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BBC Watchdog program again raises thorny issue of the cost of ink but ignores half the story

Issue #1304 – As you know, CharisCo Printer Labs is passionate about Total Cost of Printing and the best interests of the customer/consumer/user. Therefore, I have responded to an item on the BBC’s Watchdog primetime consumer program last week (1st May, 2013) to alert the presenters, producers and researchers to the fact that there is a very positive message for consumers about the cost of ink. Read on for my letter to Watchdog ….

For those who have not seen the item, or live outside the UK and are unable to view the program directly, the following link leads to the relevant clip from the program.

8th May 2013

Anne Robinson
Watchdog, W1 NBH 07C
BBC New Broadcasting House
Portland Place

Dear Anne,

Your item last week concerning printer ink was both interesting and challenging. The facts presented were clear and accurate.

There is, however, another half to the story that presents real positives for the consumer. As an independent Industry Analyst, please would you permit me to relate that ‘other half’?


  • Total Cost of Printing (inkjet) has actually fallen dramatically over the last decade
  • Technology has advanced by light years to increase print speeds spectacularly, as well as efficiency and capability
  • Most printers on the market today are sold at prices that provide minimal profit levels to the manufacturer – and often the distributors and resellers as well – some actually being sold at a loss to the manufacturer
  • Technology development for each new generation of inkjet printer represents a major technological challenge and investment
  • Every printer generation involves: research and development of a new print head (usually increasing its size to improve print speeds); development of new ink chemistry and papers to improve performance (e.g. dry time, water fastness and light fastness) …
  • … all costing UPWARDS of half a Billion US Dollars for each generation.

Part of the public outcry about the cost of ink is based on the fact that consumers have no option but to buy cartridges designed specifically for their particular model of printer (typical of many industries/product groups where accessories are unique to the item), linked with the fact that they are not provided with adequate information to help them understand the issues.

Watchdog’s mission is to inform and guide consumers so that they can avoid the pitfalls of the unscrupulous trader – in other words, to champion the cause of the consumer. My mission is exactly the same, with a specific focus on printers and the Total Cost of Printing.

The trouble is – the only pitfalls in buying printers and cartridges arise from a lack of understanding and a lack of information. As a whole, the printer industry has certainly been very remiss over the years in its desire and ability to communicate to customers and potential buyers proper and full information regarding Total Cost of Printing. The printer manufacturers are aware of that fact and have made some progress over the yeas in rectifying the situation as the issue has experienced a heightening profile.

So, to the salient points:

Cost of Printing (inkjet) has fallen dramatically over the last decade

We are all familiar with the falling costs of technology. Total Cost of Printing is no exception.

With more highly honed technology, manufacturing processes and XL ink cartridges containing more ink, the Total Cost of Printing using typical consumer inkjet printers has fallen by 42% in 10 years. The Total Cost of Printing using business inkjet printers, however, has fallen by a massive 71%, even to the point where direct comparisons place current inkjet models at half the cost of running equivalent laser models!

What I’ve done in the chart below is to take the three primary printers that would have been purchased at specific points over the last decade in each of three categories and calculated their running costs using today’s cartridge prices and power cost (all printers from the same manufacturer). I think you will agree that the result is dramatic!

Reducing cost of inkjet printing

For users still running printers that are 10 or more years old, as was your reporter, it is almost certain to be well worth upgrading and buying a new machine. It is just a question of putting in some careful thought and research before buying to maximise the chances of making the best, and most cost-effective, choice.

Comparing ink costs with other products

Funnily enough, ink is not the most expensive liquid available on the high street.

Last week’s show presented some facts that were actually voiced more than a decade ago. Sadly, although fascinating, this does not present the consumer with any new information or provide any guidance on how to avoid the pitfalls of selecting printers – which do exist.

For instance, “printer ink is more expensive than Champagne and Petrol”:

  • Champagne and Petrol are traditional products with no accompanying hardware technology development over the years
  • Neither have a hardware unit that is exclusive to them. All brands can be used across brands of drinking glass or motor.

How about perfume? As with champagne and petrol, there is no hardware technology sitting behind the manufacture of perfume or its use. Yet the most popular brand of perfume in the UK (Chanel No.5), bought in an average department store on the UK high street, costs the equivalent of £1,206 per litre. A slightly more exclusive brand (Guerlain Chamade Eau de Parfum), in the same store, costs £3,636 per litre, while Clive Christian 1872 Pure Perfume with Silk costs the equivalent of £27,650 per litre in Urban Retreat at Harrods. The most expensive perfume in the world (Imperial Majesty from Clive Christian) is said to cost the equivalent of over £270,000 per litre.

Just to put the record straight on the cost of ink – a litre of black ink used in Hewlett-Packard’s HP 932XL cartridge for the Officejet 6600 (as used in the comparisons contained in this letter and using the same prices as used in these comparisons) costs the equivalent of just £1,199 per litre – less than Chanel No.5 – and that is NOT the cheapest ink around!

Avoiding the pitfalls and wasting money on ink

When buying a printer, the consumer needs to consider a number of factors. Then, and only then, can the ‘right’ printer for the job, and at the right cost, be selected. You are clearly well aware that the purchase price of the printer is largely irrelevant to the long-term costs associated with a printer. But, turn this around and you make a startling and intriguing discovery.

That is – spend a little more on buying the right printer in the first place and it will cost you less in the long run!! (And, spending a little more up front will also give you a faster print speed.)

Why? As you so rightly pointed out in the show last week, it’s all about the cartridges!

Let me explain.

Printer Cartridges

In the ‘olden days’, inkjet cartridges were mostly (but not exclusively) constructed like the cartridges you showed, with the print head integrated with the ink tank. More recently, many ink cartridges are actually just fuel tanks that feed ink to a print head that is a more permanent part of the printer. These cartridges offer more scope for higher ink capacity than the integrated cartridges and they don’t have to sit on the print head – ink can be fed from cartridge to print head using a flexible tube, meaning they can be bigger and heavier.

Therefore – always buy a printer that has four separate cartridges instead of a tri-colour cartridge (a single cartridge that contains all three colours).

But, more important even than this is the fact that most printer manufacturers offer more than one size of cartridge for most of their printers.

  • A low capacity cartridge for those who print very little and specifically want to minimise the amount of money leaving their pocket at any one time – thus minimising what is sometimes called ‘ticket shock’
  • A high capacity cartridge that costs a bit more but prints a lot more pages and offers a much lower Total Cost of Printing.

Several times a week I receive emails informing me that I can “Save up to 50% on printing costs with XL cartridges”. But then, I am an independent industry analyst, I know this fact to be true and I am registered with a variety of organisations so that I can collect research data!

Often, consumers are completely unaware that they can spend a little more in the short term but a lot less in the long term by making an informed decision.

As you used HP cartridges in your item, let’s check out the HP range – 19 active models of inkjet desktop All-in-One. They are divided into five main categories, as follows:

Category Correspondence
Print Speed
Cartridge Life
Cartridge Life
Black Colour Black Colour
Low-cost consumer 4-7.5ppm 150-200 150-165 480-600 330-430
Prosumer 4-14ppm 200-250 300-360 550-700 360-750
Entry-level business 7-16ppm 250-420 300-330 550-1,200 700-825
Small office 13-20ppm 1,000 700 2,300 1,500
Serious business 36-42ppm 3,000 2,500 9,200 6,600

So, you can see that the user has a choice of cartridges and that the higher up the hardware range you go, the more pages you get from the relevant cartridges.

Let’s make a few comparisons of Total Cost of Printing (TCP).

All prices from one major UK E-tailer Purchase Price
Low-cost consumer
Deskjet 2510
Deskjet 3520
Entry-level business
Officejet 6600

Note 1: The calculations in the accompanying charts are based on average home printing usage derived from CharisCo Printer Labs online consumer survey: Page coverage per colour = 13.5%; pages printed in colour = 30%; and on printers being powered on 24 hours per day, 365 days per year and with running costs calculated over 3 years of ownership.

Note 2: All prices used in the calculations are sourced from one leading UK E-tailer, May 2013. Cost of power is taken as an average 15p per KwH.

Running costs

You will note that, at the lowest monthly printing volume (5 pages per month), it is the cheapest printer that has the lowest running costs. This is because it would be necessary to buy one complete set of cartridges for each printer before the end of the three years in order to be able to print the total of 180 pages. Because the prices relate to the XL cartridges, the cost of a full set is higher for the higher levels of printer than for the cheapest printer.

However, while there would be just a little ink left in the cartridges for the cheapest printer at the end of the three years, there would be a massive amount of ink left in the cartridges for the business printer. In fact, for the business printer, it would make no sense to buy the XL cartridges at this print volume, thus actually reducing the cost by some £29 – actually just making it cheaper to run than the low-cost consumer printer!!

So, at the higher monthly print volumes, the larger quantity of ink in the cartridges for the higher level printers comes into its own and these printers very rapidly demonstrate that they are much cheaper to run than the cheapest printer.

