JUL 23, 2024 /

Does it make sense to subscribe for printer ink?

With many of us working from home through 2020 and 2021, and the increasing needs for families to print items such as school assignments and permission slips, the humble consumer printer isn’t going to go away any time soon.

A little while back, I gave you a rundown on the differences between home inkjet and laser printers for consumer and small business use, which is well worth checking out.

One of the challenges for Inkjet printers is the cost of replacement cartridges. It’s been stated many times – and it’s still generally true – that printer ink is more valuable than gold, or indeed caviar or fine champagne. Although it is less valuable to keep in a bank account, and by no means should you attempt to eat or drink it.

Recently one of the bigger players in the consumer printing space introduced a not-entirely-new concept that does rather change the economics of using a home inkjet printer. HP’s bringing what it calls “Instant Ink” to around 80% of its existing printer families.

Why is it “instant ink”? Because it uses special – and rather large – ink cartridges that use an online connection to report their status back to HP on a more or less continuous basis. They’re not tracking the actual content that you do print, but simply the number of pages that you get through, because the Instant Ink subscription package works on the number of pages that you print.

The cheapest plan costs $1.99 per month, but for that you only get 15 pages to print. $5.99 pushes you up to 50 pages per month, $9.99 gets you 100 pages, $19.99 buys you 300 pages and the top tier plan provides for 700 pages per month at a cost of $39.99. Beyond that, and you’re probably a small to medium sized business better served with a print management style product, which have existed in the market for a very long time now.

If you do want to go “over” your page allotment within a given month, you can step up to the next tier of printing subscription with a payment, although that’s then the tier you’d be on for the following month unless you then remembered to step down a tier. That’s a classic kind of play that you see in markets like mobile plans at play.

Because the print cartridge and printer track usage, they’re also communicating ink needs, so as the cartridge nears the end of its capacity, a fresh cartridge is ordered for you and delivered before the old one runs out. You get a prepaid envelope to send the old cartridge back for recycling and re-use, so it’s an environmentally sound idea – or at least about as environmentally sound as printing can get, anyway.

Instant Ink isn’t a new product overseas, and indeed both Canon and Epson have variants on this idea already available in the USA, but HP is the first to bring the idea to Australian consumers.

So, is it a worthwhile idea?

There’s some interesting calculations that you need to make in order to work out whether HP’s Instant Ink might be worth it for you. There’s no calculated difference between a printed text page or a printed photo, even though quite logically one would use quite a bit more ink than the other. If you’re spending a lot on photo printing with occasional text or colour pages, that could tilt it towards being decent value. HP’s own estimates state savings of up to 50% on cartridge costs, but then HP wants to sell you an ink subscription, so it’s hardly going to say it’ll cost more, now would it?

There’s definite convenience in this idea, but you are paying a price for that convenience, especially if you’re someone who only uses a printer a very small amount.

That entry level $1.99 per month price feels very low. It’s $23.88 per year, generally cheaper than any set of replacement cartridges – but if you are only printing 15 or fewer pages per month, you might do just as well (or indeed better) hitting up your local Officeworks store.

Without meaning to seem like an ad, a typical A4 printed page there would run you 10c – which equates out to only $1.50 for those 15 pages.

It’s also worth considering the value of the printer you’re putting that Instant Ink cartridge into. Ink technology and efficiency has only gotten better over the years, and with competitors like Epson and Canon offering printers now with actual ink tanks that you put actual ink into for larger print capacities, it’s well worth doing your sums and working out your total cost of printer ownership over a year or so. Divide that up into monthly instalments, and you’ll get a much clearer picture of your real printing needs, costs and value propositions.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.