Printer ink: Tired of feeding the cash cow?

Inkjet refills typically cost significantly more than the printer itself.

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"The model works," Eason says, and Kodak has seen its inkjet revenue grow 39% year over year, according to its latest quarterly figures. (That said, keep in mind that Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection.)

Your mileage may vary

Brown at HP also makes the point that buyers should not pay attention to the ink's cost per ounce -- not just because it's unnerving, but because the total cost per page is a more useful metric. Anyway, of the major manufacturers, only HP and Canon list the weight of their cartridge contents. In contrast, all the manufacturers publish the expected page yield of their cartridges, online if not on the box. Even then, the buyers must calculate the cost per page themselves and then decide how relevant the page-yield data is.

All the major printer makers use the ISO 24711 standard to establish page yields. The procedure is to install new, full cartridges and start printing out a suite of five documents until there is noticeable fading, or the machine announces that it is out of ink.

The ISO suite consists of a business letter; a newsletter page with some text blocks with background color and a color photo that's less than 2 x 2 inches; two pages of large color charts and graphs, and a color registration page. According to Lexmark product literature, the ISO documents are designed to give each color 5% coverage, averaged across all five pages. If you are printing family photos, coverage may far exceed 5% per color. If you are printing e-mails, coverage may be lower and will mostly involve black ink.

Also, most people don't do all their printing in one session, and their machines stand idle for long periods. During those periods an inkjet will occasionally come to life and perform print head cleaning, consuming additional ink. Sources agree that there is no rule of thumb about how much ink is lost this way, but the ISO test does not take it into account.

In other words, as they say in the car ads, your mileage may vary.

But accepting the standard as a basis for comparison, a random sampling of 33 black ink cartridges have published yields ranging from 175 to 2,400 pages, with the average being 661. Nine have page counts in the 400s. The cost per page (dividing the retail price by the yield) ranges from 1.6 cents to 15.4 cents, with the average being 5.9 cents. The average retail price of the black cartridges is $25.26.

Keep in mind that a full refill will require at least one and perhaps three more cartridges for color (non-black colors are sometimes combined in a cartridge) and the price of each may be comparable to that of the black cartridge. Some printers shut down completely even if only one color runs out, or, if you're able to press on, you risk ruining the print head fed by the ink cartridge that has gone dry.

Third-party ink

Meanwhile, in response to the high costs, a third-party cartridge industry has arisen based mostly on refilling recycled cartridges made by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and collected through various channels. Lyra's Lecompte estimates that a third of cartridges selling at retail are refilled, often selling for half the original price.

But reservations about refilling are widespread, and include leaking, streaking, print head failures and unmatched colors. "I usually don't get good results out of refilled cartridges," says Andy Slawetsky, head of Industry Analysts, a research firm in the print industry, located in Rochester, NY. "I don't recommend it with color, since it is tough to get good calibration."

"The quality is not quite as good since it is used equipment," says Lecompte.

Indeed, Micro Solutions Enterprises (MSE), a refilled toner cartridge supplier in Van Nuys, Calif., got out of the refill ink business two years ago because quality was hard to maintain, says Luke Goldberg, MSE vice president. MSE promotes the reputation of its refurbished laser toner cartridges, but maintaining the same quality with ink cartridges proved too difficult -- there were too many leaking cartridges, too many that left streaks on the page, and other failures, Goldberg says.

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