When buying a printer, an important characteristic to consider is how much each page typically costs to print. Whether you mainly print photos, black-and-white documents, or color documents, it's good to know how many pages you can expect your printer to produce, given the price of its cartridges. Depending on the type of printer you choose and how often you use it, you might even find yourself quickly paying for the price of the printer itself in replacement cartridges. As a result, if affordably printing many pages is of utmost importance to you, you may want to look into the cost-per-print before making a purchase.
Paying for printer ink can quickly get expensive. You can likely attribute these steep costs to a common business model: sell the printer itself at a low price, and make up the profit through selling replacement cartridges. If you want to reduce the cost of each printed page, there are a few variables to consider. More obvious ones include how much of the page is covered in text or images; however, there are also subtler considerations, like how often you need to run print head cleaning tasks, which go hand in hand with other maintenance costs you'll need to pay for.
The cost-per-print metric is an important factor that helps determine the efficiency of the printer. Given two ink or toner cartridges that cost the same upfront, the one used in the printer that yields more pages before running out has a lower cost-per-print — meaning you spend less for each page you print. As a result, the cost-per-print measure becomes more important for a printer the more you expect to print and the longer you plan on keeping it. If you only plan to print very sparingly with a cheap printer, it might not matter as much, but if you prioritize the longevity of your unit or plan to print very frequently, it's a must to keep in mind.
While you might be primarily concerned about how much each page costs to print, it's easy to overlook the added expenses related to printer maintenance. Aside from tasks like printing alignment, you also have to worry about print head cleaning routines for inkjets and drum replacements for laser printers. Although we don't test for these running costs, they're just as important to consider if you want to minimize how much you want to spend on your printer.
Inkjet printers require print head cleaning routines that are usually necessary if the printer goes without printing for long periods. Ink can dry over time, and dust can clog the nozzles. These routines involve using a relatively small amount of ink to flush out the inkjet head system. Some printers have a "deep cleaning" solution that should fix most problems but consumes a much larger amount of ink. Although we don't currently test how much ink is used during these procedures, you should know that doing so lowers your page yields and increases the resultant cost of each page you print. Because the print head cleaning routines work on the entire system, you'll still need to replace the color cartridge(s) eventually, even if you print only in black.
Also, when running maintenance routines, the ink used for cleaning is collected into a cartridge-like box that must eventually be removed and replaced. It's a crucial part of your printer that helps keep it printing reliably and with good quality. The less frequently you print, the more you need to run inkjet maintenance tasks, and more quickly fill up the maintenance box, which you'll need to pay to replace.
Laser printers are a different story. Laser printing technology works under different principles, so there are other procedures to take into consideration. Almost always, the main component that eventually needs replacing is the drum unit, the electrically charged cylinder that transfers the toner dust onto the paper. Typically, each printer model has a rated lifespan for the drum unit, such as 10,000 or 15,000 pages, at which point you have to replace it; otherwise, you'll notice lower-quality prints.
Depending on the printer, the drum unit might come in the same housing as the replacement toner cartridge or might be built into the printer itself and need replacing separately. Toner cartridges are generally more expensive if the drum unit is built-in, but on the bright side, you don't need to worry about the extra maintenance step involved in replacing the drum unit. For printers that use a separate drum unit, the toner cartridges are generally a little cheaper, but the drum unit is a separate purchase and requires extra labor to install. This adds an extra cost to the maintenance of the printer. Although we don't factor it into our calculations when testing, it negatively impacts the overall cost-per-print, especially if you plan to print many pages.
Our cost-per-print calculations are closely related to our Cartridge tests, but the biggest difference is that we consider the price of ink. As stated above, we don't take long-term reliability or any maintenance tasks into account, so we expect running costs to be slightly higher in actuality. However, as all our tests across printers are standardized and run on the same test bench, you can compare our results directly to get a good idea of a printer's performance.
