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Inkjet can be faster and cheaper than laser! What does a small business need?

Issue #0921/1 – New printer and All-in-One hardware continues to fuel the inkjet vs laser argument as technology developments takes each category forwards. As inkjet print speeds continue to increase, laser technology focuses on faster single-pass printer engines and A3 inkjet A3 enters the arena, what is it that a small business needs and what are the costs involved?

Small businesses cannot operate without a print facility, nor can most operate without some kind of copy, scan and maybe fax facility at some point during the financial year. This is the driver behind the phenomenal rise of the All-in-One multifunctional device over this decade. But, the more recent existence of laser AiO technology at the low end has begun to draw small businesses away from inkjet technology. What is still little understood by users is just how much conventional attitudes and thinking regarding laser vs inkjet are causing them excessive and unnecessary expenditure.

Indeed, one organisation requesting assistance with selecting a shortlist of suitable products specified that the device of choice could be colour – if desired – and that it could be multifunction – if desired – but that it had to be laser technology. The very fact that inkjet was considered to be unacceptable underlines the prejudice that has built up against that technology during the long development time-line from the point at which colour printing first became a sensible option with the development of inkjet technology to the point at which colour laser technology reached a price point where it could be considered to be an option for the office.

Early inkjet printers were of limited capability; were certainly very slow; could manage only very coarse resolution (far from image quality, let alone photographic quality); and relied on the placement of large drops of ink to create the image on the paper. In fact, very early models were merely inkjet versions of dot matrix printers where the ‘image’ was text only, created from large blobs of ink.

So, we need to consider usage and print volumes to determine whether inkjet is appropriate for a small business and then link that with performance and cost.

One of the main documents required in any small business is the invoice, probably closely associated with covering letters. In addition, all will need to keep financial records of various types and, in terms of volume of printing, these records may exceed any external documents produced.

Then, other document types are highly dependent on the market sector that the particular business operates in. These will be very wide-ranging, and are likely to include:

  • Business Cards
  • Brochures
  • Catalogues
  • Delivery notes
  • Emails
  • Flyers
  • Letters
  • Spreadsheets
  • Postcards
  • Posters
  • Proposals
  • Quotations
  • Reports

Whereas early inkjet printers could not have been considered to have been of a suitable calibre for producing many of these documents, print quality from inkjets has been so good over most of this decade that the technology is actually preferable to laser for a number of document types. Primarily, this revolves around photo printing, which brings the production of all marketing collateral well within the scope of the inkjet and, with the right paper, can push print quality well above the level achieved by laser printers whose purchase price is double or treble the price point of an inkjet.

Where we come to with this is to ask the question, “What print speed is really necessary in a small office?”

Because many print jobs in small businesses are single page jobs (invoices, letters, etc), we can actually consider the start-up time and the first page to print time as being the most important elements of print speed. This is purely and simply because there will be few instances for most small business users when the real engine speed of a printer actually kicks in and becomes relevant.

My single page print jobs are delivered from a not-so-new, fairly basic inkjet device faster (19%) than it takes to get them from a laser device using a 20ppm single-pass engine that is still current in the market – using my default print settings (which may differ from other user’s defaults).

Sample invoice test page

Now, this is printing a single page from a cold start. So the laser machine needs to warm up before it can actually print. When a laser machine has been sitting unused for an extended period, e.g. over a weekend, it has to go through a cleaning cycle (which it will do periodically anyway) as well as the warm-up process, which extends the time even further. In this instance, the first page out after a cold start with cleaning cycle was 79 seconds, meaning that the inkjet was twice as fast as the laser.

Note that the test page used was an invoice where the whole page needs printing – no fudging the issue by having an image on only a tiny portion of the page so that the inkjet printer can skip the majority of the sheet!

Although the inkjet is fastest from a cold start, this is the only time it is faster. The following chart shows how the situation is reversed and the laser printer beats the inkjet when printing a single page from a warm start.

