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Is Your Desktop Printer More Expensive Than Printing Services?

printing money

While many users see desktop printers as the best way to print photos, compared to cheap printing services, they may be more expensive. In this simple How-To, learn how to compare the cost per print to commercial options.

Readers may not think of desktop printers as “convenient,” however manufacturers are largely selling the convenience of being able to print at home. Many commercial printers may offer services that are cheaper, even at small quantities. See how a few free downloads, some internet research, and some math can save you money over the holidays.

How Much Do Your Consumables Cost?

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Any item that is manufactured to be used up and replaced (the way print cartridges are) is called a consumable. Determining your cost per print is as simple as finding some simple information about the consumables you’ll use and doing a little light math. For the purposes of demonstration, we’ll be using consumables for the Canon PIXMA printer.

The cost of the printer itself is not a part of this How-To, although readers should certainly consider the expense of photo printers when comparing costs to commercial print services. On a similar note, this How-To is not an endorsement of this printer, or of Canon products. They are all used here for purposes of demonstration, and readers are recommended to use brands that suit their own individual tastes.

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After determining your printer, some Google searches can help you determine the part or model numbers for your print cartridges, one of your consumables. If your printer has two, four, five, or six cartridges, you’ll need to look up the cost and yield of each individual item. From this page on Amazon, we see that a regular retail price for a Cyan cartridge is $13.99.

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Google searches for the cartridge part number and the word yield will potentially bring up pages with statistics of how many pages a cartridge will print before giving up the ghost. If you have actual cartridges in your home, the packaging may have yield information. If not, many pages will likely offer the information you need.

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A few short minutes will reveal pages like cartridgenews.com, which had the information regarding the printer in this How-To. We can see here that the same Cyan cartridge will print 207 4×6 photos, as well as the same yield information for the remaining three cartridges. We’re only interested in full color yield information; many advertisements will try to mislead users with statistics about black and white images or yield from pages of text. Be careful when looking for this information, in order to ensure you do your calculations correctly.

OpenOffice or Excel Does All The Math For You

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Chances are you already have some sort of spreadsheet solution on your computer, be it Microsoft Excel or the OpenOffice suite. If you do not have either, you can download OpenOffice for free. You can do the math yourself, but downloading free HTG tools will save you the trouble of doing it again and again.

The How-To Geek Photo Print Calculation Tool

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Once you have your spreadsheet solution, download the HTG Photo Print Calculation Tool for either OpenOffice or Excel.

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Yellow cells are editable; blue ones are not. Enter the information you found in the earlier section of the How-To, starting with the name of the various items you’re working with, e.g., Cyan or Black printer cartridges.

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Your printer may have multiple cartridges—six or even more, depending on your model. If you have four, five, or only two, input them all here.

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In the Yield column, input the yields you found earlier, corresponding with the cartridges in the horizontal rows. Cyan yields 207 prints, while a magenta cartridge yields 204.

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Enter the cost in the “Price” column. In this case, all four cartridges have the same retail price. The “Cost/print” column is already going to work calculating the cost per print, saving you the trouble of doing the division.

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Paper is sold in packs of multiple sheets; this information is far easier to find than the yield of cartridges. A pack of photo paper sized 4”x6” comes in packs of 400, retailing for $27.51. So a pack costing $27.51 yields a potential 400 prints. The tool calculates the cost per print at 7 cents per page.

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8”x10” paper is sold here in packs of 50 pages at a price of $19.99. The tool calculates this cost at 40 cents per piece of photo paper, given that retail amount.

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Once the paper amounts are included, the tool automatically tallies the total cost of a single 4”x6” print and a single 8”x10” inch print. Keep in mind, without those two values, it cannot determine the cost per page.

Note: The original multiplier of this number was slightly off. The tool has been adjusted in order to provide a more accurate costs for 8″x10″ prints. You can trust this tool, despite numbers in the graphics being slightly lower than they should be.

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Simple Google searches for “4×6 prints” can find online and local printers capable of producing high-quality prints for far cheaper than the above rate of 30 cents per 4”x6” or 85 cents per 8”x10”. From there, it is a simple comparison of cost versus convenience—are you prepared to spend the time to prepare prints for cheaper print services? Or do you prefer the convenience of printing from your somewhat pricier desktop printer? You may find that even despite the higher cost, the convenience of printing at home outweighs the price.

Readers should also keep in mind that not all printing services are created equal, and that some printers may produce prints inferior to your desktop machine. Buyer beware, and happy printing!


Edit 12/14/10: The math has been tweaked somewhat to give more accurate 8″x10″ costs. Thanks to reader Wally for pointing out “fuzzy” math.

