HP’s Officejet 8600: Really cheaper than laser?

On paper, Hewlett Packard’s Officejet Pro 8600 e Plus All-in-One printer looks like it might just be the least expensive printer to operate in a small office. And yes, it's an inkjet.

With a rated cost per page of just 1.6 cents for black and white, the Officejet 8600 beats the rap that inkjet printers are cheaply made, offer inferior print quality and are too expensive to run for office use. The 8600 even beats HP's own entry-level laser multifunction printer (MFP), the LaserJet M1212nf, with its estimated cost per page (CPP) of 4.1 cents. The Officejet also offers a higher mean time between failure rating and more features.

Theoretically, you should be able to operate the 8600 for even less than 1.6 cents per page in draft mode. But for most users in a shared office setting, the real cost of using a color inkjet MFP is likely to be significantly higher.

Going business class

The Officejet Pro 8600 is a business-class inkjet printer, which as a group tend to have lower ink costs than do consumer-class models. I chose the 8600 for my own office over a comparable HP LaserJet M1212nf multifunction printer because it's as fast as a laser, it has a lower published CPP for black and white printing, it lets me print an occasional color job, and it offers more features for the money (the LaserJet has a smaller paper tray and does not offer duplexing or wireless networking). Clearly, in the $200 to $250 price range, HP wants you to buy the inkjet model.

But as a long-time user of laser printers, I felt a bit uncomfortable about relying on inkjet technology as my office workhorse. I worried that my true cost per page would be much higher in actual use, that the Officejet would not offer the rock-solid reliability and durability of a laser, and that I would not be happy with the print quality and durability of the output once I got the unit home. "There's a long-term bias for laser in the office," admits Bottger, HP Image and Printing Group Marketing manager in HP's Officejet group.

Inkjet costs: Why your mileage will vary

Your average CPP with the 8600 will probably be higher than the 1.6 cents HP cites for black and white printing. Why? Because the printer driver is set for color by default. You can change the default to black and white, but getting at those settings to change back and forth can take a bit of effort, particularly for Windows machines, and I suspect that in a busy office many people won’t bother.

There’s also the temptation to print in color even when you probably don’t need to do so. I ended up printing substantially more pages in color than I expected, and that has driven up my average cost per page.

If you’re careful to always use the black and white mode you will probably come close to the 1.6 cents per page mark. But this is a device designed to be shared in a small office. Will everyone in your office be as good as you are about it? Probably not. The best way to enforce monochrome printing would be to have a mode switch on the printer itself. But even if that were an option – and it is not – that’s not a convenient solution.

So how much more might it cost to run this printer?

The average cost per color page, according to HP, is 7.2 cents. If it's not easy to switch between modes, people in your office may end up printing more documents in color than they need to, and if you're printing documents with color and black and white in the printer’s “normal” mode, your average costs will probably be closer to 7.2 cents per page. Color pages cost up to four times as much as black and white. Yes, it’s just a few pennies, but if you print 1,000 pages per month, an extra 5.6 cents per page adds up to $56 more in ink.

By contrast, printing monochrome text with a laser printer is easy: You just hit the print button and go. With the LaserJet your cost should always be close to the 4.1 cents per page specification, assuming the benchmarks are representative of how you print (more on that in a minute).

Configuration hassles

Setting the options for printing text and graphics in black and white involves navigating two or three clicks down through the menu hierarchy in the printer pop-up dialogs.

Under Windows the best approach for obtaining the lowest operating costs is to set the default to black and white in the control panel. But if you do that, when you want to print a PowerPoint presentation in color you will have to drill down through three levels of print dialog box settings to change the mode.

