Printer Pricing: An Inkjet vs. Laser Smackdown

by Drew Robb

The cost of color printing keeps coming down. Should small businesses snap up color lasers, opt for monochrome, or stick with color inkjets?

The last time we waded into the inkjet-versus-laser printer debate, we advised our readers to dump their inkjets and move to monochrome (black and white) laser printers. Our advice stemmed from the high costs of consumables (i.e., ink) over the lifetime of the printer, due primarily to the inflated price of inkjet cartridges.

Since that time, we've seen plenty of developments with the potential to change the printing paradigm. The Eastman Kodak Company is leading the change with the release of inkjets with cheaper inks. Several other vendors have followed suit, including HP and its line of small business inkjets that significantly increase the amount of pages per cartridge and slashes overall costs. Further, color laser prices have fallen to a point that makes them much more inviting.

So which type of printer makes the most sense for the average small business?

Inkjet Revival

Inkjet printers are the easy choice. You can pick one up for $50 – and in some cases vendors give them away with other hardware. But that’s just the beginning of the total cost picture. Ink is very expensive – $20 to $40 for cartridges that print only a couple of hundred sheets.

Kodak changed all that last year with the EasyShare 5500 all-in-one (AiO) which can print, scan, copy and fax. It retails for $199.99 and prints up to 32 pages per minute in black and 30 pages per minute in color.  With black cartridges at $9.99 and color at $14.99, that’s savings of up to 50 percent compared to similar inkjet printers.

“The Kodak EasyShare 5500 All-in-One Printer is ideal for a home office or small business,” said Steve Marzio, business manager for inkjet systems at Kodak. “Business owners can print crisp documents and lab-quality photos without worrying about breaking the bank.”

When the Kodak printers came out, an independent testing company called  QualityLogic conducted tests comparing the EasyShare 5300 with printers from Brother, Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark. Kodak won out in terms of price/performance. QualityLogic followed this up a few months ago by comparing the EasyShare to several European models with similar results.

“Kodak's ink pricing has certainly been a shift towards lower cost of ink per page,” said Dave Jollota, president of QualityLogic’s imaging test solutions group.

The other vendors haven’t taking this lying down, however. Epson has slashed ink prices. Brother, Canon, HP and Lexmark have all released more cost-effective and small business-friendly inkjets. HP has also created a line of inkjets designed more for the small office than the home. The HP Officejet Pro L7000 All-in-One series starts at $299

Larry Trevarthen, director of worldwide SMB marketing for the HP LaserJet business unit says that customers in a home office or a small business environment will find that the Officejet Pro is faster than color lasers, and it delivers professional color quality at half the cost per page.

Most analysts dispute his statement about inkjet costs, however (see below).

Laser Amazers

HP doesn’t just sell inkjet printers. It has an extensive line of lasers, too. So how does it determine which is right for a specific customer?

“Small businesses should assess their printing environment to determine which technology is most appropriate for them,” said Trevarthen. “They should assess their printing needs based on performance, print quality, affordability, networking, supplies yield, intervention rate [how often you have to handle a problem] and remote management.”

He suggested that companies with some kind of IT support may prefer laser technology as it provides the highest duty cycle, lower intervention rates, and it's durable on all media with the best print quality overall. While both HP ink and laser printers are networkable, lasers can be set up on larger, more sophisticated networks. They also have higher-capacity supplies, more robust remote monitoring and are more suited to higher volume printing.

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One color laser example is the HP Color LaserJet CP3505, which starts at $699 and includes the HP In-House Marketing Resource Center software package. SMBs can use this to produce high-quality marketing materials in-house.

But the business world remains leery of the cost associated with color lasers. Despite the availability of cheaper color lasers and lower costs per page, monochrome lasers continue to dominate the market with 55 percent of total sales, according to Lyra Research.

“A persistent monochrome mindset remains in most enterprises,” said Cortney Kasuba, an analyst with Lyra. “Office workers tend to reserve printing in color for special occasions or specific event-driven print jobs.”

Such reticence is understandable. A Lyra survey found that few employees are aware of the price of color copies. Three quarters thought color copies were either the same price or no more than twice as much as black and white. Only seven percent knew the actual truth – color is about four times more expensive.

Accordingly, the big vendors continue to roll out monochrome gear. HP has the LaserJet 1020 as a big seller while Samsung offers the ML-1630. Brother and Ricoh have released similar tools. Most of them print at 20-to-30 pages a minute and carry a relatively low price tag– some less than $300.

“The cost of laser is definitely coming down, but SMBs should be aware that it costs more to print in black-and-white on a color laser,” said Ken Weilerstein, an analyst at Gartner. “Further, SMBs should be aware that it costs a good deal more to print on a personal inkjet than it does to print on lasers.”

He feels that perhaps a small operation can get buy by giving each employee their own inkjet. But once you get to more than a handful, this becomes very expensive. It is better at that point to introduce shared laser printers.

Corral the Chaos

Weilerstein pointed out that many SMBs could be suffering from printing chaos due to rapid expansion. As your business gets larger, what do you do? Take a quick trip down to Office Depot to buy computers and personal inkjets for new employees. You end up with a wide range of gear from different manufacturers. This leads to a supply headache as you have to restock a bunch of different cartridges – which is a lot more expensive than buying a networkable inkjet or a laser printer.

“There is a 10-to-30 percent savings opportunity through printer and vendor consolidation,” said Weilerstein.  “Dealers can probably advise SMBs on how to get the best deals and what kind of equipment would meet their needs.”

In general, though, he recommended buying more expensive equipment. The maxim appears to be that the pricier the printer, the cheaper the ink. SMBs, then, should find the sweet spot based on the amount of printing they do and the type of hardware.

Companies that need high-volume, high-quality printing require a top-of-the-line color laser, perhaps with a monochrome laser added to handle routine printing needs and lower overall costs.

SMBs with more modest requirements should buy a mid-range color laser – or even a monochrome laser for everyday printing and an office inkjet for color. Both printers should be capable of being networked – and obviously bigger shops would need additional printers.

For small outfits, it’s hard to beat a cheap monochrome – but keep an inkjet around for occasional color needs.

Weilerstein lays out the cost picture roughly as follows (for companies that have organized their printing scheme): Monochrome laser costs about two-to-three cents per page (about half that is for consumables, the rest for hardware). Color laser printing runs 10 to 15 cents, and a personal inkjet is about double that price.

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 Wednesday Feb 27th 2008
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