Are Printer Ink Plans a Rip-Off? Surprisingly, Not Always

Piggy bank next to a stack of printer ink cartridges.
Matt Kay/Shutterstock

Many inkjet printer vendors boast about how low their per-page print cost is, and it’s usually untrue. In response to growing customer concerns, printer vendors have come up with ink purchase plans they claim can save you money. Can they?

How Much Did That Page Cost?

Printer vendors are quick to quote an impressive per-page print and (on all-in-ones) copy cost. That figure is predicated on an “official” yield per cartridge, and the cost of any replacement cartridges. Yields are calculated using a test procedure developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO). In the U.S., the organization that distributes this protocol is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Published page yields—whether for ink or laser toner—only exist so you can compare printers. Just as your gas mileage varies depending on how you drive, your ink yields vary depending on the kinds of things you print.

These days, an average page yield of 650-700 pages per cartridge just doesn’t cut it anymore. Vendors are changing their approach to make printing more pages more attractive.

Brother International INKvestment: Go Big or Go Home

Man's hands inserting a printer cartridge into a printer.
Bigger ink cartridges mean fewer refills. Brother

While some vendors in this roundup have developed refillable ink tanks, Brother has taken the somewhat different path of supersizing its ink cartridges for specific models. The company’s INKvestment printers and All-in-Ones present a silhouette that’s not much different from an ink tank model, with a slight bulge on the right side. That bulge accommodates slightly-wider-than-usual ink cartridges.

While most inkjet printer vendors offer extra-large capacity cartridges as an option, the INKvestment cartridges are even larger than most. For the base capacity cartridges, the stated page yield is 1,500 for the color and 3,000 for the black. For the Ultra High-Yield, it’s 5,000 pages for the color cartridge and 6,000 for the black. If you purchase the 6,000 page-yield black cartridge, which costs about $56, the per-page cost drops to just under 1 cent for black-and-white and about 5 cents for color, which is a pretty good deal. It’s not, however, quite as economical as the refillable tank models from Canon and Epson.

To make the offer even more enticing, Brother includes a set of cartridges in the box. The company claims these will give you up to a year’s worth of printing—that is if you print up to 150 pages per month (1,800 for the year). That’s a bit more than the basic INKvantage cartridge yield so, in essence, Brother’s giving you a set of their regular cartridges, rather than the low-yield starter set. Still, not having to change cartridges as often is nice, and the extra-large capacity ink cartridges provide a lower cost-per-page than standard capacity inks.

Epson EcoTank: Lots of Ink Means Lots of Prints

Hand filling a printer with ink from a bottle.
Keyed bottles and tanks make it impossible to put the wrong ink in the wrong tank. Epson

Epson was the first vendor to bring a refillable ink tank printer to the U.S. It’s now on the third generation of its EcoTank models. These printers and All-in-One models incorporate refillable ink tanks into the body of the machine. When the ink level drops to near empty, you twist off the cap of a bottle of ink, open the cap covering the ink tank, and then upend the bottle to refill the tank. The original iteration didn’t use keyed bottles, and it wasn’t always easy to judge how much ink you were topping off. That was solved a while ago, and today’s EcoTank Supertank models are as easy to use as printers that use cartridges.

The real attraction is that one bottle of ink goes a long way. A set of bottles is included with the printer and should give you up to 4,500 black pages and 7,500 in color. And when you run out of the original ink, it gets even cheaper to print massive amounts of pages. Refill bottles sell for about $13 for color and $20 for black. These refills give you up to 7,500 black pages and 6,000 in color, so you won’t have to shop for more ink very frequently, if at all.

Canon MegaTank: Little Bottles, Lots of Pages

A Canon all-in-one printer sitting on a desk next to color and black ink refill bottles.
Canon MegaTank All-in-One with ink refill bottles. Canon

Epson might have been the first vendor to offer refillable ink tanks in the U.S., but Canon wasn’t too far behind with its version of the technology—the MegaTank. Like Epson, Canon offers this technology in both printer and All-in-One models.

Canon rates its ink bottles at an approximate page yield of 6,000 black-and-white and 7,500 in color. The company starts you off with a full set of ink bottles, including two additional black ink bottles, in the box. That’s enough to last quite a while—especially if you print mostly in monochrome. Unlike Epson, though, Canon doesn’t offer an extra-large capacity set of refill bottles.

When it’s time to replace the ink, the 70 ml bottles of color ink will cost you about $12, while the 170 ml bottle of black runs about $18. This brings the per-page print cost down to less than 1/2 cent for black and white, and about 1 cent for color. But keep in mind, as with the Epson EcoTank models, you’re paying more upfront at purchase. After you use all the ink in the box (which might take years, depending on how much you print), the Canon MegaTank models cost almost nothing to use.

HP Instant Ink: Pay for What You Need

One printer cartridge lying on top of two others.
Ellen Mol/Shutterstock.com

Unlike the other vendors in this roundup, Hewlett Packard doesn’t increase the value of its ink by providing more of it in a cartridge or bottle. Rather, its Instant Ink Program provides a fixed number of print pages for a monthly fee that varies with the number of pages you expect to print.

The Instant Ink Plan requires that you have a printer designed to work with reporting page usage, which pretty much all of HP’s current inkjet printers support. The idea is that HP monitors the number of pages you print, and when you’re close to running out of ink, it automatically sends you a new cartridge. Plans are free for 15 pages per month. They then go up, with options for 50 ($2.99), 100 ($4.99), 300 ($9.99), or 700 ($19.99) pages per month. If you use more than the allotted pages in a particular month, you pay an additional fee. If you use less, you can roll over some or all of the unused pages to the next month. You can cancel or change the plan you’re on at any time.

The Instant Ink Program is attractive because you know the fixed cost of printing. However, you might be better off without it if your monthly printing varies greatly or often exceeds the 700-pages-per-month maximum. If, however, your page density is very high or you print lots of photos every month, the Instant Ink Program might be a great bargain because it counts the number of pages you print, not how much ink you use.

To Plan or Not to Plan? That Is the Question

For the most part, I have to applaud the vendors’ attempts to make using their printers easier and more affordable. After all, no one enjoys running out in the middle of the day (or, more often, the middle of the night) to purchase a replacement ink cartridge so you can finish an important report. And no one likes spending more money than they have to.

Whether one of these plans makes sense for you depends on how much you print. If it’s a lot, one of these plans could save you time and money. If you’re an occasional printer, you might be better off with a less expensive machine that uses standard-capacity ink cartridges.

Ted Needleman Ted Needleman
Ted Needleman has written over 4,000 software and hardware reviews over his decades as a writer and editor. In addition to his work for Review Geek, you can find him at PCMag, Digital Trends, and AccountingToday. Read Full Bio »

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