Printer ink: Tired of feeding the cash cow?

Inkjet refills typically cost significantly more than the printer itself.

Human blood costs about $17.27 an ounce, silver about $34 an ounce. But both are bargains compared to the ink sold to the owners of inkjet printers, which can exceed $80 an ounce. Meanwhile, the ink used to print newspapers costs about 16 cents an ounce.

Today, color inkjet technology offers essentially photo-realistic output from consumer or home-office printers that cost less than $100. But even those who print out as few as 20 pages a week will probably have to buy several ink refills a year, at minimum, costing way more than the original price of the printer. Those who understand the issues can avoid the worst shocks. (See "Shopping advice," below.)

"Everyone complains about the price of ink, but consumers do not do a net-present-value analysis when shopping -- we only do it with higher-ticket items," explains Federico De Silva, an analyst at Gartner, a market research firm. "They are going for a $49 printer, but when they have to refill it they realize they are spending $50 to $60 just on ink."

Shopping advice

The rule of thumb is that, generally, the more expensive the printer the less expensive the refill ink, sources agree. But there is no cross-over point, or a printer price at which you can expect minimal ink prices, because multiple factors, such as print speed, can affect the machine's price.

For the best deal, know your needs when printer shopping, and establish the cartridge yields of the units you are considering. So for instance, if you print 100 pages a week, that's more than 5,000 a year; with a low-end machine with 400-page yields you may have to refill monthly. Picking the right machine can save you hundreds of dollars over its life. If you print two pages per week, ink is a non-issue.

Be careful about using higher print resolutions, as doing so drives up ink consumption exponentially, but the difference in quality may not be visible to the unaided eye, says Andy Slawetsky, head of Industry Analysts, a research firm in the print industry. For instance, Kodak's inkjets have a default setting of 600 by 1200 dots per inch and can optionally be set as high as 9600 dots per inch, but the difference is often indistinguishable, says Rod Eslinger, comparative advertising manager at Kodak.

Thom Brown, a supplies technology specialist at HP, suggests that inkjet owners leave their machines on. The printers will go into sleep mode and do print head cleaning in the background as required, he notes. But if they are turned off between use they may launch a major priming and cleaning cycle when turned back on, wasting ink each time.

Some OEM cartridges have expiration dates built into their chips, and cannot be installed after that date, warns Slawetsky. Buying cartridges in bulk at a discount may be self-defeating for such machines, he warns, as a cartridge may expire before it is needed.

An often overlooked issue is durability, or how long it takes the ink to fade. For example, Wilhelm Imaging Research in Grinnell, Iowa, rates the ink from most OEMs as likely to outlive the owner by decades when used to print photos that will be displayed under glass. But all third-party refill ink for HP cartridges that it has tested fade noticeably within a year. As for unlit archival storage, Brown at HP said the issue is really the choice of paper, since yellowing is a bigger problem than fading.

"The industry figured out years ago that once people buy a printer they are committed to it, so you can sell the printer at or below cost knowing they will buy the cartridges," adds Charles Lecompte, head of Lyra Research, a market research firm in Newton, Mass. "We think they are selling the cartridges for several times more than it costs to make them."

Why? "Printer prices have hit rock bottom, and the manufacturers are trying to somehow make up for the money they are not making from the hardware," says Seheje Saraphy, analyst at market research firm IDC.

At Hewlett-Packard, the world's top-selling printer maker, justifying the price is not a problem. "There's a lot of technology in ink," says Thom Brown, a supplies technology specialist at HP. "It's more than colored water; there are more than a dozen different ingredients."

Aside from leaving a mark on paper, the ink has to remain unchanged in the cartridge for two years or more, and endure the heat and pressure of being shot through a microscopic hole in the print head after being heated suddenly to 300 degrees Celsius, he explains. The ink must then travel the equivalent of a quarter falling 30 stories, hit the paper and not bounce, dry instantly and not fade for decades.

"It takes three to five years to develop one new ink formulation and a thousand prototype printers, since there are so many iterations in the process," Brown adds.