Our cost-per-print graphs include the price of the printer and the cost of buying new cartridges over time. This gives you a better idea of the amount of money you're likely to spend. The graph itself doesn't list the estimated cost-per-print values for monochrome and color document printing or photo printing, so you need to refer to the results listed under the 'Cost-Per-Print' entry itself in our tests.
We note down the MSRP of a normal-yield black cartridge, or black ink bottle for SuperTank printers, before taxes at the time of publishing the review. This is different from the photo black ink cartridge present in photo printers. Note that the price of ink and toner can vary, and while we test with regular-sized cartridges, many printers also have larger-yield XL or XXL cartridges available.
We note down the MSRP of a set of normal-yield color cartridges, added together, before taxes at the time of publishing the review. This includes the photo black ink used in photo printers. If the color cartridges come in a discounted 3- or 4-pack, we use the price of the pack. In the case of SuperTank printers, this is the price of the regularly sold bottles of color ink, added together, or the cost of the ink bottles in a discounted 3-pack, if applicable. Note that the price of ink and toner can vary, and like with black ink, we test with regular-sized cartridges, but some printers also have larger-yield XL or XXL cartridges available.
We take the cost of the black cartridge and divide it by the estimated black text document yield taken from our Cartridge test. This number is dependent on many factors, including the density of content in a typical page and how infrequently you print and require more print head cleanings. Also, the cost of ink can vary, so you might get a higher or lower cost-per-print depending on how cheap or expensive the ink cartridge or bottle was. For more information about how we calculate black text document yields, look at our Cartridge test article.
We take the cost of the color cartridges and divide them by the estimated color document yield taken from our Cartridge test. Again, this number is highly dependent on many factors, particularly the density of content in a typical page, how infrequently you print and require more print head cleanings, and which colors you tend to print the most. Also, the cost of ink can vary, so you might get a higher or lower cost-per-print depending on how cheap or expensive you bought the ink cartridge or bottle. For more information about how we calculate color document yields, look at our Cartridge test article.
We take the average of 150 different test photos to estimate the percentage of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink or toner (CMYK) used in a typical photo. These values help us estimate the cost-per-print of a photo printed on 4" x 6" glossy paper. First, we take the pre-calculated average ink use for each color, then divide the number of page yields for each corresponding color (determined in the cartridge yield test) with this value. This gives us the expected number of photos each color cartridge can provide ink for before it runs out. We use the cartridge with the lowest number because this limiting factor determines the number of photos without any faded colors we expect to print. We divide it by the cost of all the color cartridges to obtain our final cost-per-print per photo.
According to our tests, printing on glossy paper can also give you up to a 20% higher page yield than printing on plain paper, which we factor into the final calculation. The cost-per-print for photos is highly dependent on several factors, including the size of photos you print, how infrequently you print and require more print head cleanings, and what type of photos you print (scenery, people, water, etc.).
Ink subscriptions are plans which allow you to print a certain number of pages in a month for a flat monthly fee. This only works with compatible printers, which need to be constantly online to communicate with the corresponding manufacturer's servers. The printer automatically orders ink when it detects that it's running low, and it's typically shipped directly to you at no extra cost. We currently don't run any estimates on your potential savings if you choose to use a subscription service.
You can read more about ink subscriptions below.
Given how expensive ink and toner can get, it's understandable that you'll want to take measures to lower how much you use. For inkjets, you should try to reduce how often you have to run maintenance tasks. This can be accomplished by printing in more regular intervals while ensuring that the printer isn't left idle for longer than a week at a time. This helps keep the inkjet heads clear, reducing how often you need to replace the maintenance box. There aren't any similar methods for laser printers, but if you print mainly black text documents, you can change to a different font, lower your font size, or even print in a lighter shade of black; this works for inkjet printers too.
Another previously popular method involved printing in "draft mode". Doing this lightens all the colors of a printed image, so you can view a preview of what you wanted to print without needing to waste ink on a copy that wasn't final. However, with the advent of modern word processors and print previews, this method has become much less common.
