Published on October 19, 2009 11:00 PM

How much does that printer really cost?

We took six very different printers--colour, mono, inkjet, laser …--and we worked out how long they'd take to run for three years. We found some surprisingly similar results, apart from one star that ended up at half of the cost of almost all the others!

Printers are like mobile phones: when you buy one, you're not just paying for the productitself , but signing up for ongoing service.  In this case though, your contract is for ink and toner cartridges rather than minutes and text messages.  Just about all of the manufacturers are prepared to admit that they don't actually make much money from the sales of printers themselves, for which you more or less pay the cost price.  That means that they have to work hard to recoup their costs after the fact.

This financial reality can often lead to some annoying trends.  To make sure you'll come back for more as soon as possible, printer makers have taken to supplying new laser printers with what they rather politely term 'starter' cartridges.  In many cases, that means they're only half full!  That lead us to ask what might like a fairly innocuous question: how much does owning a printer today really cost?

Our six test printers

Kodak ESP3 Lexmark Platinum Pro905 Brother HL-2035

We decided to start with two inkjet printers, one of which is particularly well known for being economical, the Kodak ESP 3.  Its black cartridge costs just £6.99 and can produce up to 350 pages.

Or at least it was until we saw the Lexmark Platinum Pro905.  Lexmark has produced this very high-end multifunction printer that's so expensive that a lot of stores don't even carry it.  It's got a whole series of great features, but the big news is that it costs less than a penny per page.  The largest capacity black cartridge costs just £3.98 and can produce 510 pages.  The printer also enjoys a five year guarantee, a large touchscreen interface, a fax machine, a document loader and an Internet connection.  In short, it's a real star.

Next, let's take a look at laser printers.  We started with a small, entry-level model, the Brother HL-2035.  Can a laser printer for under £100 really be good value?  If you don't use it a lot, it can be.  But we wanted to see if it could handle 'normal' printing needs.

HP Color LaserJet CP1215 Samsung CLX-3175FW Dell 2335dn

The small HP CP1215 is one of the cheapest colour laser printers available.  It isn't very expensive to buy, but the cartridges that come with it are only half-full.

The Samsung 3175FW is a multifunction colour laser.  That makes a more realistic competitor of the Lexmark Pro905--except that its biggest cartridges hold enough toner for 1500 pages, not 500, so you'll spend less time changing them. 

Finally, the Dell 2335dn only offers printing in black-and-white, which is in general more economical than colour printing.  Although it doesn't have colour, or any of the other extra features like the five-year guarantee, touchscreen or Internet connectivity, putting it up against the Lexmark Pro905 makes for an interesting comparison: which will wind up cheaper?  If the inkjet printer takes the crown, that would be a very challenging finding for laser manufacturers. 

The Results: the Lexmark Impact Pro905 takes the lead

In the table below, the blue column shows how much it would cost you to buy the printer today.  Then in red, we add that to the cost of buying enough cartridges to print 36 000 pages, less the capacity of the cartridges that ship with the printer.  Or, to put it another way, the red bar is an indication of how much you'll have to shell out to produce 36 000 black-and-white A4 pages.

Interestingly, all but two of the printers cost over £1000 across the course of their working lives, with the only exceptions being the Kodak ESP 3, and, more impressively, the Lexmark Impact Pro905, which is almost half the price of some of its competitors when it's printing in black-and-white. 
It's interesting to see what Lexmark is doing here, as it represents an almost total change in the traditional business model for printers.  Another graph shows this even more clearly.  How much of the total cost of each of these printers is made up by their cartridges?

The chart above shows very clearly the situation that we mentioned in the introduction: you're not buying a printer, but a reason to buy supplies for it, which can sometimes reach over 90% of the total cost of ownership.

Don't forget the electricity

Another factor that we completely ignored in these calculations was the cost of the electricity needed to keep these printers going.  We haven't yet had a chance to examine the Lexmark Pro905, but we have looked at one of its close relatives, the S305, which has the same motor.  The printing speeds and the quality of the documents produces are the same on both models, and so it's reasonable to assume that they will use as much power.  The S305 uses 15 W while printing and 3 W while on standby.  The Dell 2335dn, on the other hand, is nowhere near as reasonable.  It reaches 850 W while printing, and only falls back to 12.4 W on standby.

> Product Survey: Laser Printers

> Product Survey: Multifunction Printers

> Product Face-Offs: Printers

Our Trial: Professional Printing
For this simulation, we imagined a professional user. We imagined that an individual or a small team would go through two reams of paper per month for three years. In that time, our fictional office will have got through 36 000 black-and-white pages.

We calculated the cost of printing 36 000 pages using the prices for cartridges and toner provided by manufacturers and available online from reputable suppliers like Amazon. We also looked at how the printer cost to buy, and how many pages you can print with the cartridges that ship with the printer. At the end, we had a total cost for each printer.
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