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“People say colour laser is cheaper than colour inkjet – true or false?”

Issue #0810/1 – Colour laser technology is the Holy Grail of office printing and hardware purchase prices are now so competitive that it has come within reach of most businesses and many families. But, are we rejecting inkjet technology too quickly and for the wrong reasons? Inkjet can not only outperform laser but can be as much as 50% less expensive to own.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “colour laser is cheaper than inkjet”! It is always said with such conviction, an air of certainty and an assumption that there could never be any doubt about this ‘well-known fact’.

So why is laser so commonly perceived to be the less costly option? Is it basically a matter of prejudice? Is it the “let’s be cool, let’s buy laser” syndrome? Is it genuine misunderstanding? Or is it a question of misinformation?

Some of those people who boldly pronounce that laser is cheaper than inkjet are those who either have nothing to do with inkjet, and therefore don’t know, or those who jobs depend on sales of laser printers and therefore have a vested interest in portraying laser as the cheaper option.

In an economic environment where every penny counts, we are under threat of recession putting our economy at risk, while exchange rates and investment returns are playing havoc with available funds, the Holy Grail may have been incorrectly defined or be outdated.

Let’s start off with consideration of why laser is the Holy Grail and inkjet the scourge of business printing.

Hewlett-Packard Colour LaserJet CM1017 MFPHewlett-Packard
Colour LaserJet
CM1017 MFP

Colour laser is a very attractive technology for a variety of reasons: text is crisp; business graphics are vibrant, printing is quiet and print speeds are high – even multifunction machines costing only £250 (ex. VAT) are capable of printing at 8ppm in colour.

Inkjet on the other hand is unattractive because: text is ragged; colours in business graphics are washed out; printing is noisy and print speeds are slow – typical print speed in normal mode rarely exceeds 3ppm.

Generally speaking, laser is supposed to be faster, cleaner, quieter, cheaper, more durable, better quality and more professional than inkjet.

… or so the perception goes.

Sure – inkjet print speed can still be very slow, even bearing in mind the advances made over the last twenty plus years of development.

Print speed from some of the better home, small office and photo inkjet printers and All-in-Ones range from about 1.9ppm to about 6.6ppm in black and from 0.6ppm to 2.7ppm in colour when printing in normal mode for correspondence quality printing (tested using CharisCo Printer Labs 5% CPL05IL and 20% CPL20DP office test documents).

Compare this to the bottom end of the colour laser market and inkjet is up against a maximum of 20ppm in black and 8ppm in colour (but not from the same printer). It is here that a choice has to be made – 20ppm black and 5ppm colour or 8ppm in both black and colour.

However, we need to delve deeper than this to unearth the reasons why inkjet should not be dismissed out-of-hand. It does not rest solely on print speed, nor solely on print quality but on a range of criteria that work together to determine the suitability of the technology.

It would be difficult to enter into a full analysis and comparison without creating a book, but consider these pointers:

  • Pigment inks are capable of producing text and business graphics that are of near-laser quality – this means that, to the naked eye at normal viewing distances, print quality is more than adequate for general purpose business printing, even on plain paper.
  • Ink technology has advanced so much over the last decade that business graphics do not have to look washed out when printed on plain paper. It has long been accepted that inkjet technology is best for printing high quality glossy photos so, if we are looking to produce in-house marketing materials, even if laser technology is now much better at printing photographs than it used to be, inkjet may still be better.
  • In recent tests, CharisCo Printer Labs has measured noise pressure from one of the best inkjet printers that is as much as 24dBA lower than a four-pass colour laser printer! With every 6dBA representing double the volume, this 24dBA extra sound pressure from the laser device means that it is 16x noisier than the inkjet!
  • Inkjet printing technology in general has advanced so much that we are now seeing print speeds in draft mode as high as 40ppm (black printing). Now, printing office documents in draft mode is not likely to satisfy most business users (but quality is good enough to satisfy many users for some applications) – even if the pages do appear at the rate of at 40ppm. However, there are inkjet printers on the market, designed for business use, where print speed at correspondence quality is claimed to be as high as 10ppm in mono and 12ppm in colour.

