Cost-Saving Ink Strategies
One of the most common printer-related complaints is that ink is too expensive. You can pour a lot of money into replacing cartridges, which all-too-frequently have modest capacities and deplete quickly. Generally, the more expensive the printer, the lower its ink costs will be. Often, budget-price home inkjet printers and all-in-ones have the highest costs per printed page, bringing to mind the old strategy of giving away the razor to fleece you on the blades.
The good news is that in recent years most of the major printer manufacturers have introduced inkjets with unheard-of low running costs, employing a variety of strategies to do so. HP sells ink on several subscription plans through its Instant Ink program, which can offer considerable savings on color costs. Other companies, including Brother, Epson, and Canon, offer similar (though non-subscription-based) cost-saving initiatives.
HP Instant Ink: Subscription-Based Savings
HP introduced its subscription-based Instant Ink program in 2013, and it has since grown to more than 8 million subscribers. It supports a good number of HP inkjet printer series, and has expanded to include toner for laser printers as well. Sign-up for the Instant Ink program is integrated into the setup process, in which you can choose among Instant Ink plans or opt for the traditional model of purchasing ink at retail stores or online when you run low. Instant Ink–eligible printers encompass a wide range of printer types, both home and office models, and include Editors’ Choice models such as the OfficeJet Pro 9015e and the Envy Pro 6452 All-in-One.
When you sign up for an HP Instant Ink plan, you pay a monthly fee to print a defined number of pages per month. The plans are based on the number of pages you print, not on how many ink cartridges you use. Your monthly fee pays for ink, shipping, and recycling used-up cartridges. A printed page counts the same whether it’s black and white, a color document, or a photo.
Instant Ink subscribers can choose from five tiers, all priced per month: $1.25 for up to 15 pages, $3.99 for up to 50 pages, $5.99 for up to 100 pages, $13.99 for up to 300 pages, and $28.99 for up to 700 pages. The 15-page tier used to be free, and customers who were already on that plan still don’t have to pay a monthly fee, but new subscribers do. If you print more than your allotment, you’ll automatically purchase sets of 10–50 pages for $1.25 (pages per set vary by plan). if you don’t use up all your pages in a month, you can roll over up to a month’s worth of pages to apply to pages in excess of your monthly allotment. HP calls its service a subscription, but you are not under contract, and you can cancel your plan or change to a different one at any time.
HP points to potentially substantial cost savings compared with the traditional model of paying for individual ink cartridges. Cost per page ranges from 8.3 cents per page for the lowest-tier plan to 4 cents per page for the premium plan. As the plans don’t distinguish between black and color pages, you could save a lot of money with Instant Ink if you print mostly in color. Note, though, that your savings may be considerably reduced if you don’t use up your allotted pages, or if you frequently print more pages than are included with your plan. If you print mostly in black and white, you may actually save money by sticking to buying cartridges the old-fashioned way.
HP uses “smart” cartridges that monitor your ink use and the number of pages you print, and automatically sends you replacement cartridges when your ink runs low. Your printer must be connected to the internet for the cartridges to record the ink and page data and transmit it to HP, and you may be unable to print if it is offline for an extended time. If you cancel your subscription, your Instant Ink cartridges will be disabled, and you’ll have to buy standard cartridges to use your printer again.
For laser printers, HP offers five similar tiers of monthly toner plans, ranging from $2.99 for up to 50 pages to $36.99 for up to 1,500 pages.
HP Smart Tank Plus Bulk-Ink Printers
Starting in 2019 with the Smart Tank Plus 551 and Smart Tank Plus 651, HP took another tack in providing low-cost ink to its customers. These wireless all-in-ones come with up to two years’ worth of bottled ink, which you pour into reservoirs within the printer when they run low. Additional ink is also sold at a steep discount. The cost per page is approximately 0.3 cent for black pages and 0.9 cent per color page, in line with similar offerings from Epson and Canon, which we will discuss shortly. The catch is that you pay a steep price up front for these printers, and the two models mentioned above have a relatively sparse set of features. We hope that future models can be more feature-rich.
Along the same lines, in 2020 HP introduced the Neverstop line of laser printers with refillable toner, including the Editors’ Choice–winning Neverstop Laser MFP 1202w.
Brother’s INKvestment Tank: High-Yield Cartridges
Brother is saving businesses (including home offices) a pretty penny with its INKvestment Tank all-in-one printers, which employ low-cost, high-yield ink cartridges. Most of these printers use the same set of cartridges, with the black cartridge having a claimed yield of 3,000 pages and each color cartridge a yield of 1,500 pages. Brother has produced a string of excellent INKvestment Tank printers, including the Editors’ Choice Brother MFC-J6945DW. Running costs come to just less than a penny a page for printing in black and just less than a nickel a page for printing in color.
Epson EcoTank and SuperTank Printers
Epson launched its first EcoTank printers in 2015 and continues to introduce new models, including everything from basic small office units (the Epson EcoTank ET-2760) to more expensive, feature-packed options (the Editors’ Choice Epson EcoTank ET-4760). For most of these models, Epson sells ink in bottles that you can pour into reusable tanks attached to or built into the printer. The highest-capacity SuperTank printers use bags of ink that resemble IV drip bags and are attached to clips in a bay. With these models, you don’t have to pour any ink; you just have to make sure that the ink bags are securely in place.
Whether the ink comes bottled or in bags, it provides an exceedingly low cost per page, about 0.3 cent per black page and 0.9 cent per color page. A caveat is that the initial purchase price of these printers is very high considering their features and performance. So even though they come with enough ink to last a long while, you’re paying a substantial premium up front.
Don’t worry about spillage when pouring ink from bottles into tanks. In the several EcoTank printers I’ve reviewed, the worst that has happened is that I’ve gotten a drop or two on my hands, which is a small price to pay for the astonishing ink cost savings you can achieve once you’ve run through your initial ink allotment.
The running costs for standard Epson inkjets have also come down, with many offering black ink for less than a penny a page and color ink for less than a nickel a page. For many home and business uses, that’s low enough. Before making the up-front investment in an EcoTank printer, make sure that the printer you’re buying is the most suitable model for your needs. Here’s more on how to choose the best printer for your needs.
Canon MegaTank Bottled-Ink Printers
In late 2016, Canon introduced its first G-series MegaTank bottled-ink printers, which are very similar in both concept and cost savings to Epson’s offerings. These printers, designed for home or home office use (or both), have modest feature sets for their up-front prices; their real draw is their stunningly low running costs (0.3 cent per page for black ink, 0.8 to 0.9 cent per color page). This, combined with their excellent print quality—including the high-quality photo prints that Canon is known for—makes the MegaTank models a welcome addition to the ranks of low-ink-cost printers. Over the past few years, Canon has steadily expanded its MegaTank line: the Pixma G5020, Pixma G6020, and Pixma G7020 have each earned our Editors’ Choice designation.
Low-Cost Ink Is the Future
Readers of our printer reviews still complain about the high cost of printing, but the clamor has quieted over the past few years thanks to these bulk-ink and subscription-ink approaches. Market pressure should continue to keep ink costs down, at least in the most popular printer lines, and printer makers are likely to extend the savings to a wider variety of models. In the meantime, models with low ink costs are already available to suit a wide variety of uses, from home and home-office printing (including photo printing) all the way to midsize business printing. With any luck, it won’t be long until complaining about ink prices is a thing of the past.
Check out the several bulk-ink models on our list of the best inkjet printers, and if you’re still debating whether to get an inkjet or a laser printer, expand your search to include the bulk-toner types in our lab-tested picks for the best printers.