Illustration of an eye with tears in different colors.

It's enough that printer ink might be the most expensive liquid you buy. Even the cheapest ink in replacement cartridges—at about $13 an ounce—costs more than twice as much as Dom Pérignon Champagne*, while the priciest—closer to $95 an ounce—makes gasoline seem like a bargain.

It's still far less painful than $12,160 per gallon, right?

But our lab tests show that much of that precious ink never makes it onto the printed page. Instead, it's used for cleaning print heads and other maintenance chores, typically when the printer is starting up after sitting idle for awhile.

Consumer Reports' tests confirm that some printers use much more ink than others in those tasks—and the added cost of using a less-efficient model can set you back more than $100 a year.

The Inky Truth

In 2012 CR's engineers came up with a test protocol to address complaints about ink consumption. We still use it to this day.

In particular, readers told us they were getting a lot less mileage than expected from their printer's inkjet cartridges, and less than even manufacturers' estimates, which are typically based on printing pages in big batches.

More on Printers

Our engineers thought this shortfall might have something to do with the fact that people tend to print intermittently—a handful of pages a few times per week—instead of in those big batches.

To validate this hypothesis, the engineers printed a total of 30 pages—two or three at a time—at varying intervals over the course of four weeks and, between sessions, they shut off the printer.

After repeating the routine with hundreds of all-in-one inkjets, their notion was confirmed: In intermittent use, many models delivered half or less of their ink to the page, and a few managed no more than 20 to 30 percent.

And those results have been born out in subsequent testing.

“It’s typical for an inkjet to use as much ink on maintenance as it does on printing,” says Rich Sulin, who leads CR’s printer testing program. “While some inkjet printers are more efficient, they're definitely rare.”

How to Avoid Taking a Bath on Ink

In the end, our testers concluded that you don't have to sacrifice performance to save on ink. So don't dismiss such factors as print quality, speed, and convenience when choosing your next printer.

Once you've narrowed the list of printers you're considering to a few contenders, though, check the ink-cost estimates on CR's model pages for all-in-one printers and regular printers, especially if you plan to put your new purchase to heavy use.

That cost of ownership figure reflects not only how much ink a printer uses for maintenance but also the amount it actually puts on the page, and, of course, what the manufacturer charges for that ink in the first place.

That price can vary significantly even within a specific brand. For example, HP's 64XL cartridge, used in models such as the Envy Photo 6255, contains 0.45 ounce of black ink and costs $42, which works out to $93 per ounce. But the same manufacturer's 952XL cartridge, used in models such as the Officejet Pro 8730, contains 2.86 ounces and costs $44, which comes to $15.38 per ounce, less than one-sixth the price.

If you, too, tend to use the printer only intermittently, consult the maintenance ink use column in our ratings. It will steer you away from models that are exceptionally wasteful.

By choosing a model that's relatively frugal in ink costs and maintenance use, you'll save in the long run. "A Tale of Two Printers" shows just how valuable that strategy can be.

You might also want to consider a reservoir-type printer, which can be refueled with a $12 bottle of ink (about $4 per ounce). Our testers recommend the Canon Pixma G4210 for $299.

“Some of the reservoir models are not frugal with ink, but the ink is so cheap the ownership cost is still low," Sulin says.

Illustration: Chris Philpot

Ways to Conserve Ink

No matter which model of printer you choose, you won't be able to adjust the maintenance cycle. We've found they occur based on a frequency set by the manufacturer. But you can reduce the number of cycles in several ways.

Leave the printer powered on all the time. This avoids triggering a maintenance cycle each time you use it. When we did that with some of the most ink-hogging models, it noticeably reduced ink consumption.

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

For less critical work, print in draft mode. This will reduce the amount of ink used, though not necessarily for maintenance. And think twice before printing lots of large photographs, especially in high-quality mode, because they use the most ink.

Don't change cartridges unless you must. When you swap out a cartridge that has plenty of ink left for, say, a less expensive off-brand one for less critical work, you trigger an ink-consuming initialization cycle. Note that some printers might not let you switch in half-full cartridges.

Consider buying a laser printer for black-and-white jobs. They don't use maintenance ink and they excel at printing text.

See our printer buying guide for more advice.


A Tale of Two Printers: Ink Miser vs. Ink Guzzler

Here's how significantly the different cost of ink for cleaning and maintenance can affect printing costs. These two printers are about the same price and perform at about the same high level, 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 275 pages of text, 103 pages of color graphics, and 64 photos intermittently, the way many people print. The figures show how ink used for maintenance accounts for all of the $251 gap in annual ink costs between the two.

Printer

Purchase Price

Annual Ink Cost 

Brother MFC-J775DW XL

$250

$27 ($3.401)

Epson Expression Photo XP-8500 

$240

$278 ($1581)

  1. Cost of ink used for maintenance.

Editor's Note: This article is an update of an investigation that originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

*Sources (as of Aug. 6, 2018): https://bit.ly/2OSCfsz
https://gasprices.aaa.com/