Ink-onomics: Can You Save Money By Spending More on Your Printer?

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Buying the inkjet printer or inkjet MFP (multifunction printer) that is best suited to your budget should be simple. It's not--and the complication is the ink. Replenishing this vital fluid costs much more over time than the printer itself costs initially, yet unwary buyers often overlook that expense. To find the most economical printer over the long haul, you need to pay attention to ink-onomics--how much your printer's inks cost and how much ink you'll use.

The first law of ink-onomics: The cheaper the printer, the more expensive its inks. We've tracked the prices of 56 inkjet MFPs over the past two years, and the average cost per page for inks destined for a cheap printer (which we define as one costing less than $200) has consistently been higher than that for an expensive printer (one costing $200 or more).

But does that mean you should avoid cheap printers like the plague? Not necessarily. Here's where the math of ink-onomics gets complicated. Your best buy depends on what you print, how much you print, and how long you plan to keep your printer. A person who prints sparingly overall and seldom prints photos may find that a dirt-cheap printer yields big savings, even after factoring in the printer's sky-high replacement ink costs, simply because the person won't be replacing ink cartridges very often. Someone else, who has more-ambitious printing needs or a strong interest in photography, may find that a cheap printer's ink bills are lethal.

How Ink-onomics Works on Real Printers

Canon Pixma MG2120
To demonstrate how ink-onomics works with real printers, we've selected one cheap printer and one expensive printer, and crunched the numbers over three years to calculate how much each would cost two hypothetical users: a person who prints relatively little, and a person who prints a moderate amount.

Our sample cheap printer is the $70 Canon Pixma MG2120. Not surprisingly, its ink costs are high: 6.3 cents per page for plain text documents and 14 cents per page for color printouts.

HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 Plus e-All-In-One Printer
Our sample expensive printer is the $300 HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus e-All-in-One Printer. Its ink cost for black pages is just 1.6 cents per page; and for four-color pages, 7.2 cents per page.

The chart below compares the costs of the two printers for a user who prints relatively little each month: 100 pages of simple documents (70 pages using just black ink, and 30 pages using all four colors), plus ten 4-by-6-inch color photos.

For our hypothetical user with light printing needs, the cheap Canon printer makes economic sense, even after three years. The Pixma MG2120 costs so little initially that, despite its pricier inks, its first-year costs of $199 are significantly less than even the purchase price alone of the more-expensive HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus. Three years after the initial purchase, the cheap printer's higher ink costs have ballooned to a total of $387--roughly 5.5 times the original price of the printer--but its total cost ($457) is still a little less than the expensive printer's total cost after three years ($478.83). A user with even lighter printing demands--say, 25 or 50 pages per month, along with a smattering of photos--would save even more with the Canon.

The picture changes dramatically, however, for the user who prints more frequently. At a medium volume of 250 pages of simple documents per month (175 plain-black text pages and 75 four-color pages) plus 25 4-by-6-inch color photos each month, the cheaper printer's ink costs mount quickly. By the end of the first year of use, the total cost of buying the cheaper printer and its costlier inks is $392.50, as against a total cost of $449.03 for the first year of the expensive printer and its cheaper inks. And three years after the initial purchase, the cheap Canon printer's total cost dwarfs that of the more expensive HP printer: $1037.50 to $747.08.

Next: Our printer comparison calculator

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