The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing

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Pay It Again, Sam: Ink Costs Can Dwarf Printer Prices

It's no big secret that the ink jet printer business is based on the razor-and-blade economic model: Once you invest in the printer, you're stuck with the ongoing costs of the consumables--in this case, the ink and paper--needed to actually use it. Printer manufacturers rely on such sales to subsidize the relatively low costs of today's ink jets. Does that mean a cheaper printer could wind up costing you more?

To help us find out, the Rochester Institute of Technology's Imaging Products Lab performed page-yield tests on five current ink jets from four major vendors, ranging in price from $40 (Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 3520) to $180 (HP Deskjet 6122). Based on those tests and the manufacturers' Web site prices for ink jet cartridges, we calculated ink costs for a page of plain text and a page of text with color graphics, then determined how much you'd spend on the printer and ink (after you'd used up the cartridges that came with the printer) for 500 and 3000 printed pages (half of them with black text only, and half with text and color graphics).

We found that at the 500-page mark (using replacement cartridges), the total cost for each printer ranked in the same order as the printer's purchase price. But after 3000 pages, the total cost for Lexmark's Z605 added up to $517, a pack-leading figure that belied its $50 bargain purchase price; the $130 Canon i560 had the lowest total cost, at $298.

IPL's tests assume 5 percent coverage per color on an 80-square-inch printing area; ink costs would likely rise more quickly if you print photos. Infrequent printers might wait years to recoup the cost of a more expensive printer that uses cheaper ink. But that printer might also have a lot more features and produce nicer-looking prints--something to think about when you buy your next ink jet.

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