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Unit Cost of Printing: Laser v. Inkjet

written by: Rebecca Scudder•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 4/26/2011

The expected result of comparing the unit cost of printing laser vs inkjet printers is to see the laser printer cost be lower than the inkjet cost - sometimes a lot lower. We looked at typical printers found in a home or home office, and ran the cost per page figures - and found a surprise.

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    Unit Cost of Printing: Laser vs. Inkjet

    Unit cost per page is figured differently for inkjet printers and laser printers, because the costs of the actual printing consumables are different. Then there is the cost of the printer itself. While figuring out the real cost of inkjet printing, we need to have printer costs considered, but in this article we look specifically at the price per page for the printer consumables.

    There are now ISO standards for measuring page yield for printers, and most printer manufacturers are complying with the standard, making it somewhat easier to compare costs between both various inkjet printers and laser printers. It does not make this an exact science however.

    Unit costs are also different depending on whether you are printing color or just black text.

    In general, text printing is assumed to use about 5% coverage of blank ink on a printed page. Color printing is figured at 20% coverage - 5% per color and then the black ink.

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    Conventional wisdom considers that the laser printer is going to be cheaper per unit for printing than an inkjet printer. We will compare inkjet vs HP P1102w mono laser printer laser printing costs for text, and then inkjet vs. color laser unit cost for printing text with business graphics.

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    Paper

    The average price for 20 lb printer paper seems to run between $4 and $6 dollars for average quality paper, so we will use $5 for 500 sheets - or a penny a page, for both inkjet and laser printers. This is the type of paper used to print text, or text with some basic business graphics.

    Paper, therefore, can be left out of our figures for normal business usage. If you are printing resumes on rag paper, or 4 x 6 or 8 x 10 photos, paper cost is an issue – and may well cost more than the ink. Photos also use 100% coverage, which will use up correspondingly more ink. There are also a number of specialty papers which are more expensive, but give prints on fabric, or special printable surfaces. They can give artist quality results on canvas or other special media.

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    Issues with calculations

    One issue which does affect unit cost of printing, is a problem with both ink cartridges and toner cartridges. They do not produce the rated number of pages. The cartridges refuse to print more, because of directives from the printer’s software, yet the cartridge still sloshes with ink, or there is still a distinct amount of toner left in the cartridge. Because of the indeterminate amount which was not used to print, the rated number of pages may not be valid.

    Reviews by customers report a number of cases where ink cartridges stop printing before the rated number of pages, or toner cartridges are not emptied. Particularly with inkjet printers, manufacturers explain that ink is left in cartridges to keep the print head from drying out. Mac World’s Jeff Bertolucci wrote an investigative article on the amount of ink remaining in cartridges - How much ink is left in that dead cartridge? ‘Empty’ inkjet cartridges not as empty as you think.

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    ISO standards – and impartial measurements

    Spencer Labs specializes in testing printer page yields, and providing the information necessary to calculate cost per page - that is the unit cost of printing: Laser vs. Inkjet, and different models within the types of printers. As an independent lab, a number of different printer manufacturers use them to estimate cost per page. Spencer labs say, “a relevant, standard test Document is required. Since the yield may vary print-to-print on many printing systems, meaningful estimation of how many prints can be printed from an ink or toner cartridge requires actual testing of representative sample cartridges"

    For black text, a document is created in a given text size, with specific margins. A new cartridge is put in the printer, and the document is printed until the ink runs out, or the cartridge is evaluated as empty by the printer software. The resulting copies are counted.

    For color, a document is created with text and business graphics, such as a pie chart. Although I don’t remember reading this, I assume that the graphics will use roughly the same amount of each color. The document is printed until a cartridge is emptied. With most printers using tri-color cartridges, if one color is depleted, the printer usually will not allow additional prints. Again, the pages printed are counted. Black cartridges are often rated for a higher number of pages than colored cartridges, so the colors are the first to run out. With somewhat higher end printers, instead of a tri-color cartridge, there will be individual color cartridges. However, most printers require that the emptied color be replaced before additional copies are printed

    Testing labs repeat this to average the yield of inkjet cartridges or toner cartridges.

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    To compare the unit cost of printing laser vs. inkjet printers, we look at a relatively inexpensive inkjet printer, and a low end monochrome laser printer. The laser printers used do not require a separate drum as part of the consumable considered.
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    Laser printers

    Even low end laser printers cost as much as mid-range, non specialty inkjet printers.

    The consumables for printing cost calculations for laser printers are toner, the fuser and the drum. Some toner cartridges for laser printers include the drum, while on higher end models the drum may be a separate unit that does not need to be replaced as frequently as the toner.

    Toner cartridges vary in capacity both for printers, and for specific printer models, depending on the number of pages they are expected to print. Fusers do not need to be replaced often - which is good, because a new fuser can often cost half the original price of the printer.

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    Inkjet Printers

    Inkjet printer consumables are mainly ink. Occasionally a printer head will need to be replaced, but the cost is high enough that a new printer is a better choice, except for some very high end photo printers.

    Inkjet ink comes in cartridges. Lower end printers usually have a black ink cartridge and a tri color cartridge with yellow, cyan and magenta ink in a combo cartridge. Higher end inkjet printers range from four individually replaceable cartridges - black, yellow, cyan and magenta, to systems in photo printers with nine or more cartridges, including different blacks.

