite of documents printed at specific settings, so that the results are comparable among different models. Finding the yields can sometimes be difficult, but don't hesitate to bug the vendor for guidance if you can't find the data easily.

A little math: For each color, we divide the cartridge's price by its page yield to get the cost per color per page. If a vendor offers high-yield cartridges as well as standard-size ones for a particular printer, we gather the prices for both kinds of cartridges. The resulting costs per color per page will give you an idea of how much the printer is going to cost you in ink or toner.

Based on current prices, the cheaper inket printers and MFPs should have a cost per color per page of 5 cents or lower; walk away if it's more than 6 cents. For a color laser, the ideal cost per color per page should be 3 cents or lower; above 5 cents is pricey. For a snapshot printer, 25 cents per print is the best price currently. Your mileage will depend on what and how much you print day-to-day. Highly color-saturated pages-especially photographs-will cost more than these representative prices can illustrate.

A few tricks to watch out for: Vendors sometimes charge more for black (because it's used more), or they may lowball black to distract you from higher costs for other colors. Check for "starter-size" cartridges, too: Printers may ship with these lower-capacity supplies rather than full-size ones. It's not un­­usual for lower-end laser or LED printers to come with starters; and some snapshot printers give just a few shots' worth of ink, forcing you to buy a full set right away. It's getting harder to avoid starters, but at least you should be aware of them.

Next: Portrait of a Serial Refiller

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