hp instant ink welcome brochure and ink cartriges
HP

Printer ink is expensive. HP promises to help with a subscription service for ink, complete with cartridges that stop working when you cancel your subscription. But HP makes you count pages, and I’d rather print as much as I want.

HP’s Ink Subscription Service Sounded Like a Good Deal

In mid-2016 I was running into a recurring issue. I was always out of printer ink, and new cartridges were expensive. Laser printers can be cheaper for many people, but my household does print as many color photos as it does text documents, which means they’re not a good choice for me. So I purchased a new inkjet printer on the promise of HP’s easy-to-use ink subscription service. For a low cost, I would always have all the ink I needed—as long as I kept to a page limit, that is.

Now, years later, I’ve realized there was one other price of admission. The ink they’ve sent me isn’t mine; it’s theirs. And if I cancel the subscription when the billing cycle ends, the printer won’t use the ink anymore, and HP requires I send it back to them. I have to buy new ink to replace the ink that is already in my house.

HP Instant Ink is Easy to Use, and Inexpensive Up Front

HP Instant Ink Pricing Plan
HP

As long as your HP internet-connected printer supports it, HP Instant Ink is very easy to set up. You go to their enrollment site, sign up for an account, and connect your printer. Once you finish signing up, HP will send you ink cartridges; billing begins when you install them in your printer. HP requires you to choose a plan that limits the pages you can print each month. HP doesn’t care what you print, just the pages needed for the job. A page with a single word on it and a full-color photo page are both the same as far as the plan is concerned. If you don’t use all your allotted pages in the month, the extra pages roll-over and you can use them next month.

How much you pay depends on the number of pages you can print and roll-over. HP offers a free plan with 15 pages per month, but no roll-over. If you go over the limit, you pay $1 for each set of 10 pages you print (meaning if you print five pages, you still pay $1). The first paid tier is $2.99 a month for 50 pages, and the ability to roll-over 100 pages from previous months. Additional pages are still $1 for a set of 10 pages. The next step up is $3.99 a month, with 100 pages per month and 200 roll-over pages. You’ll pay $1 for sets of 15 pages if you go over at this level. The top tier is $9.99 a month at 300 pages, and 600 roll-over pages. You’ll pay $1 per 20-page set if you go over this tier limit.

The Ink Stops Working if You Cancel

Here’s the kicker: if you cancel, your ink stops working. You read that right; as soon as your billing cycle ends the printer will not accept the ink anymore, and you’re required to send it back to HP. At least they provide the postage and packaging for that purpose.

HP doesn’t spell out any consequences in their terms of service for failure to send the ink back, so we checked with a support agent. They helpfully explained that nothing happens if you fail to send them back, but the cartridges would stop working. You’ll have to buy more ink on your own if you want to keep printing. HP ships specially marked ink as part of this process, and your printer recognizes that it is intended for Instant Ink subscribers only. It’s essentially DRM, but instead of locking down a digital movie or book, this locks down a physical product: the ink in your printer.

Instant Ink requires an internet connection for your printer. HP explains that they monitor your ink levels, so they know when to send you more, but as described in their Terms of Service the other reason for this is to remotely disable your ink cartridges if you cancel, or if there are any issues with your payment.

Those terms also give HP permission to “remotely change, patch, update, or otherwise modify your printer’s software, firmware or programming, without notice to you” to provide the Instant Ink service. HP also says it will remotely monitor your printer’s page count and ink status, as well as the “types of documents printed (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, pdf, jpeg, etc.).”

You’ll Save Money if You Print Mostly Color

Plan summary showing current pages and roll-over pages used

If you’re asking whether HP instant ink is a good deal, the answer is a resounding: it depends.

In a little over two and a half years, I’ve printed 1517 pages. Many of these are full-color prints for photos, labels, and so on. But this has also included a mix of regular black and white documents, too. Thanks to roll-over pages I have avoided extra charges every month except four. Three out of those four months, I printed less than ten over the limit pages; one month I printed an additional 116 pages. So while most months I paid $3 to $4, one month I paid $16 for my excessive page prints

Overall since I joined HP ink I’ve spent just under $110. Comparing that to the cost of ink, I’m doing well. Since I signed up for the program, HP shipped one black cartridge and two of each color cartridges. I’m currently sitting at less than 25% in the existing black cartridge and about 50% of the color cartridges. The exact ink HP sends isn’t for sale, but they describe it as ‘extra high capacity‘ in their FAQ. The closest equivalent I can find for my printer is High Yield cartridges. They sell a full pack (black, cyan, magenta, and yellow) for $110, and a color pack for $66. So side by side, I’ve received $176 worth of ink and only paid $110. You could try to save money with third-party cartridges, but HP and other printer manufacturers have a long history of fighting their use. And HP’s legal text include lines that explain using a third-party cartridge will void the warranty.

While the pricing math is working out well for me, it may not work as well for you. HP only sends ink when you need it, so if you print far less or far more than I do, or you print just text documents, then the math changes. It’s easy to get trapped into overages, and while you can step up or down in your plan to avoid that, you have to pay attention to know when it’s necessary.

The only way to know how many pages you’ve printed is to log into HP’s website and check first. If you forget to do that and don’t keep track, you can go way over your plan. HP won’t automatically move you up to the next level either. That’s what happened to me in November: I went 100 pages over my limit and didn’t notice until the bill arrived. By that point, it was too late to step up to the next level, which would have saved me money.

Worse yet, if you need to replace your printer, you have to do it through HP, or you will lose your roll-over pages and plans. Every time I print, the first page is a blurry mess (which counts against my limit). But, unless I want to lose the ink I paid for, I have to use the “Replace a Printer” process on HP’s website.

I’m Tired of Being Afraid to Print

billing cycle showing overage charges

HP Instant Ink is designed and billed as a ‘set it and forget it’ service, and while that does add to the convenience factor of everything, it’s also the trap. And it’s why I want to quit.

According to the math, I’m the type of person who can benefit the most from HP’s Instant Ink program. I’m getting more ink for less money than if I had gone a traditional route and. But there’s a secondary cost. I’m left afraid to use my printer for the one reason I have it—printing. It’s a strange proposition that every time I go to print, I now feel the need first to check if I have enough pages left in my plan. It’s like asking HP for permission to use my printer. And if I don’t ask nicely enough, I’ll pay extra or, worse, they’ll take my ink away. And it’s not actually my ink: HP’s instant ink recycling page spell this out clearly (emphasis mine):

HP Instant Ink cartridges are the property of HP and must be returned when empty, or when your service is cancelled

I can’t think of anything else in my house that works this way. My couches don’t have an allotment for sitting time, and I don’t need to continually pay the furniture store a fee for the right to use their cushions. I don’t fear that if I fail to pay my cushion subscription the store will take them away, leaving me with a cushionless couch.

My laundry machine requires detergent, but I’m not limited in the number of loads I can wash in the month. I don’t pay extra for doing the laundry more often when it happens to be rainy and muddy, and beyond keeping my detergent stocked, I’ve never felt need to check if it’s okay to wash my clothes. If I decide I don’t like the brand of detergent I’m using today, I’m not required to send it back just because I’d like to change.

But that how it feels with my printer. I don’t want to stop what I’m doing, go to a website, and check if I’m allowed to print. I want my printer to be mine and controlled by me. All I have to do is convince myself that freedom is worth the cost of all new ink.