The Myth of the "Inexpensive" Printer

It's time for a new printer for your small office. A quick look at the web sites for any of the big-box electronic retailers reveals a huge variety of choices, from major manufacturers. Often they are bundled together with copiers, scanners, and even fax machines. Sometimes the initial cost is ridiculously low -- under $80, in some cases.

What a bargain, right?

Well, maybe not. The printer manufacturers are taking a page from the cell phone makers: A new iPhone can set you back $700 if you actually buy it outright, but if you get a two-year service plan with a big carrier, suddenly that price drops to a fraction of the original sales figure. Sometimes, and with some models, it drops to zero. The telcomms know that while they're taking a loss on the initial hardware sale, they'll make all that money back (and more) on monthly charges.

Same with that $69 All-in-One printer. It's unlikely the manufacturer is making much (if any) money on the purchase, but what about the ink cartridges? For a home user, a cartridge might last months, but for an office? Get ready to replace that cartridge, and often. Soon, you'll have spent more than the printer itself, and that's what the manufacturer is counting on.

Ever taken a really close look an ink cartridge? There's not much material in there. About 20 mL, on average (a ketchup packet from a fast food restaurant has about 25 mL, for comparison purposes). And yet it can cost $30, sometimes more. While apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult, that can come out $5,000 per liter, making it almost certainly the most expensive liquid in your house! (Chanel No. 5 perfume is about $3,000/L, and Dom Perignon '03 is about $300/L)

Let's face it, ink printer cartridges, at least the ones that use separate inks, function pretty much the same way. Yet there are literally hundreds of different models, and your printer will usually work only with the ones designed for your printer. Even a tiny difference in model numbers can make the cartridges incompatible. You have very little choice except to pay the manufacturer up to $50 per cartridge. Refills? Well, some people swear by them, but just as many swear at them. They void your warranty, they often make a mess, and they pretty much never work as well as the OEM cartridges.

In fact, a PCWorld analysis from 2012 shows that there is an inverse relationship between the cost of the printer and the cost of replacement cartridges; For printer that retailed for more than $200, the ink cost per page was 3.9 cents for black and white, and 8.3 cents for color. For the cheaper printers, which retailed for less than $200, the costs per page jumped to 5.5 cents and 8.9 respectively.

That adds up. After just one ream of paper (250 sheets), you're already looking at $4.00 difference. How much paper do you go through?

"Ah," you're saying, "You left out the ink that comes with the new printer! That could add up to a hundred bucks in savings right there!" Well, it might... or it might not. Many inexpensive printers come with so-called "starter" cartridges, usually marked "not for resale." This is because they have a fraction of the ink that their replacement cartridges boast. Sometimes they'll handle as a little as 100 pages before running dry.

AIO units are very tempting, and for the smallest of uses, can represent a real bargain. For people who print a lot of photographs, they're very hard to beat. But be sure to be realistic about your printing and copying needs, and if you're like a lot of small-to-medium businesses, leasing a professional-grade unit from industry leaders like Canon or Kyocera makes good economic sense.

Ameritel is here to help you make the right decision, something we've been doing for Washington-area businesses for almost 30 years.

Categories: Printers