Ink costs exposed

Our 23-page investigation, combining both a feature and a group test (www.pcpro.co.uk), not only reveals the truth about ink waste but also which printer to buy.

27 Feb 2006

Page 1 of 4 Ink costs exposed

If you're a keen photographer, the prospect of printing photos from your own PC has to appeal. No uploading of your images to a memory card or CD, no mixups with high-street or online developers and, best of all, instant results. And if you're unhappy with the end photo, you can get a new, tweaked version in minutes. But what's the cost of this convenience?

This month, we'll disprove the notion that you can print 6 x 4in pictures from home as cheaply as you can on the high street. Once you factor in media costs and the quantity of ink a printer wastes during self-cleaning, you'll be amazed at how large the price increases are.

According to a recent survey, 91 per cent of PC Pro's readers use an inkjet printer, and more people print 6 x 4in photos than any other size. But nearly 37 per cent of respondents thought their photos would cost 20p each or less and 19 per cent confessed to not having a clue, so this month's figures may come as a shock.

They came as a shock to us too. Ever since home photo printing first became a realistic alternative to the high street, we've determined printer costs by running a set of cartridges down and then dividing the cost of the cartridges by the number of pages they printed. But, as we reveal this month, the true cost of printing photos runs much deeper than just running the cartridges until they're empty.

In between print runs, whether you're printing daily, weekly or monthly, inkjet printers perform self-maintenance routines in order to stop the print head from clogging with dried ink or dust. So the printer cleans itself with what it has to hand - ink. Any ink that's used during cleaning is lost and will never see a page. Furthermore, nearly all inkjets use ink to prime the print head when you install a fresh cartridge - more wastage.

But we haven't just measured efficiency and its impact on cost per page. Working with each of these 15 printers over three months means we've discovered minor failings in certain models that will end up costing you time and money, and we've pointed these niggles out in our comprehensive reviews.

Test

Ultimately, we're trying to determine the difference between best-case efficiency, as seen during continuous printing, and real-world efficiency, as seen in intermittent testing. Best-case efficiency is worked out using our standard rundown tests - printing 6 x 4in photos continuously until the printer runs out of ink. We weigh the cartridges before and after the tests on a set of scientific scales with a resolution of 1mg and an accuracy of within 2mg, which allows us to work out almost exactly how much ink a cartridge will yield in a best-case scenario.

Our intermittent testing ran over a period of three weeks, including a ten-day rest period towards the end of the test. Each day, we printed six borderless 6 x 4in prints on each printer; this represents a fairly high usage rate but, according to our survey, isn't untypical of PC Pro readers. Again, we weighed the cartridges before and after the testing. With a full set of weightings, we worked out the quantity of ink used per page in both modes of printing and, in every case, printing in intermittent mode used more ink per page.

But intermittent testing doesn't tell the whole story. No matter how regularly you use your printer, changing the ink cartridges will also cost you ink, so we've measured this too.

All of these factors contribute to the final efficiency figure, quoted in each printer review, which reveals exactly how much ink ended up on the page. It's important to note that a 92 per cent efficiency figure, for example, doesn't mean that 92 per cent of all the ink in the cartridge is used. It's simply a comparison with the best-case scenario, and even this will see ink thrown away in the cartridge, particularly with tri-colour cartridges.

Page 1 of 4 Ink costs exposed

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