Ink cartridges inside an inkjet printer.
WUTTISAK PROMCHOO/Shutterstock.com

Inkjet printers have become ubiquitous in the world around us, as is printing technology, but do you know how it works? We’ll demystify the process in this quick explainer and look at what goes into printing in general.

How Does an Inkjet Printer Work?

The fact that Inkjet printers are so common hides the fact that they’re a pretty marvelous work of engineering.

All the magic happens in the nozzle but is more than what it seems; in reality, it isn’t one large nozzle but rather hundreds if not thousands of microscopic nozzles. These can often be as small as 10 micrometers in diameter, which is about a tenth the size of a human hair. So the tinier these holes are, the better the resolution of the printed image can be. Sort of like how pixels work with screens, the size and density of these tiny nozzles dictate the quality of the print.

The next step is releasing ink droplets through these nozzles at a very precise rate. Manufacturers delicately engineer the ink in terms of viscosity and pigment density to ensure that it’s always the same amount of ink and that it looks just right on the page. For color printers, there are often hundreds of separate nozzles for the different color inks, in addition to the ones for the black ink.

Once the ink has been deposited on the paper, the only thing left is to dry, which sometimes takes a while given the Inkjet printing process. This is why Inkjet-printed pages are prone to smudging; the ink hasn’t thoroughly dried yet. That being said, you can get around that by using pigment-based inks, which drops a suspension of pigment in a solvent that evaporates quickly, and therefore dries faster while leaving the pigment behind.

Why Is Printer Ink So Expensive?

Generally speaking, there are two ways to explain the high price of printer ink.

The first is the manufacturer’s reasoning: Ink is incredibly expensive to research and develop. It takes a lot of effort to create an ink that can be uniformly applied using the microscopic nozzles that printers have. The cost of this R&D is then offloaded onto the cost of the ink cartridges itself, thereby making them very expensive.

On the other hand, though, the generally accepted reasoning is that it makes them more money. It’s no secret that some printers are cheaper to buy than their own ink cartridges, and that’s because manufacturers sell printers at a loss and make money from the cartridges themselves. On top of that, according to Consumer Reports, up to half the ink in cartridges is wasted during maintenance cycles.

David Connett, a former editor of The Recycler and printer reform lobbyist, discusses in a Business Insider interview how printer companies use a razer-and-blade business model. He goes as far as to say that it’s just greed since a liter of ink can cost $20 to $40 to produce but sells for $2,600.

Ultimately, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of both, but most likely leaning towards profit rather than R&D reasoning.

Inkjet vs. Laser Printer

Of course, given how expensive inkjet ink is, one alternative is going for a laser printer instead.

Laser printers tend to be much cheaper to run than Inkjet printers, sometimes even up to a tenth of the cost to print per page. In exchange for this cheaper cost, you end up having to pay a higher up-front cost to buy a laser printer since they aren’t sold at a loss like some inkjet printers are. The other downside is that laser printing doesn’t have the same resolution and quality as an inkjet printer does when it comes to colors.

Therefore, if most of your printing tends to be text documents, or if you don’t have professional-grade color quality requirements, laser printers can be a much cheaper alternative to Inkjet in the long run. That being said, if you do need the quality that comes with inkjet printing but want to avoid the higher costs, you should consider a cartridgeless, ink tank printer instead. You can refill the printer’s ink tank yourself, and the cost per page is counted in one or two cents. Here’s how to pick the best printer for your needs.

The Best Printers of 2022

Best Printer Overall
HP ENVY 6455e
Best Budget Printer
Epson Expression Home XP-4100
Best Home Office Printer
HP Color LaserJet Pro Multifunction M479fdn
Best Photo Printer
Epson Expression Photo XP-970
Best Portable Printer
Canon Pixma TR150
Best Ink Tank Printer
Canon Maxify GX6021
Profile Photo for Albert Bassili Albert Bassili
Albert Bassili is a freelance writer at How-to-Geek with eight years of experience in both commerce and tech writing. He's been a life-long lover of all sorts of tech and gadgets and has been building his own PCs for just under two decades now, and he has more gadgets than he actually needs. He's written for a variety of sites from SFGate to GameGavel.
Read Full Bio »