What's cheaper: replacement ink, or a new printer?

It may sound crazy, but buying the replacement ink you need can cost you almost as much -- if not more -- than a new printer.
  • (PC World (US online))
  • — 20 December, 2009 06:39

With inkjet printer prices so low, and inkjet replacement cartridge prices so high, is it cheaper to replace your printer instead of buying new ink? That's the debate sparked at Digg's tech page when a user posted this photo comparing deskjet ink prices to the cost of brand name replacement cartridges. The Digg user's conclusion: It is cheaper to buy a new inexpensive printer for the free ink cartridges included in box instead of buying brand name replacement cartridges that can be very expensive.

This hypothesis was just too tempting not to look into. Could it really be cheaper? I decided to put on my very novice myth busting hat and find out.

Reality Check

The idea of buying a new printer every time I needed to buy new ink had never occurred to me, probably because it was so impractical and wasteful. But I have to admit it is an interesting concept.

Inkjet printers require one black and one color cartridge to work, and buying brand name replacements for both can cost $40 to $60. But it's relatively easy to find an adequate printer — one that comes with free ink in the box with the purchase — for less than that price. So, when faced with spending $50 on ink, it seems economical (NOT environmental) to just pick up a second, third, or fourth backup printer instead. When one printer's ink dries up, throw it away and break out the new printer. I'm going to unofficially call this practice the Earth Killer Method of replacing your inkjet cartridges.

Starter Cartridge Gotcha

Now, I know some of you are already tearing your hair out and saying, "hold on! Printers come with what are called starter cartridges that are only about half full, so you'll be lucky if you get a week's worth of printing out of them before you have to get more." That may be true; I haven't conducted an exhaustive survey of printer manufacturers and the amount of ink in their starter cartridges. But what I can say is that when researching this story I found that, according to some inkjet printer makers, starter inkjet cartridges sometimes come with a decent amount of ink.

The companies and printers I choose to look at may be exceptions to the rule, but I did check with Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark to make sure what was advertised was correct and not a misprint. Canon couldn't confirm the quantity of ink in its starter cartridges in time for this report.

Hewlett-Packard Deskjet D1660 - Myth Confirmed

Right now, HP is selling a Deskjet D1660 inkjet printer on its Web site for $29.99, and you can get free shipping if you're willing to wait two business days. That's already a great deal, but way down at the bottom of the product page, the deal gets even better. Under the "what's in the box" heading, it says this printer comes with one HP60 black cartridge and one HP60 tricolor cartridge. The black cartridge promises about 200 pages of output, and the tricolor one will give you about 150, according to HP's site.

For replacement cartridges, HP offers a combo pack of HP60 ink that includes one black and one tricolor cartridge for $31.99. That's two dollars more than the cost of the actual printer. HP's ink and toner section of its Web site says new tricolor cartrages delivers more color ink printouts than the starter tricolor cartridge, but it's a minimal increase; the replacement offers 165 pages versus the 150 in the starter cartridge. The black replacements promise the same 200 page yield as the starter.

There you go: you save $2 by buying a second printer instead of buying replacement cartridges. Too bad old printers aren't an alternative fuel.

Lexmark X2600 - Myth Busted

A Lexmark representative recently told me that the company currently ships standard yield cartridges with their boxed printers. That means you can get just as much ink when buying a new printer as you do when purchasing normal replacement cartridges.

The Lexmark X2600 is available at Wal-Mart for $44. A combo package of ink for the X2600 currently costs $39.98 at Wal-Mart. It's close, but unless Wal-Mart puts that Lexmark printer on sale you're paying $4 more by buying a new printer instead of ink.

The Mythical $15 Printer

Replacing ink cartridges with an entire printer becomes even more tempting when the price of a printer drops to almost single digits. While I couldn't find a ridiculously cheap inkjet printer, I am sure they are out there. Last year Fry's was selling a Canon photo printer for $15 after a $30 mail-in rebate. Of course, that's a lot of trouble to go to for getting cheap printer ink, but then again we are in the middle of a recession, so every dollar counts.

That anonymous photo blogger from Digg claimed he was saving almost eight dollars by buying a new Canon printer with free ink rather than replacement cartridges. Did the new printer have the same amount of ink as the replacement cartridges?

I couldn't confirm that the amount of ink in the cartridges that came with a new Canon printer the Digger bought is the same as what you would get in a replacement cartridge. When I contacted a Canon USA representative for details about printer cartridge yields, I was told I should speak with a product representative at the company's worldwide headquarters in Japan. So far, I haven't received a response.

Right now the Digg example needs to be classified as unknown.

Razors and Razor blades

So what are we to make of a scenario where printer ink can cost almost as much as a new printer and sometimes even more? People in the printer industry will tell you it comes down to the old razor and razor blade scenario where a company sells you a razor (printer) for next to nothing, and then makes up the money lost on the razor by selling you the razor blades (printer ink) at a higher price. That may not make you feel any better when you're shelling out cash at the till, but at least you'll know why you're spending so much on printer ink.

Moving Forward

The bigger question is this: Does it really make practical sense to purchase a new printer every time you need more ink? You also need to keep in mind the quality printer you are buying. Despite what the inkjet makers say, buying the least expensive inkjet printer typically delivers the least impressive printouts and images.

I suppose if you really wanted to follow the Earth Killer Method of replacing your ink, you could. But that means you'd have to haul a giant printer box home or get it delivered, unwrap the box, throw out all that Styrofoam, plastic, and paper, and then figure out what you're going to do with all those extra printers.

It's not a very practical solution, not to mention the pressure you'd put on the nation's landfills with all that extra garbage. So instead of risking the fury of Al Gore, it would be better to shop smarter and change your printing habits to maximize your printer's output.

Upscale Your Printer

Lexmark recently launched a new line of printers where you pay a higher price for the actual device, and then you save when it comes to buying replacement ink. But that's assuming you'll be printing in black and white most of the time. You can pick up a new Lexmark Platinum Pro905 or Prestige Pro805 multifunction printer starting at $220 (I found the Pro805 online at B&H for $219).

These two printers come with free high-yield ink cartridges that promise about 510 pages for black ink, and three included color cartridges (yellow, cyan, and magenta) will give you about 200 pages. After the initial ink runs out you you can get 105XL high yield black ink cartridges for just $4.99, while the three separate color cartridges will cost you $10 each.

If you print 1650 pages only in black ink, the total cost, including the Pro805 printer, will be $234. That's actually cheaper than you're likely to pay for an inkjet printer and all the replacement cartridges you need to print the same amount of pages.

Other Cost-cutting Options

If you can't bring yourself to pay $200 for a printer, how about ditching that fancy brand name ink, and going with a store brand instead? The downside to the no name strategy is sometimes your printer won't be able to measure the ink in the generic cartridges, and the machine will think you're running out of ink every time you try to print something. Some people have also found that a printer just won't work unless it's loaded with brand name ink. So there are risks to taking the generic route.

If your printer allows you to adjust its resolution, try downgrading to 300 dpi (dots per inch) or less. That will still give you a readable print out, but will slow down your printer's thirst for ink. You should also use the preview option before printing off documents to save on those accidental misprints. And of course, always ask yourself if you really need a physical copy of your document before hitting print. If you stop and think about it, you'll surprise yourself with how many ways you can save on printing costs.

Got any more tips for saving on printer ink ? Let us know in the comments.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
Topics: Printers
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