Time to Print – Laser vs Inkjet

Cold Start vs Warm Start

Clearly, the situation changes somewhat when we consider printing two-page jobs. The laser printer, now warmed up, can print the second page in a fraction of the time it took to warm up and print the first page whereas the inkjet printer has no warming up process to run through and therefore cannot print the second page very much faster than the first page – 24 seconds compared to the 35 seconds taken by the first page. This is, however, actually a significant difference (36%), even though it does not compare with the 3 seconds per additional page experienced with the 20ppm colour laser device.

What this means in practice is that users with a significant multi-page print requirement will benefit greatly from the improved performance of the laser device – adequate justification certainly. But, is that enough to overcome the downside of the heavier costs involved with a laser device?

For those with a print requirement that is a centred largely around single-page jobs, on the other hand, waiting 32 seconds for that page instead of 19 seconds (from a warm start) is really neither here nor there. Even waiting 55 seconds instead of 22 seconds for a two-page job does not represent a severe penalty. But, from a cold start, 35 seconds instead of 43 seconds does indeed make the inkjet device attractive if most print jobs are going to be achieved from a cold-start. And, the cost benefits are huge.

To emphasise just how many print jobs are likely to be achieved from a cold start,
we must consider the volume of pages being printed.

For a small business with a low monthly page volume, the probability of the laser device entering sleep mode between print jobs is actually very high, much higher than one might imagine. Indeed, on average, even at a volume of 1,000 pages per month, a laser device set to enter sleep mode after five minutes of inactivity would do so (on average) between every single print job (single pages)! This means that every print job requires the printer to warm up, thus printing more slowly that it would from the warm, idle state.

It should be noted here that there are a small number of laser models that utilise an instant-on fuser that does not require the same warm-up time, thus printing first pages faster than the typical laser device, saving time and saving energy.

Even more significant, if those print jobs were all two pages in length the probability of the laser entering sleep mode is dramatically increased with a minimum (on average) of 19 minutes (@1,000 page per month), and up three hours (@100 pages per month), between print jobs.

Pages per month Average minutes
between single page jobs
Average minutes
between two-page jobs
100 95 189
200 47 95
300 32 63
400 24 47
500 19 38
600 16 32
700 14 27
800 12 24
900 11 21
1,000 9 19

Reality would lie somewhere between the two and with very much greater variability. There would be instances where several print jobs are sent in quick succession and other times when the printer might lie idle for many hours or even a couple of days. But, as a generality, the printer is likely to enter sleep mode between most print jobs.

So we can see that the print speed argument in favour of laser technology for small businesses with low print volumes is unconvincing to say the least. What we can be sure of, as we shall see, is that the low-cost argument in favour of inkjet technology is overwhelming.

Let’s first consider the hardware purchase cost of inkjet vs laser – and, again, we are going to include costs for the new A3 inkjet AiO devices from Brother simply because the A3 format gives small businesses a new capability and another huge benefit that needs to be balanced against cost (of purchase).

Despite the fact that laser printer prices have rapidly fallen through the floor in recent years, we are considering business-oriented, laser AiO devices here with a single-pass engine print speed of 20ppm. This means that purchase prices are considerable but, considering that long-term Total Cost of Printing with a 4-pass colour laser machine is even higher than printing with a single-pass machine, we will restrict our considerations to the more economical single-pass machines.

Just by way of comment on performance of inkjet compared to 4-pass laser, however, inkjet colour printing can easily compete even where multi-page documents are concerned.

Typical inkjet AiOs (those that use cost effective supplies, making them suitable for business use), are available at a minimal cost – say between £50 and £90 in the UK. With an average cost of just under £70 (average of 8 competing models), the average cost of 20ppm laser AiOs is nearly seven times higher, at around £480 (average of 10 competing products).

In the middle we find the Brother A3 inkjet AiO (with A4 duplex printing) and the Hewlett-Packard Officejet Pro AiOs (all 4-function). So, the obvious target purchase for the small business is basic inkjet but many are opting for laser because of the belief that laser is less costly to run than inkjet and that laser is better quality than inkjet.