    One inkjet All-in-One currently on the market (and tested by CharisCo Printer Labs) can produce a first black and white copy from the platen in an astonishing nine seconds and will churn out multiple copies at the rate of one every six seconds – 10.6ppm!

High speeds in these printers are achieved using a very large print head with parallel rows of nozzles. Essentially, the larger the print head, the more potential there is for fast printing (see article – TCPglobal Issue #0406).

In Hewlett-Packard’s case, print heads for current machines are built using the company’s Scalable Printing Technology (SPT) manufacturing techniques. Hewlett-Packard’s fastest inkjet printing is 36ppm in draft quality while Epson has made it to the 40ppm level in draft quality.

Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Pro 7580Hewlett-Packard
OfficeJet Pro 7580

For correspondence quality printing, it is Hewlett-Packard’s Officejet Pro series that offer the highest print speeds currently available with desktop inkjet technology – at 12ppm in black and 10ppm in colour.

But – laser printer manufacturers beware – there is scope for inkjet technology to go much much further.

If we want to go to extremes, bear in mind that Hewlett-Packard’s CM8000 series departmental A3 MFPs print at up to 50ppm in colour and 60ppm in mono (A4 print speed) with a monthly duty cycle of up to a quarter of a million prints – and, yes, they are inkjet printers with SPT print heads printing at correspondence quality!!

If Hewlett-Packard’s Scalable Printing Technology were to be developed into a full width A4 print head, where only the paper moves under a static head, these speeds could easily be achieved in a much smaller and less expensive device than the current CM8000 series.

One major reason why this has not happened yet is that ink has to dry on the paper before too much contact occurs, to avoid or minimise potential for smudging (especially if printing both sides of the paper), whereas toner is fixed by the heat of fuser rollers and is therefore not susceptible to smudging.

ColorLok

However, with the rate at which ink and media technology development is running, this will not be an issue for much longer. The ColorLok Paper Standard for inkjet paper (www.colorlok.com) has been designed to offer faster dry times, bolder blacks (higher optical density) and more vivid colours (higher optical density and contrast). Only paper manufacturers meeting rigorous standards can use the ColorLok logo.

So, if we are prepared to accept the premise that we can achieve equivalent print quality at an equivalent print speed at lower noise levels, we are left with Total Cost of Printing as the deciding factor.

TCPglobal’s mission is to investigate, analyse and clarify the whole Total Cost of Printing issue, so the following few paragraphs are just a summary of a small proportion of the material that can be found in the hundreds of articles published over the years.

Where inkjet printers are concerned, Total Cost of Printing to the user depends mostly on the choice of printer and print volumes. It is the manufacturers that govern the prices charged for the printers and supplies and, broadly speaking, they all work to the same principles of pricing structure according to a particular model’s position in the range, target market and expected volume of sales.

Manufacturers expect to achieve a higher revenue per page from a low-volume user than from a high-volume user because the number of cartridges the user will purchase.

To the customer, the most important factor is to know which cartridges are used by the preferred printer. This is critical because some printers will accept only low-capacity cartridges (sometimes containing only 3ml or 5ml of ink), whereas others will also accept high capacity cartridges containing up to about 19ml of ink.

It is worth noting here that many older models of inkjet printer used cartridges containing up to 42ml of ink. Manufacturers have steadily reduced ink capacity over the years in their search for profit in a competitive market.

In order to achieve anything like a sensible Cost of Printing, users must select the printer (from the manufacturer of choice) that uses the highest capacity cartridges possible. This applies primarily to printers from Canon, Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark that use integrated tricolour cartridges.

All three of these manufacturers sell low capacity and high capacity alternatives for many of their printers. BUT, in some cases, use of the high capacity option is denied because the printer is targeted at the lower end of the market where print volumes are very low – manufacturers need users to buy more than one cartridge per year! By restricting access to high capacity cartridges, the manufacturer forces a higher Total Cost of Printing on the user.

