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The High Cost of Wasted Printer Ink

It’s pricey, yet tests show much of it may never hit the page

Published: June 2013

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It's enough that printer ink might be the most expensive liquid you buy. Even the cheapest ink, at about $13 an ounce, costs more than, say, fine Champagne, while the priciest, at about $75 an ounce, is more costly than, say, Chanel No. 5 perfume. Check our graphic, "The Case of the Disappearing Ink," to see just how expensive printer ink can be.

But exclusive new tests in our labs show that some, even a lot, of that precious ink probably never even makes it onto printed pages. Instead, it's used to clean print heads and for other maintenance chores, typically when the printer is preparing to print after sitting idle for some time.

Tests in Consumer Reports' lab, done in cooperation with International Consumer Research and Testing, an independent consumer testing and research organization, confirm that some printers use much more ink than others in those rituals—and the extra cost of using those models can add up to $100 or more a year.

Here’s more about our tests and what you can do, and what we think printer manufacturers should be doing, to keep ink consumption (and ink bills) to a minimum.

The inky truth

For some time, we’ve been hearing from readers that they were getting a lot less mileage out of their printers' inkjet cartridges than they expected—less than even our rigorous printer tests showed they should get. The ink usage tests we have conducted in recent years, which are similar to the standard industry tests that printer manufacturers rely on to measure ink usage, consist of printing pages continuously in big batches.

The fact that our readers were able to print far fewer pages than we did in our tests suggested that, for some consumers, those tests were not appropriate. One reason for this shortfall, our engineers believed, was that those readers were printing intermittently, perhaps a handful of pages a few times per week, rather than continuously.

To determine whether intermittent use would cause such a shortfall, we devised a new test, in which we printed 30 pages, in batches of two or three pages, once or twice every day or two (skipping weekends) for three weeks. And we shut off the printer between sessions, as we believe many consumers do.

The results, based on tests of dozens of current all-in-one inkjets representing the leading brands, confirmed our suspicions: In intermittent use, plenty of models delivered half or less of their ink to the page, and a few managed no more than 20 to 30 percent.

True, most models wound up using the majority of their ink to actually print, though only a few came within striking distance of using it all. (Our intermittent tests included text and graphics, but not photos because we’ve found that most people print those relatively infrequently).

'Diapers' and 'spittoons': Where the ink goes

Manufacturers say it's par for printers to consume ink in ways that don't wind up on the page. For example, HP referred us to its website, which said, "Some ink . . . must be used to maintain the health of the print head; some ink is residual; and some ink evaporates." [edited 7/2/2013]

But when we contacted them, manufacturers were mum on just how much ink consumers should expect to be consumed in such ways, though they did volunteer that the ink spent in cleaning may actually end up in a reservoir inside the printer that one manufacturer calls a "diaper" and other manufacturers call a "spittoon."

In our tests so far, only Brother printers were consistently frugal with ink when used intermittently. Other brands varied widely depending on the brand line. For example, with HP, the Envy series of printers used relatively little ink for maintenance, while the Photosmart series used a lot more.

We also found that you don’t need to sacrifice performance in order to save on ink. Several models that were fine performers were also among the stingiest with ink used for maintenance.

Join our printer-ink discussion on Twitter! Hashtag: #DontDrinkMyInk
Also watch our Vine video at the bottom of this page.

What consumers should do

Weigh performance

If you’re shopping for a new printer, ink cost is just one of many factors to consider when making your choice. In fact, we don't factor such costs into the overall score in our printer Ratings, which we use to rank models, because printer usage varies widely. Instead, we rank models on such key factors as print quality, speed, and convenience.

As you may see from the Ratings, we've found little correlation between ink costs and quality, nor between quality and the amount of ink used for maintenance. 

Consider ink costs

If you don't print a lot of pages, focus on the top performers and consider ink cost only as a tie-breaker among closely ranked models. If you print a lot, check the Ratings to estimate your monthly ink cost.

