Pay Less to Print

Before you buy a new printer, figure the cost per page.

Manufacturers of inkjet printers have long used the razor-and-blades business model: The machines often cost $100 or less, but the ink cartridges can add up to two or three times that much in just one year. Now, however, increased competition and consumer outrage are writing a new chapter.

Over the past year, both Lexmark and Hewlett-Packard have run ad campaigns touting low ink prices, notes Andrew Lippman, a printer analyst with Lyra Research. And Eastman Kodak's latest turnaround strategy is based largely on cheaper cartridges for its printer line.

For example, Lexmark now sells a $5 black ink cartridge, the 105XL, which prints an estimated 500 pages. That's 75 pages more than Kodak's $10 10B black cartridge, which itself is considered a value compared with similar cartridges that cost $13 to $20.

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Grab your calculator. The best way to get your money's worth is to figure out what it will cost to print per page, says PCWorld magazine senior editor and printer guru Melissa Riofrio. Start with a printer model you like. Then go online to find out how much you'll pay for cartridges and how many pages each cartridge will print. (Manufacturers and reputable online vendors, such as Amazon, often list page yields along with the cartridge's technical specs.)

Now divide the cost of the cartridge by the page yield. For example, the HP Photosmart C4780 uses the HP 60 black ink cartridge, which costs $15 and yields 200 pages. Cost per page: 7.5 cents. By comparison, the Kodak ESP 3250 uses Kodak's 10B cartridge, which has a 425-page yield. Cost per page: 2.4 cents.

More may not be less. But high-capacity cartridges may not be for everyone. "If you don't print very much, a high-yield cartridge that sits for months and dries up isn't necessarily a good thing," says Riofrio.

You'll need to run the numbers for color ink cartridges, too. Printers that use a single tricolor cartridge -- which has cyan, magenta and yellow ink tanks in one unit -- cost more in the long run. That's because once one tank runs out, you have to replace the entire cartridge, which typically costs $30 to $40.

Once you've compared printing costs per page, you still have to decide whether the most economical printer has the features you want. And you should compare print quality with that of pricier models. Visit a local retailer and put the printers through their paces.

One good choice for affordable home printing is the Canon Pixma iP4700 ($100). This inkjet model produces sharp, clear photos and documents, and it can print on both sides of the page (another money saver). Its inks are reasonably priced; the five individual ink tanks -- black, cyan, yellow, magenta and photo black (for pictures) -- are priced from $13 to $15 each.

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance