Business Printers: Inkjet vs. Laser

Wednesday May 19th 2010 by Drew Robb
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Are inkjets as good as laser printers? The answer depends on your small business printing needs. But if you're on a tight budget, think monochrome laser.

Color inkjet printers utterly dominate the printer market. While Herbert Hoover once promised a“chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” most small businesses have bought into the marketing campaign of “an inkjet on every desk.” And it could be costing them a fortune.

“The ‘razor and blade’ scenario remains alive and well in the printer business -- if you buy the cheapest printer, you are likely to tie yourself in to the most expensive OEM supplies,” said Jeremy Shulman, vice president of operations at ReInk Technologies, a reseller of remanufactured ink cartridges under the Vibrantink, Cartridge Technologies and A2Zink.com brand names.

The printers themselves are often quite cheap. But it’s the cost of the refill cartridges that comes back to bite you. According to Andrew Lippman, a senior analyst at Lyra Research the worldwide printer cartridge replacement market (inkjet and toner) is worth more than the printer hardware market. Cartridges amount to about $72 billion annually.

Business Printers: Page Yields

Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as HP are talking up the page yields of their latest wave of inkjets. HP, for example, recommends that SMBs choose the HP Officejet Pro 8500 Wireless All-in-One printer ($279).

“It allows users to wirelessly print professional color documents for up to 50 percent less cost per page and energy use than competitive laser printers,” said Jeff Walter, HP outbound marketing manager. “And with multifunction capabilities, users can print, scan, copy and fax all from one device.”

He claims the following rates for replacement cartridges:

  • HP 940XL Cyan Officejet Ink Cartridge: $25.99 (approx. 1,400 pages)
  • HP 940XL Magenta Officejet Ink Cartridge: $25.99 (approx. 1,400 pages)
  • HP 940XL Yellow Officejet Ink Cartridge: $25.99 (approx. 1,400 pages)
  • HP 940XL Black Officejet Ink Cartridge: $35.99 (approx. 2,200 pages)

Note that you need to buy four cartridges -- one black and three different color models for a combined cost of more than $100. But those numbers (1.6 cents a page for black) are hard to believe based on page rates that ranged three to 10 times lower only five years ago.

If the above numbers pan out, the Pro 8500 might just give a monochrome laser a run for its money. Based on 50,000 copies a year, printing cost works out to about $1,000 – if you only use black ink. And that’s just not a realistic if.

Another point to consider is that the HP Pro 8500 doesn't have an integrated print head, so that becomes another consumable. You need two print heads for it, both retail for $59.99 and HP doesn't provide any data on their lifespan.

Lexmark also touts a Multi-Function Printer (MFP) for SMBs – the Pinnacle Pro901 for $299. Cartridges cost $4.99 for black and $17.99 for each of three colors for 500 or so pages.

The key here is whether or not you can do a high volume of printing in monochrome only without using up the color ink in the process. If so, and the page yields are realistic, this could be another viable model for an SMB. 500 sheets for $5 is pretty good, but if you actually spend another $54 for the color ink, the allure disappears.

Note that the software in these printers is notorious for using maximum ink and maximum color. Years ago, we tried to set monochrome-only printing on an inkjet and set it at draft quality (using the lowest amount of ink). But it consumed far too much time to set it up this way for each document and otherwise immediately defaulted to high ink usage and high quality as the norm.

Other business inkjet options are available from Brother, Canon and Epson.

Laser Monochrome Printers

There are lots of monochrome laser options for SMBs, and they're more affordable than ever. Let's look at a few of the options.

Replacement toner for the HP LaserJet Pro P1102w ($149) costs $67.99 and prints an estimated 1,600 pages. The HP LaserJet P4014 printer ($899) has replacement cartridges priced at $172.99 for about 10,000 pages. Whether these page count estimates are realistic or not, the rule of thumb has always been that toner yields more than an inkjet cartridge.

And here at least, we have an apples-to-apples comparison of HP estimates. If you print at high volume, there comes a point where it's clearly cheaper to go for the HP P4014. Once you get to 25,000 pages, the economics start to favor HP's more expensive model.

When you consider that a laser might easily last you five years, it means even at somewhere north of 5000 pages a year (100 pages a week), the more expensive printer will probably cost you less over its lifetime than an inkjet.

