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.