But Veneeta Eason, Kodak's director of future product marketing, sees HP's justification as a market opportunity. "When we entered the inkjet market several years we saw that the number one dissatisfier was the high cost of ink -- printer prices were dropping while ink prices were going up," she recalls. So Kodak decided to offer printers that cost somewhat more with cartridges that cost less, largely thanks to the print head being in the printer rather than on the cartridge.

"The model works," Eason says, and Kodak has seen its inkjet revenue grow 39% year over year, according to its latest quarterly figures. (That said, keep in mind that Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection .)

Your mileage may vary

Brown at HP also makes the point that buyers should not pay attention to the ink's cost per ounce -- not just because it's unnerving, but because the total cost per page is a more useful metric. Anyway, of the major manufacturers, only HP and Canon list the weight of their cartridge contents. In contrast, all the manufacturers publish the expected page yield of their cartridges, online if not on the box. Even then, the buyers must calculate the cost per page themselves and then decide how relevant the page-yield data is.

All the major printer makers use the ISO 24711 standard to establish page yields. The procedure is to install new, full cartridges and start printing out a suite of five documents until there is noticeable fading, or the machine announces that it is out of ink.

The ISO suite consists of a business letter; a newsletter page with some text blocks with background color and a color photo that's less than 2 x 2 inches; two pages of large color charts and graphs, and a color registration page. According to Lexmark product literature, the ISO documents are designed to give each color 5% coverage, averaged across all five pages. If you are printing family photos, coverage may far exceed 5% per color. If you are printing e-mails, coverage may be lower and will mostly involve black ink.

A note concerning prices

  • The $17.27 per ounce cost of blood is based on figures for 2008 (the latest available) by the American Association of Blood Banks, for a one-pint (16-ounce) unit of blood, adding a 5.5% yearly cost increase since 2008. Note that this is a cost, not a price; human blood is not sold on the open market, but there are processing costs.
  • The price of ink per ounce was determined using the listed retail price of the cartridge divided by the stated weight of the contents, when given, assuming that the specific gravity of ink approximates water so that a milliliter equals 0.0338 ounces. A random sample of 33 averaged $45.40 for ounce, ranging from $17.90 to $80.63.
  • The cost of newspaper ink (about $2.50 per pound for black) was supplied by the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers.
  • The price of silver was established in early March at http://silverprice.org .

Also, most people don't do all their printing in one session, and their machines stand idle for long periods. During those periods an inkjet will occasionally come to life and perform print head cleaning, consuming additional ink. Sources agree that there is no rule of thumb about how much ink is lost this way, but the ISO test does not take it into account.

In other words, as they say in the car ads, your mileage may vary.

But accepting the standard as a basis for comparison, a random sampling of 33 black ink cartridges have published yields ranging from 175 to 2,400 pages, with the average being 661. Nine have page counts in the 400s. The cost per page (dividing the retail price by the yield) ranges from 1.6 cents to 15.4 cents, with the average being 5.9 cents. The average retail price of the black cartridges is $25.26.

Keep in mind that a full refill will require at least one and perhaps three more cartridges for color (non-black colors are sometimes combined in a cartridge) and the price of each may be comparable to that of the black cartridge. Some printers shut down completely even if only one color runs out, or, if you're able to press on, you risk ruining the print head fed by the ink cartridge that has gone dry.

Third-party ink

Meanwhile, in response to the high costs, a third-party cartridge industry has arisen based mostly on refilling recycled cartridges made by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and collected through various channels. Lyra's Lecompte estimates that a third of cartridges selling at retail are refilled, often selling for half the original price.

But reservations about refilling are widespread, and include leaking, streaking, print head failures and unmatched colors. "I usually don't get good results out of refilled cartridges," says Andy Slawetsky, head of Industry Analysts, a research firm in the print industry, located in Rochester, NY. "I don't recommend it with color, since it is tough to get good calibration."

"The quality is not quite as good since it is used equipment," says Lecompte.

