Inkjet Versus Laser Printers

by Drew Robb

Shopping for a small business printer? Historically, laser printers beat inkjet printers on cost, but a lot has changed in the inkjet versus laser printer debate. Here's what you need to know now.

Updated 5/10/2011

Small Business Computing Compares Inkjet Versus Laser Printers

Back in 2005, we compared color ink jet printers with laser printers and came out overwhelmingly in favor of laser printers for small businesses. In the intervening years, however, it seems the inkjet may have closed the gap. In a few cases, particularly the more expensive business-class inkjets, they may even have cheaper lifetime costs than laser printers. 

When you do the math, low-cost color inkjet printers typically don't fare well. In fact, they may 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 operations at ReInk Technology, a reseller of remanufactured ink cartridges under the Vibrantink, Cartridge Technologies and A2Zink.com brand names. "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 large printer original-equipment manufacturers (OEM). According to Lyra Research, the worldwide printer cartridge replacement market (inkjet and laser toner) is worth more than the printer hardware market. Cartridges amount to about $72 billion annually. HP alone makes about $15 billion on printer cartridges. Lexmark makes about $3 billion on printer cartridges, about 70 percent of total company revenue.

The worldwide laser printer and multifunction printer (MFP -- copying, printing, faxing and scanning) shipments are about 23 million units a year at a cost of $40 billion. Worldwide ink jet printer and MFP shipments, on the other hand, exceed 80 million units but the hardware cost is only $10 billion. The big profits are clearly in inkjet cartridges.

Shulman gives the example of a $55 inkjet model with black ink costing $19. But with a yield of 170 pages per cartridge, the bills quickly add up:

Seven pages a day times 300 days equals 2,100 pages -- an ink bill of $235.60 per year. If you own the printer for three years, the cost of cartridges comes to more than $700 or about 13 times the original cost of the printer. Other cheap inkjet examples, said Shulman, could bring the printing bill to more than $1,000 for three year's worth of printing.

Of course, seven pages a day is a conservative estimate -- many 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, although some recent high-end models are catching up. 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."

New Brand of InkJets

But there are signs that inkjet technology may be maturing. HP for example, recommends that SMBs choose the HP Officejet Pro 8500 Wireless All-in-One printer, an MFP that costs about $300. An initial run was free of the usual inkjet annoyances and glitches. It was fairly fast and a little quieter than the usual inkjet.

“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's outbound marketing manager. “And with multifunction capabilities, users can print, scan, copy and fax all from one device.”

HP 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)

Testing a New Breed of Small Business Inkjet Printer

Small Business Computing tested this assertion. We chose a two-page magazine article with only a small amount of color on each page. A count of 1,670 pages later, the black cartridge gave out. That was far more than we expected and indicates that HP’s claim of 2,200 is far from pie in the sky. That number is probably based on printing documents with fewer lines of text.

We'll go with the 1,670 figure for now; the cost per page drops to slightly more than 2 cents. For the examples above, a three-year ink bill for 15,000 pages annually comes to a little more than $300 (down from $1,596 in the earlier inkjet example). Even though the price of the HP 8500 is considerably more than any of the legion of low-end inkjets, SMBs should studiously avoid them in favor of a higher-end business inkjet.

A few caveats: you need to buy four cartridges -- one black and three color models for a combined cost of more than $100. Further, these HP machines do not have an integrated print head, which becomes another consumable. No data is provided on their lifespan.(Note: this probably doesn’t add any more expense than replacing the drum in a laser printer, which typically has to be done every 20,000 pages or so).

HP isn’t the only game in town when it comes to high-end small business inkjet MFPs. Lexmark offers the Pinnacle Pro901 for $299 (one sale for $199 at the time of this writing). Cartridges are rated for 500 pages and cost $4.99 for black and $17.99 for color. Those numbers haven’t been tested, but it works out to one cent per page, which is excellent if it holds up in the real world.

Many other potential small business inkjet options are available from Brother, Canon and Epson.

Laser Printers by the Numbers

In comparison to the average inkjet, laser printers have the reputation of being quieter, faster and hassle free. Back in 2005 when we first addressed the inkjet versus laser issue, the math came out in overwhelming favor of monochrome lasers for SMBs (no color). The HP and Brother lasers we looked into at the time were priced around $400 to $500 and provided printing at about 2 cents per page. Hardware costs have plummeted -- we recently bought a Brother monochrome laser MFP for less than $200. Printing costs remain about the same.

