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How To Determine the Cost of Ownership of a Printer

Are you shopping for a new printer or copier? If so, there's a price even more important than the upfront cost to determine the cost of ownership.

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There's an immense misconception among most printer shoppers. 

Whenever shopping for a new product, what is your first question? 

"How much does it cost?" 

There isn't a product where this question isn't at the forefront of your mind (and if it's not, we'd all love to hear how you made your first billion). Whenever this question is asked regarding printers, shoppers should be asked a secondary question: 

Are you interested in finding out how much the printer costs to purchase, or are you interested in how much it will cost you to use it?

Why should this be asked? Because there is a vast difference between these two costs.

How are consumer inkjet printers so cheap?

Subscription to a system. 

Regarding consumer inkjet printers and many consumer laser printers, the upfront cost of the device is typically a meager initiation fee for the continued use of what may be an immensely expensive system. The device's upfront cost may even be lower than the manufacturer's cost to make it. 

"But how do they make a profit from selling products below cost?"

Because you didn't pay for the device—you paid for admission into the system. You begin the process of paying off the actual cost of your device by buying replacement cartridges—some of which can cost more than the printer device itself. 

How do I determine the true cost of a printer?

The true cost of ownership of a printer is often calculated by determining the cost per page (also known as the CPP) according to its cartridge requirements. The easiest way you can find this number is with this straightforward formula: 

Cost For Replacement Cartridge(s) ÷ Estimated Page Yield of Cartridges = Cost Per Page (CPP)

Though determining the CPP is relatively straightforward for monochromatic (black only) printers, this may be a little trickier for color printers. A quick means of doing so is by adding together the CPP for both black and color cartridges. 

How do I use the CPP when shopping for printers? 

Once you have determined the CPP of a printer's cartridges, this metric's weight will help reveal the true price of ownership of a printer. Let's use an example based on actual average prices found online: 

We found a "best seller" inkjet color printer for home.

  • Upfront price: About $80
  • Average cost per page (CPP): $0.27

The cost to print 1,000 pages a month on this printer for five years is about $16,280. This includes the upfront cost of the printer. This price does not include paper because it will likely remain the same no matter which printer you choose.

We found a store-recommended laser color printer for home. 

  • Upfront price: $200
  • Average cost per page (CPP): $0.17

The cost to print 1,000 pages a month for five years with this printer (again, excluding paper, but including the upfront cost) is about $10,400. 

Setting aside the cost of maintenance or soft costs (personnel time spent replacing paper, etc.), according to cost-per-page calculations, the "cheaper" printer would actually cost a printer owner $5,880 more than the "more expensive" printer over the course of five years. Regarding these numbers, it should also be remembered that these are for consumer-level products. Many commercial-quality printers can drop the CPP down considerably, leading to increased savings over time. 

When, if ever, would a consumer-level printer still make sense?

It may seem like we're hell-bent on dragging consumer-level printers through the mud. That isn't the case. There's a legitimate market for them—among those with low print volume. 

  • Do you only need a printer for your home office? 
  • Are you a college student who just needs to be able to print essays when the library is closed?
  • Does your business only print between 500-750 pages a month?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, purchasing an efficient consumer-level printer likely makes more sense than a commercial-level printer. However, if you're printing around 1,000 or more pages a month, this print volume is typically the threshold for when "cheaper" printers can become incredibly expensive. 

When “Low Volume” is Too Low for Inkjet Printers

Though a consumer-level desktop inkjet printer may be a suitable device for low-volume users, one group may reconsider such a selection—ultra-low-volume users. For those who may want to have a printer “on the odd chance” that they need to print something (maybe two to five times a month), they may be aggravated to find that their documents are streaky or even non-existent. But why?

As ink flows from the cartridge reservoir, it must pass through the print head. Like all liquids, ink dries and can coagulate when exposed to air. Though a regularly used printer’s printheads are flushed clean through the movement of ink, a rarely used printer’s printheads can become clogged. Though this can typically be remedied by routinely printing test pages between long durations of inactivity, this process uses up valuable ink. 

If you’re looking for a printer that can provide consistent quality images even at the lowest volumes, a consumer-grade laser printer may be more suitable than an inkjet. Instead of liquid ink, laser printers melt powder-based toner—a substance with a virtually unlimited shelf-life when appropriately stored—to create the intended image. 

The Color Cartridge Conundrum

Determining the exact page volume of color ink cartridges varies from model to model. Though ink volumes may remain constant, a cartridge’s technology may not allow a cartridge to continue to function when specific colors run low before others. At times, for example, a multi-color cartridge may require complete replacement due to the lowered ink volume of a single color. While this is likely a quality-assurance protocol on behalf of the manufacturer, it can shorten the page-quantity of color inkjet cartridges considerably.

In Conclusion

The upfront price of a printer is typically a poor indicator of its cost of ownership. The level of print efficiency of the printer cartridges and even your own print volumes should all be taken into consideration when shopping for a printer that will best suit your needs.

To Summarize

  • Most people fail to realize how much "cheap" printers can end up costing. 
  • Many consumer-level printers are artificially underpriced with true cost recouped in cartridge sales.
  • You can get a better understanding of the true "cost of ownership" of a printer by determining the "cost-per-page" or the CPP.
  • Despite usually having a higher CPP, consumer-level printers may make economic sense for low-volume users.
  • For extremely low-volume printing, laser printers may provide a more consistent image quality.
  • Some color inkjet cartridges may suspend use due to a single color’s volume. 

Happy and smart shopping!

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