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Buy an Inkjet or a Laser Printer?

Color inkjet printers have been fixtures in most small businesses for many years. They're cheap (under $60 in some cases), last a couple of years and everybody uses them. So they must be the perfect office tools, right? Maybe not.

When you do the math on printing, inkjets may well cost you a whole lot more than you realize.

"What the manufacturers of these printers don't fully explain to consumers is the true cost of ownership of a low-cost color printer," says Jeremy Shulman, vice president of Reink Technology in Tempe, Arizona, a maker of remanufactured ink cartridges under the Vibrantinkbrand name. "The general rule of thumb is that the cheaper the printer, the more expensive the disposable costs for refills and so on."

While the printers are almost given away, the refills bring in a fortune for the big-printer, original-equipment manufacturers (OEM). According to Lyra Research of Newton, Mass., the cartridge replacement market is now worth $21 billion annually. HP, for example, makes over $10 billion a year from ink cartridge sales, and Lexmark earns over $2 billion from ink supplies, more than half its total revenue.

Shulman gives the example of a Canon i320 Color Bubble Jet Printer. The cost for the hardware can be as little as $55, depending on discounts and where you buy it. The average cost of the ink from Canon is $19 but the yield from that, he says, is a measly 170 pages. Even if you print very little, the cost quickly adds up:

Seven pages a day times 300 days equals 2100 pages — an ink bill of $235.60 per year. If you own the printer for three years, the cost of cartridges comes to over $700 or about 13 times the original cost of the printer. For the Epson Stylus C62, Shulman concludes that the ink bill would be over $1000 for three year's worth of printing.

Of course, seven pages a day is a conservative estimate — some SMBs businesses print a lot more. Let's say your company prints 50 pages a day, 300 days a year. Using the above example, that equates to printing 15,000 pages annually. At that same rate, your annual ink cartridge bill would total $1,596.

And it isn't just cost that conspires against ink jets. They typically don't print pages as fast as laser printers. They can also be a major hassle. It is quite common to be inundated with cartridge-error messages when the cartridges are perfectly fine, or have the machine suddenly go crazy and spit out gobbledygook in an endless stream. The printers are also set up in a way that makes it difficult to minimize the amount of ink they use. It appears they're designed to make you use more ink than you need to with no way to default to "draft quality".

As a result of such factors, the market for laser printers is catching fire. According to Lyra Research, worldwide desktop monochrome (one-color) laser printer shipments grew 15 percent last year to 14.1 million units. More than half of those are what's known as Multi-Function Printers (MFP), which do print, fax, copy and scan. Lyra predicts that over 10 million MFPs will be in circulation by 2008.

Laser Printers by the Numbers
In comparison to ink jets, laser printers are quieter, faster and remarkably hassle free. But it's the math that makes them stand out. The numbers are as follows:

An HP laser printer with an estimated machine cost of $400, combined with a $115 toner cartridge, yields 8000 pages. Printing 40,000 pages costs you $400 plus $460 for the ink for a total of $860. A Brother 1440 laser printer works out at about $930 for the same number of pages. That comes to around two cents a page, or eight times less than an inkjet printer.

HP Color LaserJet 2600n
Click here for a larger image.

SpencerLab, a digital-color laboratory in Melville, New York, tested the HP LaserJet 1320 and the Dell 1700 Laser Printers. According to Catherine Fiasconaro, director of SpencerLab, even when you calculate the cost of the toner and the drum (which has to be replaced about every 20,000 pages), HP high-yield monochrome cartridges cost about two cents per print, with Dell costing slightly more.

Adding to the allure of the laser, printer prices are continuing to fall and the range of available products is steadily mounting. According to Trina Wolfgram, a marketing manager for HP, the HP Color LaserJet 2600n prints eight pages-per-minute, at 600 x 600 dots-per-inch (dpi) resolution. It has a recommended maximum monthly volume of 35,000 pages. Its estimated street price is $399.

If you don't require that much printing volume, the monochrome HP LaserJet 1020 — rated at a maximum monthly volume of 5,000 pages — prints up to 15 pages-per-minute and offers 600 x 600 dpi output. It has an estimated U.S. street price of $179.

HP LaserJet 1020
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To bring the costs of laser printing down further, you can purchase inexpensive replacement or remanufactured ink cartridges.

"Replacement ink cartridges are cartridges that are manufactured by a company other than the original manufacturer," says Shulman. "A remanufactured ink cartridge is the original OEM cartridge that has been professionally cleaned, refilled with quality ink that is made in the USA and tested prior to leaving the factory."

