There are a couple of different opinions floating around right now on how to best measure the cost of printing with an inkjet printer when it pertains to the ink. In these tight economic times, determining that cost has everything to do with how often you need to replace “consumables” like ink and paper.
In 2007, Kodak began its aggressive “Print and Prosper” campaign, which claimed that consumers could save “up to 50 percent” on ink costs while using Kodak’s inkjet printers compared to printers from other manufacturers. There is even a Kodak site complete with an “overpayment calculator” that presents the savings you could earn by going with one of their printers.
HP, as expected, did not take such claims from a rival lying down. To combat what it called “misleading information,” HP aimed to debunk Kodak’s claims through its own campaign, which it calls “The Truth Behind Printing”.
To look into this hotly contested issue further, I decided to use the ongoing dispute between HP and Kodak as the basis for Demystifying Digital’s own printing output and ink tests. Without a fully operational lab at my disposal, the testing is fairly unscientific, but my aim was to emulate the conditions in which most consumers would print their documents. Also, to broaden the scope of the testing, I’ve included Canon and Epson into the mix as well.
Further to that, my analysis takes into account other factors that are overlooked by Kodak and HP:
- The cost of the printer hardware itself
- The cost of consumables (ink and paper)
- Recycling options for spent ink cartridges
The all-in-one (AiO) printers used for this test include the following (including prices):
HP Photosmart C6380 ($199.99)
Kodak EasyShare ESP 7 ($199.99)
Canon Pixma MX850 ($199.99)
Epson Workforce 600 ($199.99)
Having all four of these at the same price is a great starting point because it makes it a bit easier to discern what cost savings, if any, you might expect from these four printers. Of the four, Kodak is the only one that uses a single color ink cartridge. The others split the colors into three separate cartridges (cyan, magenta and yellow). Black ink is a standalone cartridge for all of these models.
The Cost of Ink
Kodak charges $14.99 for one color ink cartridge (which is five colors combined) and $9.99 for a black ink cartridge. They can be purchased together for $24.98, which means you save no money when buying them together in a pack. The Premium Photo Value Pack contains 135 4×6 sheets of Kodak’s Premium Photo Paper and a color ink cartridge will cost $19.99. The regular Photo Value Pack with 180 sheets of standard Kodak Photo Paper and a color ink cartridge is just $2 cheaper at $17.99.
HP charges $9.99 for each color ink cartridge (cyan, magenta and yellow) for the C6380 (#564 ink under HP’s specs). You can also buy them together in a 3-pack for $26.99. A black cartridge alone is also $9.99. HP’s Photo Value Pack of 150 4×6 sheets of its Advanced Photo Paper and all four ink cartridges will run you $35.99.
Canon charges $14.99 for each color ink cartridge (cyan, magenta and yellow) for the MX850, and the black ink costs the same as well. There is also a pigment black ink cartridge that costs $17.25. Buying all of them together in a value pack can be as high as $52.99 — but that doesn’t include the pigment black cartridge or any photo paper.
Epson charges $16.99 for each high-capacity color ink cartridge and $19.99 for a high-capacity black ink cartridge. The high-capacity cartridges are meant to give you 50 percent more prints, but since I was given standard capacity cartridges for all the printers, I focused on those to make this test as fair as possible.
For the Workforce 600, Epson charges $12.99 for each standard capacity color cartridge, and $16.99 for a standard black ink cartridge. I wasn’t able to find a value pack for the standard cartridges.
The starter ink cartridges that come with a new printer are typically very low-yield, meaning that you will drain them quickly when you start printing photos or color documents. I can’t accurately say how much they can print.
Kodak’s claims are largely based on these low-yield cartridges, which you can expect to run out fairly quickly, even if you don’t print that often. HP’s claims are based on standard capacity cartridges, which offer higher yields.
But neither of these companies mention the total cost of buying the printer hardware or the various types of photo paper available. Buying a new printer usually doesn’t include any photo paper, which can add to the overall cost of the unit several times over, depending on volume of sheets and the separate sizes you want (i.e. 4×6 and 8.5×11). Both companies, for obvious reasons, don’t delve into the residual costs of consumables like ink and paper.
Replacing Empty Cartridges
Part of the problem with Kodak’s claims is that they don’t consider that batches of printed photos may draw more ink from one color. After printing up to 30 4×6 prints with the ESP 7 of a trip I took to Egypt, the yellow ink levels had noticeably gone down. The reason why, of course, is because all the desert sand and stone at the ancient sites were tinged with yellow. Similar results came from printing a lot of photos taken at the beach. The blue skies and water took more out of the cyan levels.
This helped HP, Canon and Epson because only a single cartridge needed to be replaced if one color ran out. But the cost of replacing just one color for these three printers ranges from $9.99 to $14.99. Kodak’s 5-ink color cartridge is $14.99. So, the cost difference is only really apparent if you have to replace cartridges often.
Suppose you print photos so often that you had to replace the color and black cartridges for each of these printers four times over the course of a year after you bought the printer. For Kodak, it would cost approximately $100 to do that — and that’s not including the photo paper value packs they offer.