That figure will depend not only on the ink the printer uses for maintenance but what it actually puts on the page—and, of course, what the manufacturer charges for ink in the first place. Ink costs per ounce vary dramatically: from the $75-per-ounce figure down to about $13 per ounce.

And as with ink usage for maintenance, there's as much variation within brand, according to the cartridge used, as from one manufacturer to another. (For example, HP's 60XL cartridge, used in such models as the Envy 120, contains ½ ounce of black ink and costs $32, which works out to $64 per ounce. But its 950XL cartridge, used in such models as the Officejet Pro 251dw, contains 2.5 ounces and costs $37, which works out to less than half as much per ounce.)

The Ratings show how much it would cost in ink to continuously print a 40-page mix of black text, color graphics, and photos, a typical monthly usage. (We present that figure because we have it for all printers, new and old, while we have the intermittent-printing costs only for newer models.)

If you know you print more or less than that amount, adjust the calculations accordingly. And the more intermittently you print—with pages printed here and there through the month—the more you'll want to choose a newer model that has undergone our ink-maintenance tests. Note the scores for that attribute on newer models. We'll include that score for other new inkjet models as we test them.

You'll save by choosing a model that’s relatively frugal in the ink costs shown for continuous use and in how much ink it spends on maintenance. Fortunately, some models fill that bill and perform at least decently, including the Brother DCP-J140W, $80, along with two Epsons: the XP-800, $180, and XP-600, $100.

Adjust your habits to conserve ink

No matter which printer you own or buy, you can't directly control how often a printer maintenance cycle occurs. We've found that such cycles occur automatically based on a frequency the printer manufacturer sets. But you can reduce the number of such cycles, and ink consumption, in several ways.

First, you can leave the power on. Leaving the printer on all the time avoids triggering a maintenance cycle each time you use the printer. When we did that with some of the most ink-hogging models, it did noticeably reduce ink consumption. Canon told us that "if the printer is switched off then it may do a longer clean."

Worried about the cost and environmental impact of the extra energy consumed? Inkjets left on consume very little power when not in use, so your ink savings should considerably outweigh the energy cost.

For less-critical work, print in Draft mode, which will reduce the amount of ink used in printing (though not the ink used in maintenance). And don't print lots of large photographs, especially in high-quality mode, since they use the most ink.

Also, don't change cartridges unless you must. Whenever you exchange an ink cartridge that still has plenty of ink left for, say, a less-costly off-brand one for less critical work, you trigger an ink-consuming initialization cycle.

Consider buying a laser printer as a second printer for black-and-white, since laser printers don't use maintenance ink, and they print excellent text.

How high are your printer-ink costs? Join the discussion in our forums.

What manufacturers should do

We accept that maintaining optimal printer performance may require that ink be consumed, and that not all printers can be as miserly as the most frugal we found in our tests. But we also believe that if manufacturers can make some printers that are frugal, they can better apply the design lessons from those models to make more, if not all, of their models use ink efficiently, no matter how often they're used.

Based on our tests, in which maintenance cycles were initiated in some printers by simply turning the printer off and then on again, one way to minimize ink used in such printers could be to have them keep track of time even when shut off, and initiate such cycles according to need rather than each time they are powered on.

Until manufacturers take such steps, we think it's fair to consider at least some of the ink manufacturers charge so much for to be wasted. That's because some of their models use so much of it in maintenance—and other models that each manufacturer makes clearly demonstrate that such usage needn’t be so excessive.

A tale of two printers: Ink miser vs. ink guzzler

Here's how dramatically the differing cost of ink for cleaning and maintenance can affect printing costs. These two printers have about the same price and high level of performance, yet one is frugal in ink used for cleaning and maintenance, and the other is profligate. The table shows the annual ink costs for each to print 380 pages of text and color graphics and 65 photos, intermittently—the way many people print. The figures show how ink used for maintenance accounts for all of the $120 gap in annual ink costs between the two.

Printer Price Annual ink cost
Approximate total (cost of ink used for maintenance)
Epson Expression Premium XP-800 $180 $110 ($21)
Canon Pixma MX922 $160 $230 ($150)

The case of the disappearing ink

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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