Just to prove the point that consumers should always consider the ink cartridge configuration and the long-term total costs when buying a printer, rather than just buying the cheapest, in the chart below I have added in the cost of buying the printer at the outset.

Total Cost of Printing

This clearly shows that, at the lowest monthly printing volume (5 pages per month), it is the purchase price that is quite definitely most important. Therefore, the cheapest printer available will suffice.

However, where a user is printing anything like the average monthly volume, as determined by our online consumer survey, the cost of the ink cartridges becomes the most important factor – and the scale of the importance then increases with the number of pages printed.

In these scenarios, we’re looking at consumers benefiting from an overall 16% cost advantage (£63) over three years from buying the business printer rather than the cheapest, if they print average volumes (40 pages per month). And, if they have a high print volume (lots of school homework for instance!!), then the overall saving is 29% over three years (£271).

Here is the positive side of the story to present to viewers: the principle for buying a printer always has to be:

  • Work out how many pages you print each month
  • Do the research on both printer and cartridges
  • Avoid printers that use multicolour cartridges
  • Always consider the long term implications when setting your budget
  • Unless print volumes are incredibly low:
    • Buy the printer that has the biggest possible cartridges
    • Always buy the XL cartridges
    • and stretch the budget if you can

The benefits will be more than just money spent.

A word on printer technology

Printers and printing, especially inkjet, is an incredibly complex ecosystem, with print heads that are capable of firing 35,000 droplets of ink, from each nozzle, onto a page every second. A typical consumer or small business printer may have 1,200 nozzles for each of four colours (about 1” wide). This means that the printer is capable of firing 168 million droplets every second it is printing.

Introduced just a couple of months ago, Hewlett-Packard’s latest business inkjet printer has a print head that does not move like the print heads in our current inkjet printers – it is fixed in place, is 8½ inches wide (page width) and has 42,240 nozzles (10,560 nozzles per colour!!). This print head is capable of firing a phenomenal one billion ink droplets per second and the printer can churn out 42 pages of correspondence quality documentation per minute – faster than any colour laser printer in the same class and at half the cost to the user. The cost of developing this hardware/ink ecosystem has to be in excess of 1.5bn US Dollars (although HP will never reveal the exact figure).

On top of this, inkjet printers manage to fire these ink droplets with such incredible precision that the end result we see is a beautiful, detailed photograph or a high quality document. After 20 years close involvement with printers, I still have difficulty really grasping how this is possible. It is like trying to get to grips with space being infinite.

It just is not possible for technological advancements of this nature to occur without the investment of the printer manufacturers.

What this all means is that the cost of development – of keeping us, the customer, satisfied with the performance of our printers – has to be recovered from somewhere. Because of the price war, instigated largely by Lexmark in the mid-1990’s, the cost recovery from hardware sales is minimal. Therefore, the cost has to be recovered from the sale of ink. This is actually a very fair way of recovering costs because those who print more, contribute more. It can be compared to the motorway tolls of France or the proposals to transfer Road Tax to the cost of fuel.

More help for consumers to come

CharisCo Printer Labs has developed a software solution (tcprojector API) that is specifically designed to help consumers and businesses alike to choose the best, most cost-effective printer for their purposes. It will be embedded into E-tail web sites and allow potential buyers to compare long-term costs between different printers, using the E-tailer’s current prices, right alongside the purchase price and technical specification. And, consumers are able to customise the calculations to reflect their own print volumes and other usage characteristics. So, the resulting cost projections are highly personalised, providing valuable information, that has never been available before, to help purchase decisions.

I am aware that the BBC is not permitted to advertise but it is important that consumers are aware that the item you screened last week is not actually negative but a case of individuality and choices. They need an understanding of the whole set of facts to be able to make those choices to their best advantage. Also, that real help is at hand.

I’m sure you will appreciate that this is a very deep subject, with many different facets, only the most pertinent of which I have been able to cover here. I would be very happy, and able, to provide you with more information relating to a wide variety of Total Cost of Printing attributes – in particular the fact that “compatible inks can, and do, kill printers”.

Please understand again that this letter is not about running anyone down and certainly not about pandering to the printer manufacturers. The manufacturers understand and appreciate my independence, even though they frequently do not like what I say! My sole concern is for the pockets and mental/emotional welfare of printer users. Total Cost of Printing is not well understood but heavily misunderstood and often side-lined in favour of mere purchase price.

I hope you will take the time to digest this information and feel that you can go some way towards presenting some positive facts regarding Total Cost of Printing to your viewers.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Maude
CharisCo Printer Labs

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