Officejet-8600-Print-dialog-windows.jpg

Here are the process steps shown above to change from color to black and white mode or vice-versa. The screen shot was taken while printing a Word for Windows document:

  • Select print/open dialog
  • Click properties button/open secondary dialog
  • Click advanced button/open tertiary dialog
  • Click “Print all text as black” and select “Enable”
  • Click “Print in grayscale” and select “Black Ink Only”
  • Click OK to close dialog
  • Click OK to close dialog
  • Click OK to print 

What’s more, the setting doesn't stick. If you want to print three PowerPoint documents you'll either have to go through that process three times or else go into the printer control panel and change the default setting for the printer, then change it back. Who’s going to do that?

On the Mac, things are a bit easier. The OS X printer driver interface includes four preset configurations you can choose from, including “plain paper, fast draft, black and white.” But you can create and save your own custom configured presets, and the preset you chose sticks. To save both paper and ink, I configured my default for plain paper, draft, black and white, and duplexed.

HP8600MacDialog.jpg

I created my own economy mode print configuration presets for the 8600. It’s not intuitive, but you go to the print dialog, click the “copies and pages” drop down list, choose “Paper Type/Quality,” and click on the tiny “Color Options” arrow, which brings up options for black and white. From here you can select the paper type, image quality, color/greyscale and greyscale mode. The latter should be set to “black ink only.” After you’ve done all of that, you can save the settings under “Presets” so you don’t have to go through the process again.

That configuration, combining black and white printing with the draft mode, could drive your ink costs below 1.6 cents per page. But you also need to take all of these lab-generated cost per page numbers with a grain of salt. Here's why.

Behind the numbers

HP cites a cost per black and white text page of 1.6 cents based on testing that conforms to an International Standards Organization's benchmark specification known as ISO 24711. The CPP test results use whatever each printer vendor decides is the default print quality setting for a given model. HP offers, normal, draft, and best modes. For HP, the default is normal mode, something that wasn't spelled out in HP's page yield explanation online (An HP spokesperson said they would change that).

Comparing CPP numbers between HP's ink jet and LaserJet printers is even more dicey. Laser printers such as the HP M1212nf, use a slightly different test specification (ISO 19752), which produced a CPP of 4.1 cents. Sounds like the inkjet is the winner, right? Perhaps, but...

Again, the cost per page is based on the default print quality setting. For the LaserJet there's a "fast res" setting of 600 by 600 dots per inch (DPI) and a high resolution 1200 x 1200 setting. The Officejet offers: Draft (300 x 300 DPI), Normal (600x600) and Best (600 x 600). Higher quality modes print more dots per inch but also use more ink per dot.

Best mode prints more slowly to increase accuracy of detail, and uses more ink per dot than the normal mode does to attain a higher saturation level for stronger blacks and colors. By the same token, the draft mode lays down fewer dots than normal mode and uses less ink per dot, producing a lighter output.

HP bases its 1.6 cent CPP yield on the use of the default normal setting and the use of HP's economy-sized 950XL black ink cartridges, which run about $37 each and have a projected yield of up to 2,300 pages. XL cartridges are also available for the three color tanks that the 8600 requires. An entire set will save you money over the regular size cartridges, but you'll need to cough up about $120 every time you reorder, which is  more than half what I paid for the printer.

The good news is that in draft mode you should be able to do better than 1.6 cents per page, since the unit is printing at half the resolution of normal mode and using less ink per pixel. How much less, however, is anyone's guess. Half the resolution, less ink per dot -- sounds like you'd use half the ink. But HP cautions against drawing any conclusions. It isn't willing to make any claims here, and there are no industry standard tests you can rely on.

If best mode most closely approximates the quality you get with laser output for black and white printing, one can safely assume that the cost per page will exceed 1.6 cents. But again, it's impossible to know exactly how much more because there are no standardized benchmark tests on which to compare.

So if you run in normal mode, and most people will, your CPP will fall somewhere between the 1.6 cents and 7.2 cents mark, while a LaserJet falls right in the middle. Depending on what you print, in the end the cost between the two options might be more, it might be less, or it might be a wash. The opportunity for low cost operation is there, but only if you configure the unit for black and white only, normal or draft mode as your default.

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