There’s a rather snarky piece in today’s Technology Guardian, moaning about how computer magazines don’t dare talk about the cost of printer cartridges. The writer obviously doesn’t read computer magazines – here’s some excerpts from a piece I did for PC Plus in 2004, and similar pieces are in the tech press all the time.

Inkjet printers have plummeted in price, and if you buy even a cheap PC you’ll often get a state-of-the-art inkjet for free. However, as with mobile phones and razor blades, it’s not the hardware that hurts: it’s the cost of using it.

For printer manufacturers, the cost of consumables is the story that won’t go away. In 2002, the Office of Fair Trading investigated allegations that printer ink was a rip-off, and concluded that manufacturers needed to provide more information about the cost and longevity of replacement cartridges; in 2003 Which? Magazine reported that some inks were more expensive than the very best vintage champagne, and in early 2004 the story was resurrected all over again. This time the story came from a specialist magazine whose editor warned that “consumers are still at serious risk of being ripped off”. The magazine calculated the running costs of several inkjet printers and concluded that one particular model, a £35 Lexmark inkjet, would cost a staggering £1,775 over an 18 month period.

There’s no doubt that the Lexmark in question – the z605 photo printer – is expensive to run: Lexmark suggests that you can expect 205 pages from a £15 black cartridge or 140 pages from a colour cartridge, also £15. However, while £1,775 makes a good headline the z605 is marketed as a low volume printer for home users; to spend that much money on ink, you’d need to replace both ink cartridges 57 times. That’s a replacement black cartridge and a replacement colour cartridge every nine and a half days, with a print volume of more than 1,000 pages per month.

If you opt for a bottom of the range inkjet with low capacity ink cartridges to handle that sort of volume, you need your head examined.

We’re all familiar with the way in which mobile phones and razor blades are sold: when you buy a mobile, most of the purchase price is subsidised by the manufacturer and recouped over the course of your contract – which is why you can pick up a new Nokia for nothing on certain tariffs, but if you want one without a SIM card you’ll pay several hundred pounds. Similarly, when you buy a Mach 3 razor it’s being sold at a loss; the manufacturer gets its money back when you’ve bought several packs of replacement blades. These days, printers are sold in exactly the same way. “HP has publicly announced its need to make 15% profit for its printer business and this is collectively achieved through hardware and consumables sales,” says [HP’s] Grice.

If your printer costs £50, you can guarantee that the manufacturer isn’t making money on the sale; that 15% profit has to come from somewhere, and in most cases it’s recouped from sales of ink cartridges. Because of this, the retail price of a printer isn’t the key cost: it’s not what you pay now, but what you’ll pay over a year, two years or three years that’s important.





0 responses to “Printing”

  1. Uninformed reporting in The Guardian? Gasp!! Whatever next? Bias at the BBC?? I await your next bulletin anxiously.

  2. Gary

    Heh. It just annoyed me because there’s been a few digs at tech writers in the technology guardian of late.

  3. I’ve always thought the pricing model’s fair enough. What does piss me off, though, is the way an HP printer won’t print in black-and-white when it’s run out of colour ink. That is just taking the piss.

  4. Gary


    To be fair, before the OFT intervened in 2002 the manufacturers weren’t exactly forthcoming about page yields (and even now you have to be careful, because different firms use different coverage rates when calculating their yield figures). But if you do your homework you’ll save a fortune.

  5. tm

    Hmm. Go and look at the build quality and materials of most of the cheap printers lined up in PC world or somewhere and then tell me again they’re not making a profit at 50 quid…

    That must be some really gold plated firmware its running ;-)

    I think the pricing model is fair enough too, but only if you can actually tell what you’re getting for you’re money. That is far easier with razor blades than ink cartidiges. Which I think was Garys point.

  6. david

    One thing about printer ink – HP especially – is that the cartridges are designed to stop working before they are empty. So if you buy 5ml of ink you cannot use 5ml of ink. Defending this it was claimed that it was to prevent goop from jamming the nozzles when nearly empty.

    I think at one point inkjet ink was in the top 5 most expensive materials on earth – beating most precious metals.

  7. Gary

    Are you sure about the stop working thing? I’ve had cartridge empty warnings with HPs that are far too early, but I’ve never had a problem running cartridges until there’s sod-all left.

  8. david

    They might have stopped the practice after the lawsuit/pr.