Although Hewlett-Packard sells individual ink cartridges for its Officejet Pro and Business Inkjet products (particularly the HP88 cartridge series) in both low capacity and high capacity versions, other individual ink print systems (from Brother, Canon and Epson) do not offer alternatives.

That said, the same principle very clearly applies. The difference is that the one cartridge offered for each printer is designed specifically for the target market. So, printers targeted at the low-end of the market utilise a low capacity cartridge while printers targeted more towards the business end of the market utilise a higher capacity cartridge.

Brother’s ink system is the clearest example. Printers use either the LC970 series cartridges or the LC1000 series. Both are identical in construction but contain different amounts of ink – the LC970 is a low capacity cartridge for use in the low-end printers while the LC1000 is a high capacity cartridge for use in business oriented printers. The only physical difference is a key system built onto the cartridge casing that determines which printer it fits.

Often the difference in purchase price for two printers using different cartridges is relatively small but the difference in Total Cost of Printing over a three-year period can be significant.

So, two basic principles of Total Cost of Printing apply:

  • the cheaper the hardware, the more expensive to run long-term
  • the smaller the cartridges, the more expensive to run long-term

For the sake of direct comparison, we will illustrate the point with products from Hewlett-Packard because it has a wide product range and because it is the market leader.

We have chosen four machines to demonstrate how the Cost of Printing dynamics work and to illustrate where much of the misunderstanding over the cost of inkjet printing has come from.

The basic comparison is between the Officejet Pro L7580 and the Colour LaserJet CM1017 MFP. These two machines are broadly comparable in specification but with the Officejet Pro actually offering a higher manufacturer’s rated print speed than the laser device. But, the L7580 offers fax functionality where the CM1017 does not.

We have also added the Officejet Pro L7780 into the equation because it also offers an additional 350-sheet paper feed and auto-duplex capability at a purchase price that is only a little higher than the laser device.

Then we have added an entry-level device from Hewlett-Packard’s range to show just where the popular opinion that ‘inkjet printers are more expensive than laser printers’ comes from.

Check out the figures – they are compelling! Even the more expensive, higher specification Officejet Pro L7780 works out up to 50% less costly to run over three years than the Colour LaserJet CM1017 MFP but the cheap and slow Deskjet F2180 costs as much as 77% more than the CM1017.

Cost of Purchase – Colour laser vs Inkjet


Total Cost of Printing – Colour laser vs Inkjet

UK Laser Quality
Print Speed
Street Price
(ex VAT)
Total Expenditure
(3 yrs) Light user
Total Expenditure
(3 yrs) Heavy user
Hewlett-Packard
CLJ CM1017 MFP
Mono
Colour
£250.99 £517.99 £1,541.99
Hewlett-Packard
Officejet L7580
Mono
Colour
£180.29 £330.09 £683.96
Hewlett-Packard
Officejet L7780
Mono
Colour
£270.37 £420.27 £774.04
Hewlett-Packard
Deskjet F2180
Mono
Colour
£46.55 £745.79 £2,853.50

Note: Light use is 250 pages per month; Heavy use is 1,000 pages per month. The total expenditure over three years shown in the accompanying table and chart is calculated on the basis of 70% pages in mono and 30% pages in colour; is based on the use of maximum capacity supplies where available; takes into account any standard, or starter, supplies shipped with the device; and also includes the cost of purchase. All prices are street prices without tax and are from a single source.

Both Officejet machines are cheaper to run in the long term than the laser printer, regardless of low usage and the fact that the L7780 costs more to buy in the first place. They become more and more attractive as print volumes rise. By contrast the low-end F2180 is dirt cheap to buy but costs a fortune to print the kind of volumes expected of a printer in a small business environment.