You can also use either third-party or remanufactured cartridges for both inkjet and laser printers. Third-party cartridges mimic original designs and are designed to be compatible with specific printer models. On the other hand, remanufactured cartridges are recycled and cleaned OEM (original equipment manufacturer) cartridges which are then refilled with ink or toner. Both are typically much cheaper than buying the original and are viable alternatives you can use to help reduce the cost-per-print if you only need to print casually.
It's worth noting that there can be concerns that third-party or remanufactured cartridges use lower-quality ink and toner, which results in lower-quality photos and text, inaccurate color reproduction, and easily smearable prints. Worse, inkjet printheads can clog or get damaged if you use particularly bad-quality ink, while bad-quality toner can leak from its containment and contaminate other cartridges. You shouldn't notice much of a difference if you only casually print black or color documents. However, if you want to make certain that your printer will continue to function at its best, your prints are the highest quality they can be, and that they can last a reliably long time, you should stick to using genuine, manufacturer-sold supplies. Although they're known to be expensive, you can often find bundles of ink or toner sold at a bulk discount, which should help reduce the cost of printing, especially if you print frequently.
You might find "SuperTank" ink systems becoming more common. Compared to traditional replaceable cartridge inkjets, SuperTank printers use high-capacity tanks built into the body of the printer, which are filled with loose ink in bottles. This results in less plastic waste at the cost of being more involved than a simple swap, but they generally have very high page yields. Many of the SuperTank printers we've tested can typically yield a few thousand monochrome and color document pages before needing a refill, which can easily last years for most people. The cost-per-print is extremely low, with typical monochrome or color documents costing around one cent per page or less to print.
You can also find hybrid cartridge–tank systems in some printers. The majority of these types of printers we've tested have come from Brother's INKvestment Tank lineup, which uses high-capacity cartridges that fit into the printer like normal cartridges but are connected to internal tanks that function like ones in SuperTank printers. They typically feature higher page yields at a better cost-per-print than even the highest-yielding traditional cartridge printers but usually aren't as good as dedicated SuperTank printers.
Ink or toner subscription plans involve subscribers paying a flat monthly fee for a fixed allowance of prints per month. There are different tiers that increase in price the more pages you want to be allowed to print. When the printer detects that the ink is running low, it automatically orders replacement cartridges shipped directly to you. As a result, it needs to connect to the Internet, which might not be ideal for some people. Manufacturers claim that these plans are more cost-effective than buying cartridges outright, but this is based on the assumption that you use your entire page allowance each month, which might be difficult or even impossible. Fortunately, some plans offer limited page rollovers, which is helpful if you anticipate you'll print much less some months.
There are also similar pay-as-you-go services offered by the same companies that don't require monthly subscriptions. However, these still require enrollment with compatible printers and a constant internet connection to check whether the cartridges need replacing. Shipping is typically free, but you still pay for the price of the ink or toner, though these plans usually give you a discount on consumables.
As mentioned above, we can't test the long-term performance of the printer, so we can only make informed speculations on things like the printer's reliability and long-term manufacturer support. Also, we don't currently factor in the amount of ink consumed during inkjet maintenance procedures, the cost of replacing the maintenance box or drum unit, or the potential savings you can get through subscription services. We don't consider the cost of plain paper for our document cost-per-print calculations, as the cost of plain paper varies widely depending on the format, where it's bought, and the size of the pack it's in.
We're constantly considering and developing different, more effective test methods and improving on our current tests to help you make a better-informed decision when buying the best printer that suits your needs.
The cost of printing each document is an important factor in determining which printer model fits your needs and budget. Most of the time, the cost of each print is more important to consider than the cost of the printer itself because it's usually best to minimize the recurring cost of consumables, which can quickly add up. Inkjet printers that use traditional cartridges tend to have a high cost-per-print, laser printers usually have a much lower cost-per-print, and meanwhile, SuperTank inkjet printers give you the best bang for your buck. You can also use third-party supplies, which could substantially reduce your cost-per-print but could carry some risks. Ultimately, the cost-per-print is one of the most important factors you should consider if affordably printing pages is of utmost importance to you.