Image credit: Printing Money by Paul Nicholson, image released under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 12/14/10

Comments (15)

  1. x3geek

    hehe you should have shown HP printer inks, usually inks are expensive than printer itself (in the past year one hp all in one, i think F4480 was on sale for $30 3 times in the year and the ink – color + black is $45)

  2. nt0xik8ed

    by the time i ever needed my printer it sat unused and the ink had dried. i got rid of my all-in-one several years ago. they’re a big waste of money and space when i only used it maybe once a year. if i need a printer now, i just put what ever i need on a flash drive and go to kinkos/fedx or somewhere. so far this year i’ve spent 15 cents on printing

  3. Paul DeLeeuw

    Regrettably, professional copiers like at Kinkos or Office Depot are programmed to reject any image sized like money.
    This wisely discourages amateur forgers. Forgery is best left to professionals anyhow.

  4. Mike Panic

    Like nt0xik8ed, one needs to use their inkjet printer on a regular basis. Additionally, you are talking inkjet, which is nice, but it’s not true silver halide and on most paper you will see metamerism. This also doesn’t account for the cost to purchase color calibration software for your monitor and printer, and the knowledge to actually setup and use them properly. Cheaper isn’t always better, and sometimes it’s well worth the extra few pennies to have a real lab do the printing.

  5. Grant

    4X6 prints at my local discount store are 15 cents a piece. I can upload them online, and pick them up in an hour. Their printer is not only cheaper than mine, the results are MUCH better.

  6. bvan

    Bare in mind that when you get a new printer the ink cartridges inside are short charged – they are not full. A 15 ml cartridge will often contain only 3 or 5 ml. This is not a good option to get cheaper ink.

  7. Wally

    I think the math is a little fuzzy. For example, the ink yield is going to different for different sizes of paper. I would assume the yield found on the internet is for standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper. You can easily take the area of the standard paper and the area of the 4″ by 6″ paper to get a more accurate cost. 4×6 paper is 1/4 the area of standard paper so a more accurate cost is around $.13 per 4×6 page.

    Regrettably, photo quality results require more ink but we don’t have the yield available for that math.

  8. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Wally:
    You’re right to point this out, and I’ve tweaked the tool somewhat to change the cost of the 8″x10″ page. I was already taking ink yield into consideration for the smaller page vs the larger page–but I had fudged the math a little bit.

    Area of 4×6=24 sq in
    Area of 8×10 = 80 sq in
    80/24 = 3 1/3
    8″x10″ uses 3 1/3 more ink than 4″x6″.

    And, you’re correct that the yield tests are probably not using photo quality settings. They are without a doubt massaged to get higher yields out of cartridges.

  9. Ginny

    Thanks, found out I was right in ordering my prints vs printing at home :)

  10. akbozo

    as a small business owner, it is less expensive for me to use my printer in house, as opposed to driving to a print shop, explaining what i want done, driving back to my business, driving again to pick up the finished product that i could have done in my business using photoshop, proofing, correcting, final proof, final print. your time is worth money, frequently more than spending the time building a spreadsheet amortizing the cost of each ink cartridge per page printed. if you run any kind of volume, a print shop may be the way to go, for my large volume advertising, that is, of course what i do; for smaller volume custom printing, i do it on my hp using photoshop or picassa.

  11. StevenTorrey

    I have to admire HP which charges something like $7,000 for a gallon of ink. Now why didn’t I think of that? (Number tweakers figured that out, not me.) Having said that, I like my printer and use it quite often. Would be lost without it. It cost all of $75 and worth every penny. Photcopy, scan, fax, etc. I do a great deal of work translating texts; I suppose for those amount of paper–@160 +pages–it would be cheaper in the long run to go to a professional printer. But I doubt that I would save a whole lot of money. For the cost of ink and paper, the convenience is worth having.

  12. Ricardo Santos

    You forgot to add the cost of going out to pick the printout. Gas and time.

    Makes sense if you are going to print a large job. But it does not make sense to print multiple small jobs.

  13. SewFits

    As a small business owner who mainly prints text with the occasional picture, I agree. All I sell is my time, and it is much more cost effective to use the Epson Workforce as a copier, even for large jobs. (100 copies) I thought my inkjet cartridges were outrageously expensive, until I calculated the costs per page. They are actually much cheaper than the local copy shop, for anything less than 1000 pages.

  14. tshirt

    I am running a color laser and I did the math before I bought and It doesn’t take that long to be cheaper than an inkjet. Not the best for photos but I didn’t get it for that.

    The advice I give people who are looking for a printer all the time is consider a B&W laser. Do you really need color? There is hardly a webpage you need printed in color, hardly anything really. B&W laser looks way nicer than B&W inkjet too. I knew a guy who went through college and grad school on a B&W laser only using the factory cartridge. They are less than $100 and to get as much printing(B&W) as the laser printer and one new cartridge the inkjet road will probably cost you twice as much.

  15. MIKLO

    I have been using InkSaver for many years and it is one of the best IMO,it also does the math 4me.It is possible to “tweak” a printer to use less ink but then it has to be changed back,not so with InkSaver. For my “junk” printing I can use up to 75% less ink without much difference in the copy,although the less ink I use it can be seen in the copy but for most things I copy it doesnt matter.IMO InkSaver is the best one on the market……. and BTW I dont work 4the company,in fact Im retired and lovin every minute of it. LOL
    MIKLO

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