Indeed, Micro Solutions Enterprises (MSE), a refilled toner cartridge supplier in Van Nuys, Calif., got out of the refill ink business two years ago because quality was hard to maintain, says Luke Goldberg, MSE vice president. MSE promotes the reputation of its refurbished laser toner cartridges, but maintaining the same quality with ink cartridges proved too difficult -- there were too many leaking cartridges, too many that left streaks on the page, and other failures, Goldberg says.

Ironically, by getting out of the business MSE was also reacting to a trend toward lower cartridge prices, as more machines have the print head built into the body rather than in the cartridge, Goldberg added. (A Hewlett-Packard spokesman said that its cheapest cartridge with an integrated print head retails for about $15, while those without print heads start at about $10 and are usually found in more expensive printers.)

On the other hand, online third-party refill ink vendor Castle Ink of Greenlawn, NY, is still in the business. Spokesman Bill Elward acknowledges that quality is a challenge, and that there are refillers who skate over the issue, giving the others a bad name. His firm has gone through four suppliers since 2005 looking for low defect rates, he says.

"The average cartridge can be refilled at most six times, but for quality control the best practice is to not refill more than three times," Elward notes. "But there are refillers who push it to the limit."

There are also third-party vendors that make their own copycat cartridges, risking patent infringement lawsuits. Goldberg explains that sticking to empty OEM cartridges is legally safe due to the principal of patent exhaustion, which says that after the OEM has sold its patented product the subsequent owners can do whatever they please with it. Elward notes that his firm sticks to OEM cartridges, but, since the supply depends on empties getting collected, various print-cartridge models often go in and out of stock.

Meanwhile, Goldberg also notes that some manufacturers put chips on some of their cartridges to identify them to the printer -- and to prevent the machine from using third-party cartridges that lack the chip. Refillers often find work-arounds, but the process may take two years, he says. By that time, a printer manufacturer may have upgraded its models and the cartridges needed for it.

Phoenix Ink of Sarasota, Fla., represents a different approach: It supplies stores with ink-refill kiosks. Customers bring in their own empty cartridges for refilling, generally spending half what they would spend for a new cartridge, says the firm's president, David Scanlan.

"Used cartridges are a commodity and everyone is after them, so the prices fluctuate dramatically," he notes. Phoenix Ink gets its ink from Kodak, and is able to service about 200 different cartridge models with nine different inks, he adds.

As for color matching, most "people don't care about that, and anyway if I put our samples in front of you alongside the OEM samples, I would be surprised if you could say which was which," says Scanlan.

Clouded future

But as it turns out, defending ink prices is not the biggest problem facing the OEMs -- it's that the market for inexpensive inkjet printers isn't growing, apparently because those who buy them have less and less use for them.

"Photo printing in the home was a fad, and now they go to Wal-Mart for prints, or just upload their vacation photos to social media," notes Gartner's De Silva. "Then there were recipes from the Internet, and maps, but those moved over to smartphones and tablets . More and more material is being produced specifically for the Internet and is not suitable for printing. The inkjet market is still large, but is not growing," he adds.

In response, the major vendors are mostly moving to more sophisticated machines that would appeal to businesses, offering Internet-connected units that can print images sent to them from mobile devices, De Silva says. They also have processors that run apps that connect to cloud services, and run various kinds of document-related software -- and have ink tanks instead of cartridges, he adds.

And while laser printers typically cost more -- although prices continue falling -- lasers offer something that inkjets can't compete with: printouts with a crisp sheen, thanks to the heated roller used in the laser process.

"There is the perception that if I am printing a business proposal I want it to shine," says Industry Analysts' Slawetsky. "They feel that a laser is a more business-class machine, and having laser output shows that I am with a real company with a real printer. But photos come off better from an inkjet, and today's office inkjets give better results than the photo inkjets of just a few years ago. There's room for both." (Sources also agree that the best per-page cost can usually be had with a small, low-end monochrome laser printer.)

But don't expect the manufacturers to shore up their market by cutting ink prices. "That boat left the dock many years ago," De Silva says.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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