    Most inkjet cartridges are rated for a fairly low number of pages, but many companies sell a higher yield cartridge for black ink, which can offer significant cost savings. Low numbers of pages per cartridge can start at as few as 160 pages expected yield for a standard cartridge of black ink, and under 150 pages for a tri color cartridge for color printing.

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    Unit Cost

    While prices for ink and toner cartridges, and other laser printer consumables, can vary greatly depending on where they are purchased, the standard used in published figures is based on MSRP.

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    Inkjet Cost Per Page Example

    For an inkjet printer, take the cost of a black cartridge, and the manufacturer’s expected page yield, and divide them. For example, the HP Deskjet D2680 Printer is available at the special introductory price of $70. Ink for the Deskjet costs $15 for the black 60 cartridge, with an estimated page yield of 200 pages. The tri-color cartridge is $20, and has an approximate yield of 165 pages.

    HP D2680 inkjet printer Cost per page of black text is $15.00/200: $.075, or 7.5 cents a page for text.

    Printing a page with text and graphics in color requires a cost per page calculation for the color cartridge, and then adding the cost per page for the black cartridge.

    Cost per page of color text is $20.00/165: $.0825, or 8.25 cents a page for color graphics.

    When added, the cost per page of text including color graphics is .1575, or 15.75 cents a page.

    The duty cycle for this printer is 1000 pages. While that is the number of pages the printer can be pushed to print in a month, for best performance and longer life for the printer, 250 pages is a better volume to plan for.

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    Laser Cost Per Page Example - Text Only

    For HP’s low end monochrome laser printer, the HP LaserJet Pro P1102w, the MSRP for the laser printer is $150. Black toner cartridges are $68. The page yield for the toner cartridge is 1600 pages of text. This laser printer does not have a separate drum which would need to have the cost added in and replaced separately.

    Cost per page of black text is $68.00 / 1600 pages: $.0425, or 4. 25 cents a page for text. While $68 is the current price on the HP website, Amazon showed a MSRP of $95 for the 85A toner.

    With that cost, the per page price of black text is $95.00 / 1600 pages: $.059, or 5.9 cents a page for printing text.

    This laser printer has a duty cycle of 5000 pages, and a recommended monthly volume of 250 – 1500 pages. If you needed the higher volume of printing, that would be approximately one toner cartridge a month.

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    However, we also need to look at the costs for text and graphics on a color laser printer, and compare them to the costs for color inkjet printing.

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    On the last page of this article on the unit cost of printing laser vs.inkjet prints, we look at cost for printing in color. The comparsison is done with a stand text and business graphic combnation. We compare the results and get a surprise. References are given.
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    Color Laser Cost Per Page Example - Text with Busness Graphics

    HP’s lowest priced color laser is listed for sale at $199 on the HP site. The HP LaserJet Pro CP1525nw Color printer originally had a MSRP of $299. Black toner cartridges for it are $70, and are rated for 2000 pages. The color toner is in three separate cartridges, at $67 each, and are rated at 1300 pages. Again, this printer is not sold with a separate drum.

    Cost per page of text with color graphics is a total of the cost per page for black text, and the cost per page for each color toner cartridge, added together.

    Black text is $70.00/2000: $.035, or 3.5 cents a page for text. A toner cartridge of one color costs $67, and yields 1300 pages, for a price per HP CP1525nw color laser printer color of $67.00/1300: $.052, or 5.2 cents a page. To get the total unit cost for printing from a color laser printer, you add the cost per page for each color, and for black. This is 5.2+5.2+5.2+ 3.5, for a total unit cost of 19.1 cents a page.

    This is a printer rated for a higher duty cycle, up to 30,000 pages, but recommended monthly volume is 250 - 1000 pages - less than the monochrome laser printer.

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    In Conclusion

    This means the expected result of cheaper laser printer costs per unit is not true for color laser printing. The inkjet printer text with colored business graphics is 15.1 cents a page. The Color laser printer cost per unit of text with business graphics is 19.1 cents a page.

    The monochrome text only laser printing resulted in a cost of 4.25 cents, and the same print from the inkjet printer cost 7.5 cents, giving a savings of 3.25 cents unit printed.

    So, the surprising result of unit cost of printing laser vs inkjet is that you are not better off with a colored laser printer over an inkjet. An ideal solution might be to have a monochrome laser printer for all your text printing and an inkjet to print out any text with business graphics you need.

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    These are both low end versions of inkjet and laser printers, suitable for home ownership or a very small home office.

    The non-paper cost per page for printing doesn’t factor in the cost of purchasing the printer, which is relevant in figuring total cost of ownership.

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    Resources

    Laser vs. Inkjet Printers: The Blurring Lines by M. David Stone http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Printers/Laser-vs-Inkjet-Printers/

    http://www.eweek.com/c/b/Printers/ Enterprise Business Printers Article Archive

    http://www.spencerlab.com/testing/ink_and_toner_yield_and_cost-per-print/

    HP Glossary of Specifications http://h20338.www2.hp.com/hpsub/cache/445142-0-0-225-121.html

    How much ink is left in that dead cartridge? By Jeff Bertolucci, Mac World http://www.macworld.com/article/139311/2009/03/ink_cartridges.html

    All images are HP's images from the product website.