[IMGCAP(1)]I’ve been reviewing printers for decades, and the complaint I most often hear—or, for that matter, make—is the cost and inconvenience of replacing inkjet ink or laser toner. Just about everyone who has a printer has experienced the sticker shock of finding out what a replacement set of cartridges will cost. In many cases, it’s equal to, or surpasses, the original cost of the printer or MFP itself.  

That’s been true for as long as I’ve reviewed printers and remains so to this day. That’s because the printing industry has embraced the razor/razor blade model of marketing—make the price of the printer or MFP as reasonable as possible, and suck the consumer dry on the cost of supplies. And toner and ink aren’t the only hits to your wallet. Lots of times there are “hidden” consumables that need to be replaced such as maintenance kits on an inkjet or the photoconductor drum or belt with a laser print engine.

But no mistake about it, there are three words which strike terror into the hearts of these supplies vampires—The Paperless Office! Over the past few years, as software has gotten better and storage space has become less expensive, more and more users are cutting back on the amount of hardcopy printing they do. And the high cost of supplies, while not the sole reason for this, is certainly one of the driving forces.

Reduced printing isn’t the only side effect of high supplies cost. In the enterprise printing market, Managed Print Services have risen to control printing costs. But manufacturers of inkjet printers and MFPs are starting to feel the push-back of frequent and expensive cartridge changes, and most of them have come up with plans they hope will keep their customers (including you) churning out paper. Brother, Canon, Epson and Hewlett Packard all have ways they hope you will find more economically desirable.

The most common of these is supplying very high-yield cartridges for selected printers and MFPs. All four of the above vendors have some cartridges that can yield upward of 8,000 or so pages. Many of these are somewhat expensive, and available only for specific newer models, but it’s worth looking at yield figures if you are contemplating purchasing a new printer or MFP.

Keep in mind, though, that published cartridge yields are at best “guesstimates.” The ISO (International Standards Organization) came up with a protocol for measuring cartridge yield. Basically, it involves using three complete supplies sets on each of three identical printers/MFPs and averaging the results. The ISO provides the document set to be used consisting of four pages of text and graphics and a fifth “diagnostic” page that is eyeballed to determine when a cartridge has reached end-of-life. In reality, ISO Standard 24711:2007 is intended to level the playing field on how a printer vendor reports cartridge yield. (This standard is for inkjets only. There’s a different one for laser toner cartridges.) These published yields are sort of like the City/Highway EPA MPG figures car manufacturers provide. You can be pretty certain you’re not going to get that kind of mileage (or cartridge yield) in real life.

Still, printer manufacturers are trying. Most recently, two vendors have taken more unusual approaches. Epson’s new EcoTank printers and MFPs have refillable ink tanks rather than cartridges. Ink is provided in bottles, and when a tank gets low, you simply pour more ink into the tank. Ink bottles are very inexpensive, and after the initial outlay, per page costs are tiny. Initially, however, per page costs are modest, but not remarkable. The ET-4550 MFP costs $499. That includes an MFP that by itself would probably sell for about $100, so you’re paying $400 upfront for enough ink to print about 11,000 mono pages or 8,000 color pages. The real savings kick in when you have exhausted the initial ink supply. Color bottles cost $13 each and the large bottle of black ink costs $19.50, so another full set of ink runs under $60. That’s less than a penny a color page.

HP has also reduced the cost of printing on some of its inkjet models with the Instant Ink program. The program, which has been around for about a year, lets you buy a number of pages for a monthly fee. There are three tiers to the plans; $2.99 for up to 50 pages a month, $4.99 for up to 100 pages, and $9.99 for up to 300 pages. If you don’t print all of the pages you paid for in a particular month, they roll over to be used the next month, like some cell phone plans. And if you go over the plan pages, extra pages printed that month will run you a dollar for 15, 20 or 25 pages depending on which plan you choose. There are no contracts and you can switch plans as often as you like.

The nice thing about Instant Ink is that the printer keeps track of how many pages you print, and as the ink starts getting low, the printer communicates with HP over the Internet and they mail you new cartridges. Obviously, it’s aimed at home users and businesses that have moderate printing needs, and it’s only available with certain printer/MFP models, but Instant Ink makes printing costs predictable and assures that you never run out of ink in the middle of printing a report. The newest printers and MFPs let you sign up for Instant Ink while initially setting up the device.

Both of these approaches are interesting, and there are sure to be other plans and equipment in the future to keep you printing. But the best thing about these new approaches is that the printer manufacturers are starting to realize that the Razor Blade paradigm is no longer tenable, and that they will have to make printing more affordable if they want us to continue to generate prints rather than rely increasingly on electronic documents.

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