As everyone knows, manufactures give away printers almost free in exchange for the steady revenue of expensive, tiny ink cartridges. That’s the “give the razor, sell the blades” strategy for the new economy, and it works. I use my printer less and less, but I still print enough pages in a year to go through an alarming number of high-priced disposable ink cartridges. The pain is not just overpriced cartridges; the machines rarely allow cartridges to fully empty, vastly decreasing their actual efficiency. (See this PC World article which says as much as 60% of the ink is wasted.)
I’m sick of surrendering to this economically and environmentally costly habit, so I set out to find the most cost-effective inkjet printer I could find.
Printer models are on a fast cycle of obsolescence, so there is little across-the-board comprehensive testing for ink cartridge efficiency. Based on manufacturer’s specs and the comparative testing by PC World magazine, my research points to the HP Officejet K5400 as having the most cost-efficient ink supply right now. The estimated cost per page of black ink for the K5400 is 1.4 cents, and color is 5.9 cents per page. My previous printer ran 10 times that. I have not been able to find a lower page rate for any other desktop machine.
The bulkier the ink container the more likely the cost per page will be lower. In my studio I have a workhorse of a printer, the Epson 3000, now 15 years old, that uses big fat bulk ink cartridges. I use this industrial printer for printing large scale photographs, but I can print a decade’s worth of office printing on a single cartridge — and have. You can buy one of these venerable machines used, and still get cartridges, but the beast is the size of one-yard steamer trunk. It’s overkill for most folks. Alternatively, there are kits which you can purchase to modify your desktop printer using fine capillary tubes connected to exterior ink bottles to drastically lower ink costs. Yeah, it works, but it’s a messy hack, and you’d need to be printing a real lot to warrant it.
The Officejet K5400 is a decent compromise. It costs $130 (as I write). I’ve been using it for three months now and am delighted with its performance. It prints extremely fast, faster than any desktop printer I’ve seen. It runs reliably, and prints with near laser-quality for office stuff. It’s not the ideal photo printer, but does okay. Most importantly, judging from the ink status box, after 3 months I still have 80% of the ink in the first set of cartridges left. But this unit is not small. It’s about the size of a roller carry-on luggage. I expect to get 10 years out of it.
A true evaluation of printing costs should include the cost of the printer, amortized over the number of pages printed in its lifetime. For some people with very minimal printing needs, the price of expensive ink cartridges is canceled by the zero cost of a free printer. Go for it! For those who need to print more, such as contracts, manuscripts, maps and other currently unavoidable paper copies, the HP Officejet 5400 is the most cost-efficient way to deal with ink.