Let’s do the math again: 50,000 pages a year (1,000 a week or 200 per business day) would cost about $1,800 for printer and toner based on the page rates for the P4104 laser. The P1102w would cost about $500 more.

Of course, the laser drum (holder for the cartridge) has to be replaced maybe once during that 25,000 period. But that is probably compensated by the fact that inkjet hardware is a lot less durable than a laser. Note that these numbers are worse than the HP Officejet Pro 8500, which is hard to believe.

Bear in mind, however, that the Officejet Pro consumes color ink too, which causes the total cost to leap from a little over $1,000 to more like $4,000.

Other monochrome laser possibilities include the Lexmark E260d at $199. Brother and Canon also have a selection of monochromes.

Shulman recommends that SMBs with heavy printing demands go higher-end. The Lexmark T650 series, he said, retails for around $1,200, prints 32-60 ppm and accepts toner that yields from 7,000 (starter) to 32,000 (high yield) pages.

[The Lexmark T650 printers] “are so good that Lexmark licenses them to Dell, IBM, Toshiba, Source Technologies and Standard Registrar,” said Shulman. “They are a must-have for any company doing serious printing such as medical records, insurance and billing companies.”

Laser Color Printers

Five year ago, color lasers were cost prohibitive, but options for color laser are becoming cheaper and more abundant. The HP Color LaserJet CM1312 MFP printer ($399) is aimed at small businesses with high print volume. It offers print speeds of up to 12 pages per minute. However, replacement cartridges are pricey: $71.99 for each of three colors (approx. 1,500 pages per cartridge) and $77.99 for black (approx. 2,200 pages)

Other options include the Lexmark C543dn ($399), as well as models from Brother and Canon.

Ink Wars

Hundreds of companies make inkjet and toner refill cartridges: some are good, many are awful. The reason for so many getting involved in this market is simple: ink is now probably the most expensive liquid on the face of the earth. You have to watch out for vested interests, and independent studies of actual costs are hard to locate.

HP and Lexmark roll out sponsored tests to demonstrate how superior their inks are. The test results from both vendors are impressive, but then again they pay for them. The refill and remanufacturing companies counter that the tests are rigged in various ways to skew the results in their own favor.

But testing isn’t the only frontier in this battle. It has also become a very litigious scene. Customers find out about it when printer OEMs threaten to void warranties if they use other inks. They warn users of the risks: poor quality, leaky toner, hardware failures and doubling your printing costs.

Basically, you're faced with believing the printer OEMs, the refill makers or trying each yourself to see how it works out.

Business Printer Buying Recommendations

Schulman advises SMBs to ignore the propaganda about business inkjets, steer clear of color laser and rely on a good, monochrome laser printer that turn out low-cost black and white prints in large quantities at a reasonable cost per page. 

He also recommends that small businesses shop for a multifunction printer that can use third-party laser toner cartridges and to locate those supplies before -- or while -- making a printer purchase.

“Inkjet remains an excellent alternative for low use, for photographic prints and for those who need color,” said Schulman. “We suggest that small businesses who occasionally require color maintain an inkjet printer specifically for that purpose.” 

Lyra Research's Andrew Lippman offered different advice:

  • SMBs that print more than 1,500 pages per month and have a strong need for color documents should consider a color laser printer or MFP in the $400 - $800 range.
  • SMBs that print fewer than 1,500 pages per month and have a strong need for color documents should consider a high-end inkjet printer or MFP in the $150 - $400 range. 
  • SMBs that print more than 1,500 pages per month and do notneed color documents should consider a monochrome laser printer or MFP in the $300 - $700 range. 
  • SMBs that print fewer than 1,500 pages per month and do notneed color documents should consider a monochrome laser printer or a high-end inkjet printer in the $150 - $500 range. 
  • An SMB with extensive printing or copying needs (more than 10,000 pages per month) should consider leasing a high-volume laser MFP.

“This type of print-intensive SMB should also look for managed print service offerings from manufacturers and distributors,” said Lippman. “Sellers are more willing than ever to help a business more efficiently place and use their printing equipment.”As regards printing costs, he said that color printing typically costs four to six times more than black-and-white printing. “An SMB should carefully consider where and when they need color documents” said Lippman.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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