Some examples include the HP LaserJet Pro P1102w ($99), with a replacement toner that costs $67.99 and prints an estimated 1,600 pages. The HP LaserJet P4014 printer (starting at $699) has replacement cartridges priced at $172.99 for about 10,000 pages. Based on these estimates, once you get to 25,000 pages annually, the economics start to favor the more expensive LaserJet P4014.

The interesting thing with these official HP numbers is that the company appears to be saying to buy its business inkjet over its laser printers. For example, 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. These numbers are higher than those of the HP 8500 MFP inkjet.

Other possibilities in the monochrome laser field include the Lexmark E260d at $199 (on sale at $119). Brother and Canon also have a good selection of monochromes.

Shulman recommends that small business with heavy printing demands consider even higher-end printers. The Lexmark T652dn business printer, he said, retails for $1,149, prints very fast (32-60 ppm) and takes cartridges that yield from 7,000 pages (starter) to 32,000 (high yield).

“They are so good that they license them to Dell, IBM, Toshiba, Source Technologies and Standard Registrar,” said Shulman. “They are a must-have for insurance and billing companies or any company doing serious printing such as medical records.”

One final monochrome laser printer factor to note is durability. A laser printer might last you five years. Inkjets seem to wear out faster -- perhaps in half the time.

Color Laser Printers for Small Business

What about color laser printers? These used to be very expensive, but recently the price has dropped considerably.

"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 more expensive than monochrome, as is color toner. So unless you really need a steady stream of color promotional materials, stick to a monochrome laser.

But again, costs of color lasers are falling. HP designed its LaserJet Pro CM1415 Color Multifunction Printer series ($499) for small businesses with high print volume. Replacement cartridges, though, are pricey. $69.99 for each of three colors (approx 1,300 pages per cartridge) and the same for black (approx. 2,000 pages). That's more than double the cost per page of the HP 8500 inkjet.

Other options include the Lexmark C543dn (on sale at $299), as well as models from Brother and Canon.

Cartridges and Refills

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 inkjets and replacement/remanufactured cartridges for ink jets and laser printers. Inkjet refills 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.

Additionally, about 20 percent of black inkjet cartridges can't be refilled or reused. On the other hand, most laser toner cartridges can be remanufactured. A handful of high-end companies produce "compatible" cartridges that equal the quality of the OEMs. At the low-end, a horde of firms offer replacement toner cartridges at a fraction of the cost. From experience, some of these are of dubious value -- they work OK in many cases, but yield seems lower and they are messier than OEM cartridges. SMBs are advised to either stick with OEM toner or only deal in a high-end remanufacturer.

For example, Pendl Companies, manufactures high-quality compatible toner cartridges for HP, Apple, Panasonic, Tektronix, Epson, Lexmark, IBM and Canon printers. Reink is another of the more dependable toner replacement sources.

Be aware, though, that there are plenty of sources around offering ultra-cheap replacements. "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 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 calculation. As well as cost per page, the company touts usability, quality and reliability of its products.  

Bottom line: you should avoid cheap replacement cartridges, particularly for inkjets. For toner cartridges, choose between the OEM or a reputable, high-end replacement/remanufactured source.

Match Your Small Business Printing Needs

If you print very little, you can get away with a low-end inkjet. Don’t waste your time with a stuttering old model, however; it costs next to nothing to replace it. But if you print consistently in a reasonable volume, it's probably time to take a serious look at either a monochrome laser printer or a business-class inkjet. HP, Lexmark, Brother, Dell and others offer both in a wealth of choices. While the monochrome laser won hands down half a decade ago, the business inkjet is now a viable alternative.

If you need color printing on a regular basis, go for the business-class inkjet. If you only need black and white (we haven't used color printing in 6 years, so ask yourself if you REALLY need it), a monochrome laser a wise choice. This color versus monochrome question is important. Andrew Lippman, a senior analyst at Lyra Research said that color printing typically costs four to six times more than black-and-white printing. “A SMB should carefully consider where and when they need color documents” said Lippman.

Companies that choose monochrome laser but have occasional color printing needs can keep one old inkjet around. If you do a high volume of color printing, though, a color laser will work out better in the long run. If your business requires demanding, high-quality color printing in large quantity, you should opt for a color laser -- though it is worth testing a business inkjet as it may well be good enough and it will be a lot less expensive.

"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."

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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This article was originally published on Tuesday May 10th 2011
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