ISSUE 603: Zisman- May 15 2001

The high-tech office


Pricey printers pay off in lower costs per page

First published in Business in Vancouver's High Tech Office column, May 15, 2001

Colour inkjet printers are pretty much universal in homes and small offices. With prices starting as low as $79, that's no surprise.

But as most inkjet users have discovered, it's not the initial cost that proves problematic, it's the ongoing costs for the colour and black ink cartridges. It can be difficult to get cost-per-page information, but perhaps not surprisingly, in general the less expensive models turn out to cost more per page. The reason? Most low-end printers can't handle larger, economy-sized ink cartridges.

Last November, PC Magazine estimated operating costs for a range of popular inkjet printers. Basing their figures on printing 25 black and 25 colour pages per week, they came up with annual ink costs ranging from a low of $281 for a $300 Epson Stylus 980 to a high of $1,221 for a low-end $100 Lexmark Z32.

Reliability of inkjet printers can also be an issue. Several years ago, the school where I work started purchasing inkjets for each classroom. Now, over two-thirds of them are stacked in a closet, not working, some within three years of purchase. Anecdotal evidence, sure. But I'm finding it difficult to recommend that anyone purchase this technology for any but the most minimal printing needs.

While most business printing remains strictly black and white, the ability to also add colour can be very attractive. Gradually falling prices are slowly making colour laser printers worth investigating.

Requiring four separate toner cartridges and a more complex paper path, these printers are inevitably larger and more expensive than the more common monochrome laser printers. Their size and initial purchase price makes them unlikely purchases for individual users.

But the combination of speed, lower operating costs, and robustness makes them a justifiable acquisition for multiple users in an office or department.

I've had use of a Lexmark Optra C720 colour laser printer. A leap in price above single-user inkjets, the base model costs $3,149, while the C720n with built-in networking ups the price by $550. According to Lexmark, it offers a cost of 2.4 cents per monochrome page at five per cent coverage and 12 cents per colour page for 20 per cent coverage.

By the PC Magazine standards, that would result in an annual ink cost of $187. Since I would expect this printer to be used by multiple employees, these costs are unrealistically low. But they provide a comparison with inkjet models, promising savings of about $100 per year per employee compared to the most economical inkjet tested.

The software installation was straightforward, even for the sometimes tricky network installation. The printer proved to be quick and quiet, producing smooth and at-tractive colour output, even printing digital photos on plain paper.

As long as you don't need to print anything larger than legal size, it's a good choice, one that PC Magazine called their editors' choice in a recent review of a dozen colour laser printer models. They suggested it had the best print quality and was among the fastest of the printers tested.

Network management is nicely handled.

The software can even e-mail problem reports to a designated recipient. If you're not satisfied with the base unit, you can add options including a duplexer, a 500-sheet paper bin, and an Optraimage scanner attachment for scanning, copying, and faxing.

The optional Imagequick print-on-demand system makes it possible to store forms on a network server. You can access the stored forms from the printer, printing them as needed.

While $3,500 or so may seem a lot to spend on a printer, it compares well to buying everyone their own low-end printer while promising faster operation, lower cost per page, and more reliability.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan