Ink: A Blot on the Budget

By Drew Robb | Posted July 16, 2007

Printer ink costs a small fortune. Now tell small business owners something they don't already know. But how do ink prices stack up against other high-priced fluids that we depend on? Everybody thinks gas is expensive these days. Water is far pricier at somewhere north of $10 a gallon.

But it’s even worse with printer ink. If you take the actual amount of ink that an inkjet cartridge contains, it works out to thousands of dollars a gallon – which is downright ridiculous. Yet the big companies insist they offer high value and low-cost printing. With an inkjet printer in nearly every home, home office or small business, there's a huge amount of money at stake, and no lack of controversy.

“The consumer inkjet printer industry has relied on hooking consumers with low-priced hardware,” said Magnus Felke, worldwide product marketing director at Eastman Kodak. “This means that the industry’s best customers have been taken advantage of with this model of low-priced printers, but very high-priced ink.”

Kodak upset the gravy train by entering the market by introducing a line of consumer inkjet printing known as Kodak EasyShare All-in-One (AIO) printers that use lower-cost premium ink.

“Kodak is revolutionizing the consumer inkjet printing industry with a bold new model – premium ink for half the cost,” said Felke. “With the most affordable premium ink ever, consumers can now create lab-quality pictures and documents that will not fade even in the course of a lifetime.”

Kodak designed the EasyShare for volume printing, something that might be very attractive to some small businesses. Kodak claims its premium ink reduces the cost of volume printing high quality photos, graphics and black-on-white printing.

Testing, Testing, Testing
Kodak has partnered with chains such as Office Depot to sell the EasyShare printers. Customers at over 1,000 Office Depot outlets pay $9.99 for black ink cartridges and $14.99 for five-ink color cartridges. Ink yield testing by QualityLogic Inc. highlights the differences between the Kodak printers and several of its competitors.

QualityLogic tested the Kodak EasyShare 5300 All-in-One printer, the Brother MFC-5460N, four Canon PIXMA models, Two Epson Stylus inkjets, three HP Photosmart machines and two Lexmarks. From QualityLogic’s ink yield data, Kodak developed an ink cost-per-page analysis, comparing the cost of ink and printer photo paper for all printer models tested. The analysis concludes that Kodak EasyShare AIO printers offer consumers more pages for every $5 of ink purchased.

Of course, such tests can be rigged. All you have to do is fiddle with the printer settings or insist upon draft copies or best quality copies and you can make one printer look good and another look bad. And that’s exactly the accusation Hewlett-Packard's making with regard to the Kodak/QualityLogic test results.

“Kodak has made aggressive claims about savings that customers can achieve, and the results show that, compared to HP, it doesn’t hold true,” said Tuan Tran, vice president of sales and marketing at HP. “In some instances, printing black text, for example, Kodak’s products are more expensive.”

He gives the example of the HP Photosmart C5180 All-in-One for $179.00 (similarly priced to the Kodak EasyShare 5300 All-in-one printer for $199.99). The HP machine, said Tran, provides black text printing as low as 2.6 cents per page, while those using the Kodak printer spend 2.9 cents per page for black text printing (Kodak quotes numbers of 2.2 cents for its model and 5.9 cents for the HP C5180).

HP claims Kodak failed to arrange an apples-to-apples comparison. While the company takes issue with literally dozens of aspects of the QualityLogic report, much of it is nitpicking. Failure to include all available HP supplies such as larger discounted ink cartridges and value packs is one example.

“For driver settings, they used the Kodak auto detect mode (defined as normal quality), while all other printers they forced into best quality,” said Tran. “Note that for the HP C5180 they used Premium Plus Photo paper in best mode. The recommended paper for this printer is Advanced Photo Paper, and using this paper with Auto Sense defaults to normal quality. This means the yields are lower than what the typical customer would experience.”

HP went as far as to issue its critique of the QualityLogic tests publicly. And Kodak responded in kind.

“HP’s strategy appears to be to draw attention away from the results by questioning the validity of some of the testing methods used,” said Fenke. “To ensure credible and transparent testing and results, Kodak sought an independent testing facility with managers that sit on the ISO Standards Committee.”

Kodak then does its own nitpicking in response to HP's efforts to undermine the tests. The details can be found on the respective company’s Web sites. Both appear convincing. And that’s the problem.

Testing Standards
Fortunately, some sanity is being introduced into this contentious vendor climate courtesy of ISO/IEC standards such as ISO 24711. This was passed in December 2006 in an effort to provide a fair comparison of cartridge page yield.

”The value of ISO standards is that manufacturers can now enter into an honest debate over the life of an ink cartridge,” said Andy Lippman, an inkjet supplies analyst at Lyra Research, Inc. “But the ISO page yield standard is new and vendors are just beginning to market test results.”

However, even this worthwhile endeavor isn’t quite enough to end the bickering. Both HP and Kodak cite ISO testing methods and standards in an attempt to back up the validity of their own tests and the invalidity of those of their competitors.

Even Lippman admits that like other product test standards, the ISO 24711 is not perfect. “In some cases, the actual cartridge life will be shorter (and occasionally longer) than what test results show,” he said.

What's an SMB to Do?
Lippman offered interesting advice. In general, he suggested that people end their habit of being seduced by the cheapest ink jets on offer. Instead, he believes they should buy the newest and most expensive inkjet printer in their price range.

“This may sound counter intuitive, but more expensive printers are typically more efficient and have less expensive inks,” said Lippman. “I also recommend printers that use single-color tanks, because if you are printing multiple color copies, you can replace the inks individually.”

In terms of cartridge yield, he thinks that SMBs should look for a printer that uses high-capacity or high-yield cartridges of 500 pages or more. Select a printer based on specified needs in terms of functionality, speed, etc. Next consider the page yield or the cost-per-page test results, which are available from the manufacturer. In addition, look for a positive consensus among professional reviewers and individuals.

How about off-brand inkjet cartridges? Should SMBs consider these? The jury is still out on generics and their use comes down to individual experience. Some people swear by them, others curse them. HP, of course, can trot out test results to prove that compatible inkjet cartridges are downright dangerous. And whom do they use as a source of validation? QualityLogic.

The tests compared HP cartridges to 13 common brands of refilled inkjet print cartridges with regard to reliability and yield. QualityLogic concluded that HP inkjet cartridges printed 57.5 percent more pages, on average, than the refill brands tested. They were also found to be more reliable. None of the Original HP inkjet cartridges failed during the test, whereas an average of one-in-five refilled brands was either dead on arrival or failed prematurely.

"QualityLogic followed the strictest testing methodology to ensure the fairness and integrity of this comprehensive comparison study,” said Dave Jollota an executive at QualityLogic. “We bought everything at retail or online in order to closely mirror the customer experience. Our tests clearly showed that people using refilled or generic print cartridges may end up spending more, printing more wasted pages and dealing with problems during crucial printing deadlines.”

Lippman, though, takes more of a middle-of-the-road stance. He feels it is too difficult to calculate TCO when using compatibles. At this point, compatible makers do not publish page yields based on ISO 24711, so you can't make an apples-to-apples comparison between generic and branded consumables.

“Compatible cartridge reliability is the big cost variable,” said Lippman. “Some third-party cartridges meet OEM specifications and the customer saves money. Other compatibles fail prematurely and the customer would have been better off buying the OEM product.”

He states that there is a risk if you take with remanufactured cartridges, in particular, because the integrated print head was designed for single use. For this reason, he thinks compatible ink tanks (that do not contain a print head) are a safer alternative to remanufactured cartridges.

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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