With so much money being poured into ink cartridges, it's no surprise that hundreds of companies have sprung up offering refill kits for ink jets and replacement/remanufactured cartridges for ink jets and laser printers. They work for some people, but many find them too much trouble — most people have blackened their hands, injected the yellow ink into the red receptacle or ruined the carpet with refill kits.

Replacement cartridges, too, are catching on for ink jets and are widely available. But the success rate is sporadic to say the least. According to Recharger Magazine you simply cannot refill every inkjet cartridge. The actual numbers are more like 20 percent of black inkjet cartridges and 50 percent of colors can't be refilled or reused.

On the other hand, almost 99 percent of laser toner cartridges can be remanufactured to provide a product that meets or exceeds the OEM yield and quality. A handful of high-end companies produce "compatible" cartridges — products that equal of improve upon the quality of the big OEMs. At the low-end, a horde of remanufacturers offer refill kits and replacement toner cartridges at a fraction of the cost.

"HP own research revealed that 66 percent of people who try alternative cartridges never go back to the more expensive OEM models," said Gary Pendl, CEO of Pendl Companies, a Waukesha, Wisconsin-based manufacturer of high-quality compatible toner cartridges for HP, Apple, Panasonic, Tektronix, Epson, Lexmark, IBM and Canon printers.

Pendl guarantees its cartridges will perform equal to or better than OEM cartridges or it will either replace the cartridge or offer a full refund. The guarantee covers not only the cartridge but also the printer. The quality matches or exceeds OEM standards, with a defect rate of less than one percent on toner cartridges. The OEM defect rate is one percent.

Reink Shulman quotes similar figures for his company's products. In terms of cost, the HP cartridge for a LaserJet 1010 costs around $70 and has a yield of 2,000 pages. Reink remanufactures it with the same 2,000-page yield and sells it for $55. It also makes a longer-life version with a yield of 3,600 pages at $85.

Other suppliers offer less in terms of quality (and perhaps yield) but at a lower cost for toner. For a Brother 6800 MFP, for instance, we bought six toner cartridges from 4inkjets.com for $48 and they worked out fine. A single cartridge purchased direct from Brother cost $33.99. We noticed no real difference in quality.

That said, you should realize that not all replacement and remanufactured products are created equal.

"Usually going with the cheapest is not the best idea," says Shulman. "Many companies don't even test their cartridges before they are sent out."

HP Wolfgram counters the replacement/remanufactured cartridge point of view saying that HP designs its laser printing supplies to provide maximum value by going beyond yield and estimated cost per page calculations.

"HP develops supplies that offer real value in total cost of ownership by focusing on yield and cost per page, as well as usability, quality and reliability," said Wolfgram. "By offering supplies that address all these concerns, small businesses are assured that can save time and money with HP supplies."

Paperless Society on Hold
In the late nineties, visionaries promised a paperless society due to the digital age. How wrong they were. In North America alone, office printers churn out 1.2 trillion sheets in one year. Thus the demand for printer ink is higher than ever. So it makes good business sense to take ink costs into account when you decide what printer to buy.

If you print very little, stick to your inkjet or replace it with a more modern model. But if you print consistently in a reasonable volume, it is probably time to take a serious look at a laser printer. HP, Lexmark, Brother, Dell and others offer a wealth of choices. Cheap replacement cartridges are probably good enough if your printing volume and company size aren't that big. But if you spend a lot on printers and printing, remanufactured cartridges give you wonderful quality and peace of mind for less than OEM cartridges.

What about color lasers? These used to be very expensive, and recently the price has dropped considerably. Lyra Research notes that 1.85 million color laser printers were sold last year, a growth of 47 percent over the previous year.

"A growing number of offices are replacing existing monochrome laser machines with color page printers," says Ann Priede, an editor at Lyra Research.

Shulman suggests leaving color lasers alone, however, unless you need to print a high volume of brochures and flyers. Reason: color lasers are expensive to buy and color and black toner costs more. So unless you really need a steady stream of color promotional materials, stick to a monochrome laser.

And what about your occasional color printing needs? Keep one or two of your old ink jets around for those occasions when you need a splash of color.

"For small amounts of color printing it's much cheaper to use an inkjet," said Shulman. "If a business plans on printing a large amount of color it may be worthwhile to buy a color laser printer."

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