Just to prove the point more thoroughly, let’s also introduce a couple of the more significant business oriented inkjet models from other manufacturers, together with accompanying low-end models where appropriate (note – Lexmark inkjet printers are never competitive and so are ignored here while Epson’s DX4400 has been discontinued and the DX7400 is the current entry point).

Cost of Purchase – Colour laser vs Inkjet


At this level, the offerings are all very much less costly to buy (around one-fifth) than the laser printer (and the business inkjet machines) but none have a fax function, making them directly comparable to the CM1017MFP – whereas the Officejets do offer fax.

Total Cost of Printing – Colour laser vs Inkjet


When we look at the Total Cost of Printing, however, it is intriguing to note that, for light users, even Brother’s low-end DCP-135C with its low capacity cartridges costs exactly the same as the laser device over three years. Indeed, the overall cost of Canon’s low-end MP210 is less than 10% higher than the CM1017MFP.

Which means – all of the inkjet machines that are targeted at a higher level audience, are less costly to run at low print volumes than the laser printer.

Canon MP520Canon MP520
At higher business volumes the situation changes though. While two of them (Brother DCP-350C and Epson Stylus DX7400 cost about the same as the CM1017, it is Canon’s MP520 that stands out from the crowd.
At 1,000 pages per month, this machine actually costs less than the CM1017 by a margin of 25%! It is also 47% less expensive to run than its own low-end sibling, the MP210.
UK Laser Quality
Print Speed
Street Price
(ex VAT)
Total Expenditure
(3 yrs) Light user
Total Expenditure
(3 yrs) Heavy user
Hewlett-Packard
CLJ CM1017 MFP
Mono
Colour
£250.99 £517.99 £1,541.99
Brother DCP-135C Mono
Colour
£42.41 £520.64 £1,976.33
Brother DCP-350C Mono
Colour
£64.05 £442.05 £1,648.05
Canon PIXMA MP210 Mono
Colour
£35.64 £570.87 £2,177.05
Canon PIXMA MP520 Mono
Colour
£71.13 £320.89 £1,152.61
Epson Stylus DX7400 Mono
Colour
£60.35 £444.80 £1,633.10

Note: Light use is 250 pages per month; Heavy use is 1,000 pages per month. The total expenditure over three years shown in the accompanying table and chart is calculated on the basis of 70% pages in mono and 30% pages in colour; is based on the use of maximum capacity supplies where available; takes into account any standard, or starter, supplies shipped with the device; and also includes the cost of purchase. All prices are street prices without tax and are from a single source.

So, with a little investigation and determination to select the right printer, it is possible even to find a relatively ordinary inkjet printer that will rival and beat a low-end laser printer for Total Cost of Printing. And, for those with serious printing needs, Hewlett-Packard Officejets, using the HP88 ink set, offer the best economy of all.

The downside to this scenario is that it is only the Officejet Pro printers that offer an inkjet print speed capable of rivalling speeds from low-end colour laser printers. None of the devices in this group match the print speed of four-pass colour laser printers in colour and not even Canon’s MP520 (the fastest in the group) can match the mono print speed of the single-pass CM1017.

One very important note to make at this point is that the print speed figures quoted here for the Brother, Canon and Epson inkjet printers are taken from test results undertaken by CharisCo Printer Labs using real office documents whereas the figures for the Colour LaserJet printer and OfficeJet printers are manufacturer’s quoted data.

Another downside is that regular consumer inkjet printers and AiOs rarely offer network interface as a standard feature whereas all of the upmarket business machines discussed come with Ethernet as standard.

However, a business should be selecting a business oriented printer and not a consumer printer. So, to round up this discussion:

  • Fact – Inkjet printers are not necessarily more expensive to run than laser printers.
  • Fact – Inkjet printers are not necessarily slower than laser printers
  • Fact – Inkjet printers are not necessarily noisier than laser printers
  • Fact – Research available printers and choose carefully to find an inkjet device that IS less expensive, as fast and quieter than a laser printer

~End~