For HP, each of the four cartridges would have to be replaced four times over, so if you had to buy them in 3-packs along with a black cartridge, you would be looking at a cost of $36.98 x 4 for a total of $147.92. If you were to opt for the Photo Value Pack each time, your total cost is actually slightly less at $143.96. Getting 150 sheets of 4×6 paper for almost $4 less is a pretty good bonus.
Canon’s ink, even if you bought the value pack each time, would cost as much as $211.96. That doesn’t even include the pigment black ink cartridges, which are $17.25 apiece. No photo paper has been factored into all this, so we’re just talking ink in this case.
Epson offers DURAbrite color ink in a value pack, as those are meant to be higher quality inks, but let’s assume you just want the basic standard capacity stuff. At $12.99 for each color ink cartridge and $16.99 for each black one, the grand total would come to $223.84. Again, no paper is factored into this.
Let’s remember that this is just a gauge. Over the course of one year, it’s hard to say whether the average consumer would need to replace the cartridges as many as four times. It’s also debatable that each individual color would need to be replaced an equal number of times. Hence, why I reiterate that this test is pretty unscientific. But even if it was half that, the costs are certainly nothing to scoff at, since they are a considerable fraction of the initial cost of the printer itself. Not to mention that these costs generally don’t include other paper, especially expensive types like glossy 8.5×11 or brochure.
Other Factors that Come into Play
I discovered some interesting tidbits for each of these printers as well. Epson’s Workforce 600 refused to print a plain text document once one of the color cartridges needed replacing. Apparently, this is because a tiny amount of color ink is used for documents that are purely black and white. Canon’s Pixma MX850 was the only one that could print in monochrome even when a color ink cartridge was empty.
HP’s Photosmart C6380 took as much as 20 seconds before it actually loaded the paper to print. It also had a tendency to be louder than its competitors, but only before and after the print was finished. It was far quieter during the actual printing phase. Epson’s Workforce 600 took as much as 70 seconds to print a single 4×6 photo. Kodak’s ESP 7 print head needed cleaning sooner, and more often, than the other three. And Canon’s Pixma MX850 was easily the bulkiest of the four printers.
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that this test was unscientific, and part of the reason why is because printing needs and habits vary so much. A key component to that is the paper. Do most consumers print 4×6 photos on all-in-one printers, or are there a good number of 8.5×11 shots as well?
I don’t have any definitive data, but needless to say, outputting larger prints saps more of the ink. And this is even more pronounced when you have to print more than one of the same photo just to get the colors right. Calibrating your monitor with your printer can be done, but many consumers don’t bother. As a result, the print ultimately doesn’t match the photo onscreen.
Mac users will encounter this issue more than PC users because there are different gamma settings between the two platforms. So, printing a photo from a Mac may make it too light or too dark. This is part of the reason the printer manufacturers push their own software that comes with the printer.
Recycling Empty Cartridges
HP leads the pack with the widest and most convenient inkjet cartridge recycling program. Buying new cartridges usually includes a postage-paid envelope to send back an empty one. And if you don’t find one, you can always print out your own directly from the HP website. Drop it in a mailbox and you’re done.
Epson also offers a pretty seamless cartridge recycling program, though consumers are on the hook for any shipping charges. All it takes is to simply put the cartridge(s) into an envelope or a box and then send it over to Epson’s recycling address.
Canon seems to offer a highly acclaimed recycling program for toner cartridges used in laser printers, but its offerings for inkjet printers seem non-existent. The Canon U.S.A. website shows no indications of a program that deals specifically with inkjet printers. Staples, Best Buy and some other retailers usually accept empty ink cartridges for proper disposal, so there are at least those options.
And finally, there’s Kodak, which has partnered with a third-party recycler called Greentec to handle its take-back and recycling program. Retailers selling Kodak ink cartridges should have bins meant for them, as Greentec manages pickup, sorting and recycling.
The Bottom Line
The truth is, all four of these companies can take solace in the fact that they’re ink cartridges can typically handle the amount of paper that comes with them in those photo paper value pack bundles. That’s a pretty reasonable gauge of just how much you can expect to print, unless you tend to print on different types and sizes of paper. You may get over 100 sheets, but if more than half of the photos you’re printing are heavily skewed towards one color, then you may not be able to get through the whole stack without having to replace a cartridge or two.
Kodak’s claims are too narrow to be considered a real objective view of the cost of printing. But at least they’ve shown some transparency and opened up a debate about it. Even in HP’s rebuttal to Kodak’s claims, the cost of the printer hardware, and even the various types of photo paper, were ignored. In a debate about the “true cost of printing”, that omission certainly doesn’t serve the interests of the consumer.
Part of the problem I noticed when walking down the aisle of an electronics retailer is that printer hardware is practically being given away with prices under $100. If you bought a printer a year or two before, and it would cost you over half that price just to replace the ink and get some paper, would you opt to instead get rid of the old printer and get a new one for under $100?
Kodak hasn’t presented this argument outright, but I suspect they were positing it within their larger claims. If the cost of one of their printers is $199.99, like the ESP 7 is, and replacing the cartridges, say, twice, only costs $50, then it still costs less than doing the same thing with the other manufacturers’ printers.
That said, where HP is on the right track is on what should really count: quality. The quality of the prints matter most, especially if the output matches what you see onscreen. But, of course, quality is a subjective thing to consumers, which is perhaps why the debate focuses more on how much it costs to print — something arguably even more subjective for them.