SEARCH

How-To Geek

HTG Explains: Why is Printer Ink So Expensive?

printer-ink-cartridges

Printer ink is expensive, more expensive per drop than fine champagne or even human blood. If you haven’t gone paperless, you’ll notice that you’re paying a lot for new ink cartridges — more than seems reasonable.

Purchasing the cheapest inkjet printer and buying official ink cartridge replacements is the most expensive thing you can do. There are ways to save money on ink if you must continue to print documents.

Cheap Printers, Expensive Ink

Ink jet printers are often very cheap. That’s because they’re sold at cost, or even at a loss — the manufacturer either makes no profit from the printer itself or loses money.

The manufacturer will make most of its money from the printer cartridges you buy later. Even if the company does make a bit of money from each printer sold, it makes a much larger profit margin on ink. Rather than selling you a printer that may be rather expensive, they want to sell you a cheap printer and make money on an ongoing basis by providing expensive printer ink.

It’s been compared to the razor model — sell a razor cheaply and mark up the razor blades. Rather than making a one-time profit on the razor, you’ll make continuing profit as the customer keeps buying razor blade replacements — or ink, in this case.

Many printer manufacturers go out of their way to make it difficult for you to use unofficial ink cartridges, building microchips into their official ink cartridges. If you use an unofficial cartridge or refill an official cartridge, the printer may refuse to use it. Lexmark once argued in court that unofficial microchips that enable third-party ink cartridges would violate their copyright and Lexmark has argued that creating an unofficial microchip to bypass this restriction on third-party ink would violate Lexmark’s copyright and be illegal under the US DMCA. Luckily, they lost this argument.

printer-ink-cartridge-microchips

What Printer Companies Say

Printer companies have put forth their own arguments in the past, attempting to justify the high cost of official ink cartridges and microchips that block any competition.

In a Computer World story from 2010, HP argued that they spend a billion dollars each year on “ink research and development.” They point out that printer ink “must be formulated to withstand heating to 300 degrees, vaporization, and being squirted at 30 miles per hour, at a rate of 36,000 drops per second, through a nozzle one third the size of a human hair. After all that it must dry almost instantly on the paper.” They also argue that printers have become more efficient and use less ink to print, while third-party cartridges are less reliable.

Companies that use microchips in their ink cartridges argue that only the microchip has the ability to enforce an expiration date, preventing consumers from using old ink cartridges.

There’s something to all these arguments, sure — but they don’t seem to justify the sky-high cost of printer ink or the restriction on using third-party or refilled cartridges.

Saving Money on Printing

RELATED ARTICLE
The How-To Geek Guide to Buying the Right Printer
Even though computer printers are relatively ubiquitous, you can’t just go pull one off the shelf and be guaranteed a... [Read Article]

Ultimately, the price of something is what people are willing to pay and printer companies have found that most consumers are willing to pay this much for ink cartridge replacements. Try not to fall for it: Don’t buy the cheapest inkjet printer. Consider your needs when buying a printer and do some research. You’ll save more money in the long run.

Consider these basic tips to save money on printing:

  • Buy Refilled Cartridges: Refilled cartridges from third parties are generally much cheaper. Printer companies warn us away from these, but they often work very well.
  • Refill Your Own Cartridges: You can get do-it-yourself kits for refilling your own printer ink cartridges, but this can be messy. Your printer may refuse to accept a refilled cartridge if the cartridge contains a microchip.
  • Switch to a Laser Printer: Laser printers use toner, not ink cartridges. If you print a lot of black and white documents, a laser printer can be cheaper.
  • Buy XL Cartridges: If you are buying official printer ink cartridges, spend more money each time. The cheapest ink cartridges won’t contain much ink at all, while larger “XL” ink cartridges will contain much more ink for only a bit more money. It’s often cheaper to buy in bulk.
  • Avoid Printers With Tri-Color Ink Cartridges: If you’re printing color documents, you’ll want to get a printer that uses separate ink cartridges for all its colors. For example, let’s say your printer has a “Color” cartridge that contains blue, green, and red ink. If you print a lot of blue documents and use up all your blue ink, the Color cartridge will refuse to function — now all you can do is throw away your cartridge and buy a new one, even if the green and red ink chambers are full. If you had a printer with separate color cartridges, you’d just have to replace the blue cartridge.

black-and-color-ink-cartridges


If you’ll be buying official ink cartridges, be sure to compare the cost of cartridges when buying a printer. The cheapest printer may be more expensive in the long run.

Of course, you’ll save the most money if you stop printing entirely and go paperless, keeping digital copies of your documents instead of paper ones.

Image Credit: Cliva Darra on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 10/22/13

Enter Your Email Here to Get Access for Free:

Go check your email!