In a paperless world, some professions still like to keep it old school. In the accounting profession, many firms are working towards going paperless, but while they transition, printers are still a necessity in the office. But what, exactly, is it costing them?

One of the big selling points that printer vendors use to hook you is an inexpensive cost per print page. This is especially true with the latest set of inkjet printers and multifunction printers (MFPs).

All four of the major inkjet printer vendors have some approach to lowering the cost of printing a page, which is an excellent trend and beneficial to the user in the end. HP has its Instant Ink program, where you are charged a fixed price for printing up to a fixed number of pages. If you don’t use your monthly allotment, the remainder rolls over to the next month. This provides a very definitive cost per page — sort of. And HP’s Instant Ink is not available on all of its printer and MFP models and on those models where it is available, Instant Ink maxes out at 300 pages per month. That makes Instant Ink most appropriate for home users, or a user who prints a few hundred full-page color photos or other graphics every month. Most practices won’t greatly benefit from this approach.

Brother has its INKvestment program, which consists of very high-capacity ink cartridges at a reasonable price. These cartridges can deliver up to 3,000 black pages or 1,500 color pages. Brother claims a cost of under a penny for a black page and a nickel for a color page. More on this in a minute.

Canon and Epson have taken a similar vein in offering printers and MFPs with refillable ink tanks. The bottles of ink in the box can provide 11,000 pages or more before you have to go out and buy more ink.

All of these ink plans offer value, but don’t believe the cost-per-page data that a vendor, or most reviews (including mine) provide. The bottom line is it’s not the ink yield that’s the important figure in calculating whether a particular device makes economic sense. Rather, it’s the TCO — total cost of ownership.

Let’s look at cartridge page yield first. Page yields, whether for ink or laser toner cartridges, are measured using a standardized test protocol developed by the ISO (International Standards Organization). They take a standardized set of five test pages, and run three identical machines through three sets of cartridges on each machine until the sets of cartridges run dry. The actual test protocol is a bit more detailed than this, but it will cost you more than a hundred dollars to read it — the ISO sells the protocol and test pages, it’s not really published on the Internet though many printer vendors do give you a synopsis on their “how we test” pages.

There are two conceptual problems with using these results that you should be aware of. The first is page coverage. The ISO yield figures are meant to be used as a benchmark, not as an absolute reference. The test pages it employs have 5-percent print coverage. Your actual coverage is going to vary greatly from that figure, and it’s unlikely that you will be able to accurately determine an average page coverage for a month’s worth of printing. There’s a utility I’ve used in the past called APFill that can calculate the CYMK color ink/toner or black ink/toner coverage on a PDF, Postscript, or TIFF, JPEG, or BMP graphic page, but it’s likely you would find it too time-consuming to use for cost computations. In the past, I used APFill to create custom page coverage test pages for specialized testing.

The other fly in the ointment is that cost-per-page vendor calculations don’t take into effect the cost of ancillary components necessary to operate the device. With inkjet devices, there are frequently maintenance kits that have to be replaced at intervals. With laser printers, components such as drums, fusers, imaging belts and other components need t be replaced after a fixed number prints, and all of these add into the overall actual cost-per-page.

Finally, the acquisition cost of the device itself needs to be worked into the cost equation.

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to roll in the variances in page coverage into your calculations, you can compute the relative total cost of ownership (TCO) for different devices. Vendors often give engine life in their specifications. If a printer has an expected engine life of 100,000 images (a duplex page print counts as two images), and you know the ISO yield for toner/ink per cartridge as well as the costs of other components that will have to be replaced over that 100,000-image life, you can ballpark the TCO by adding up the cost of all necessary supplies plus the cost of the device itself. When making these kinds of TCO comparisons, it’s usually a good idea to assume that half of your printing will be in monochrome and half in color. Finally, you may want to also add in the cost of a multi-year service contract to the total. Creating a simple spreadsheet makes comparing multiple devices pretty simple and quick.

And while you are stuck with using those vendor yield figures for the TCO computation, computing TCO, rather than cost-per-page, will give you a better and fairer birds-eye view of the cost of one device versus another.

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.