Hardware Purchase

A4 Ink vs A4 Laser vs A3 Ink

Over the life of a device in a small business, the purchase price in no way reflects the overall cost to the business. Nor does it actually necessarily reflect the value of the device to the company.

In the chart below, we can see that there is no time that a laser device (on average) will prove to be more economical to the small business than the basic inkjet machine (on average), even up to a page count of 36,000 pages – equal to 1,000 pages per month over three years. This is quite remarkable considering the common belief that inkjet is more expensive than laser!

It should be emphasised that these figures are averages for a group of eight inkjet machines and 10 laser machines and that there will be instances where an individual laser device will be more economical than an individual inkjet device. This is why it is important to consider the precise machines involved when making a purchase decision rather than relying on the average situation.

Similarly, at no point do the laser devices prove to be as economical over a period of time even as the Brother A3 device with its relatively high purchase price – and, users then have the A3 format available to them, as and when required.

However, the real winner here is the Officejet series (off-axis ink tank models only). These are beaten only by their more basic inkjet companions and only at the very lowest of page counts. As soon as the count exceeds about 5,000 pages (140 pages per month over 3 years), there is nothing to touch the Officejet on economy – and the gap only widens with increased numbers of pages printed.

Total Expenditure Over Life

A4 Ink vs A4 Laser vs A3 Ink

Note: the figures for print volume used here are based on a print volume ranging from 100 pages per month to 1,000 pages per month over a three year period of ownership. Zero page count indicates the acquisition expenditure for the hardware.

Considering that the rated maximum duty cycle for the new Officejet Pro 8500 is an impressive 15,000 pages per month, there should be absolutely no issue with these machines being expected to print 1,500 pages per month (54,000 pages over 3 years) and they could potentially achieve up to 2,500 pages per month (90,000 pages over 3 years) without running into serious problems.

If this is considered to be too many pages for one machine, consider buying two, the savings to the business will be just as impressive!

One small business owner I spoke to recently told me how bitterly he regretted having bought a laser printer, indicating that it was costing him £300 per month just in consumables. Ironically, he had also bought an Officejet Pro AiO model at the same time – interesting!

I questioned him on whether he really needed laser print quality and suggested that he might shut down the laser printer for three months and just see what differences he noted. It is too soon to be able to obtain any meaningful feedback but we may be able to run a case study in a September issue.

In my own office, I am running towards the prospect of spending £450, over a short period of time (or possibly all at once), on a new set of toners for our four-function laser AiO. That thought fills me with horror – I almost never print customer facing documents and most pages printed are for archive (or testing) purposes. So, I have switched the default printer setting on my PC back to an ordinary inkjet single-function printer.

  • I don’t suffer from annoying extra delays waiting for my print jobs
  • I don’t suffer a print quality loss that prevents me using the pages as external documents as and when required
  • I am saving a lot of money!

Finally, we do need to be a little careful here, avoiding trying to make comparisons too directly with any particular model of AiO. The intention is to influence thought patterns and preconceived ideas regarding print technology for small businesses and how best value A3 or A4 multifunctionality can be achieved at this time. To maximise value it is necessary to compare specific models selected with reference to usage patterns.

At the end of the day, I believe that it is actually becoming more difficult for a small business to justify the purchase of a laser multifunction device, not easier as one would expect. In addition, the arrival of a realistic A3 option for small businesses makes the market much more exciting, especially at the value for money seen here.

Please remember that all figures presented here are typical for fairly ordinary inkjet devices printing at a correspondence quality.

    Some inkjet devices are capable of printing much faster than this – to the point where follow-on pages should print in about six to eight seconds instead of the 24 seconds noted with my not-so-new printer.

    Because these figures are averages for a group of printers, particularly in the general inkjet and laser categories, some laser devices will cost less to run than some inkjet devices.

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