Why Are Printers So Cheap, but Printer Ink is So Expensive?

If printers were cars, many people would be able to afford an entire fleet of them but not have the money to fuel them up. Printer ink just might be one of the most expensive liquids you buy, according to Consumer Reports.

Why is printer ink so expensive?

A recent study shows that a gallon of black gold costs roughly $9,600, or enough gas for the next 60,000 miles. Even the cheapest ink costs $13 an ounce, more than you’d pay for decent champagne.

The sticker price of an inkjet or laser printer for the home office, on the other hand, seems disproportionately lower. CNET has reviewed several “excellent” inkjet and laser printers in the $150 to $400 range. So why is there such a wide discrepancy between printer cost and printer ink cost?

If you take the word of Thom Brown, marketing manager at HP, the reason printer ink is so expensive is similar to the reason pharmaceutical companies charge so much for drugs: you pay for the research behind the substance, not the substance itself. In 2010, HP was spending more than $1 billion a year on ink research, says Brown. Better research leads to more accurate, higher-quality printed documents. This would seem to explain why you can always find cut-rate generic brand cartridges that probably won’t match the printing quality of name-brand ink cartridges.

printer ink
Printer Ink

Further, printer and ink cartridge manufacturers hold themselves to criteria set forth by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). The ISO/IEC standardizations allow reviewers to compare printers against each other on a level playing field. The costs of meeting these standards go into printer ink costs as well, while generic printer cartridges rely on their low cost – not necessarily their quality – as their main selling point. And manufacturers will warn that printing quality will be compromised unless only genuine name-brand cartridges are used.

Whether or not the rationale behind the cost of printer ink speaks to you, the goal for affording a functional printer is still the same: conserve ink. To borrow the car analogy again, the best value isn’t always in the cheapest car, especially if it runs on only ultra-premium grade gas. The key to affordability in a car is miles per gallon, or in the case of printers, cost per page.

An inexpensive printer that wastes ink all of the time won’t pay for itself down the road. So if you’re in the market for a printer and you’re looking to save money over the long term, ignore the sticker price at first. Consumer Reports has an excellent list of printer reviews that account for ink efficiency. The magazine recommends that you first take into account the overall score of the printer before considering the cost, then go from there. Other points to consider would be ink cartridge cost, obviously, as well as your printing habits – how often do you print and how many pages at a time?

Purchasing an ink-efficient printer may not help to ease the pain of paying so much for ink, but it might mean you don’t need to think about it as often.

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