Need a printer? Watch the cost of consumables

A while back, John Braun was cruising the printer aisle of a big store — he has a professional interest in these things — when he was startled to see a household-sized printer priced at $30.

He was all the more startled to see a $20 rebate form attached to the $30 printer.

It all made sense, however, when Braun took a couple more steps and saw refill ink cartridges priced at more than $70 for the copier available for a sawbuck.

Braun, co-owner with Paul Kelly of the Cartridge World franchise in Reno, says hapless buyers of printers and copiers — the folks who find out too late that they face a big ongoing price tag for ink or toner — are surprisingly common.

“What’s it going to cost you over the long run?” Braun says. “People don’t seem to think about it.”

It’s something like the fellow who falls in love with a big pickup truck, but never thinks about the amount he’ll spent at the gas pump each week.

And the failure to think through the ongoing costs of a printer isn’t a problem encountered merely by individuals or the operators of small businesses. Braun and Kelly say the customers for ink and toner at their store include managers of large outfits who now are scrambling to save on a surprisingly big expense.

Given that name-brand printer ink often costs more by weight than caviar, Kelly says some managers who conduct a realistic analysis find that it makes sense to donate an existing printer to charity and buy a new one with more manageable ink or toner costs.

With more than 350 printers models sold under a dozen brand names, Braun says smart decision-making can be challenging.

But whether the shopper is the owner of a home-based firm or the business manager of a large law firm, he says the analysis needs to begin with careful and realistic thought about the work that the printer will handle.

Someone who produces a large volume of black-and-white printed documents — a bustling real estate office, for instance, or a college student — may be able to get by with a single-function laser printer. Those machines print quickly, generally have larger printer trays than ink-jet printers and use toner rather than ink.

But for a user for whom color printing is important — the addition of color, after all, adds a strong element of readability to a business brochure — a single-function ink-jet printer may be the best fit. But Braun cautions that the cost of consumables can vary widely.

How about multi-function, or all-in-one, machines that provide printing, photocopies, scanning and faxing in one unit? They can save space, which can be a big deal in a home office or small operation, and larger multi-function printers provide additional features that are useful for businesses.

But Kelly says managers need to think carefully about the additional features they need on a multi-function machine. How many times does the office actually need a collating feature? Does the office actually send fax documents, or does the staff scan documents and send them as e-mail attachments?

Then there’s the matter of the cost of consumables — ink and toner, mostly.

The information that printer manufacturers provide about the expected life of a printer-ink cartridges, Braun says, are based on the expectation that words and graphics will cover 5 percent of a printed sheet. That’s the same as seven lines of 12-point type.

While the information is useful to compare one printer against another, it’s often misleading if a buyer uses the data to calculate the cost of consumables. Most of us, after all, print documents that contain more than seven lines of type — and the printing of a photograph requires far, far more ink or toner.

Northern Nevada’s dry climate provides another challenge, particularly to low-volume users. Braun says the heads on some printer cartridges will dry out. While they can be revitalized if the user holds a damp cloth against the head for a few moments, users often simply toss them once they’re not working.

Set-up hassles and warranty support are a couple of other important considerations for a small business owner looking to buy an off-the-shelf printer, Kelly says.

Setting up a printer can be a time-consuming frustration, especially if the equipment is part of a wireless network. And while most printers carry a one-year warranty, Kelly says it’s useful to know the cost of phone support once the warranty has run its course.

Another money-saving option, Braun says, is the purchase of a printer that’s been refurbished by the manufacturer. Those machines are less expensive than new equipment, but often carry the same warranty.


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