Ink Costs Exposed Inverness

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.

Solution X
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Cromwell Road, Inverness
Inverness
 
ITP SOLUTIONS
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4, Walker Rd, Inverness
Inverness
 
B S COMPUTERS
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74, Highfield Avenue, Inverness
Inverness
 
PC Warehouse Ltd
01463 250250
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Laing PC Support
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Csrlaptops
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Inverness
 
iTek Solutions Ltd
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Inverness
 
Sutherland Systems & Services
01463 234007
36, Tomnahurich St, Inverness
Inverness
 
PC World
0844 5610000
79A, Telford St, Inverness
Inverness
 
Computer & Network Specialist
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Ink Costs Exposed

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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.

We've compared notes with Spencer Labs, an independent testing company that's tested many of the printers we've looked at here, and the two sets of results are within a 10 per cent margin of error of each other at most. This is in spite of Spencer Labs using a different testing methodology. It's therefore safe to say that your costs per page will be comparable to ours unless you only print continuously.

Interpreting the Results

One thing became very clear from our results: the biggest single factor to determine efficiency is whether the printer has a permanent or removable print head.

The print head is the mechanical part of the ink delivery system that physically shoots drops of ink onto the page. In terms of mechanical precision, it works on a similar scale of magnitude to a hard disk - each nozzle in a print head is around 75 microns wide: about two-thirds the width of a hair. With such small nozzles, jamming the print head with dust becomes a real issue. If a printer uses cartridges with integrated print heads (see photo, left), once the cartridge is out of ink the print head is replaced. On printers with separate print heads and ink tanks, the print head needs to last the lifetime of the printer, which means more cleaning cycles to ensure it lasts.

This extra cleaning carries through to cartridge replacement. Replace an ink cartridge that has a built-in print head, and the printer will refrain from purging lots of ink because the cartridge has just come out of vacuum-sealed packing. On a remote print-head printer, the print head's condition can't be guaranteed, and so the cleaning cycle is more in-depth. It's fair to say that we saw greatly reduced efficiency on all of the printers with remote print heads - the best any of them managed was the Epson R340 at 63 per cent.

But it's not as simple as finding the most efficient printer - you need to factor in the costs of consumables like photo paper, as well as the actual cost of the ink cartridges. This is clearly demonstrated by Epson's R240, which placed second for cost per print thanks to incredibly good value packs of ink and paper.

Conversely, don't expect highly efficient printers to be excellent value for money: the Lexmark P915 wasted only 5 per cent of the ink we used during the test, but its rate of 55p per 6 x 4in print is due to high cartridge costs and relatively expensive photo paper.

Overall, printers with value packs turned out to be better value - find out which ones have them in our table. Just beware of 'customised' ink cartridges in some value bundles; these may have the same code name as their standard brethren, but often the customisation translates to less ink being put into the cartridge.

Size is important

Above, we list an at-a-glance guide to all the printers' running costs for 6 x 4in and A4 photos. These are based on our intermittent testing, and also include the cost of paper.

One obvious conclusion is that 6 x 4in photos are more expensive to print than we expect, especially if you own a Canon Pixma iP5200R. In fact, only one in five people in our survey guessed the 'right' figure of 30-40p. But it's also clear that if you buy the right printer, it makes good economic sense to print A4 photos at home rather than using an online service: 93p from the HP Photosmart 8750 is simply phenomenal.

How to save money!

Using our research, there are a number of ways in which you can save money. The simplest, which will save you anything from 15p to 48p per 6 x 4in photo, is to use an online photo service instead of your home printer. You don't get instant results, and quality may not be as good, but it's difficult to argue when it comes to photos-per-buck.

The second way is to 'print smarter'. Rather than print sporadically, save photos up to the end of the month when you have enough to drain cartridges in one go. We noticed in testing that many printers tend to launch into head-cleaning mode soon after finishing a print job, so you're risking wasting ink after every single session.

You might also be tempted to go against the advice of companies like HP and switch off the printer when you're not using it. This may actually backfire, as some printers will default to print-head cleaning after being switched completely off, but if you're not using your printer for weeks at a time then it could save you money. However, print quality may degrade as the nozzles become too blocked by the ink, so it's a risky strategy.

The final way to save money is to buy a new printer. When a complete refresh of cartridges can cost more than the printer itself, running costs can quickly add up. Read on to discover which of the 15 printers on test best suits your needs.

How we test

The best way to test inkjet printers is to print documents and pictures that reflect what users would print both in the office and at home. Our tests range from draft text on plain paper to best-quality photos on specialist glossy paper.

Our overall aim is to establish the print quality, speed, total cost of ownership, value and the longevity of each printer's output to see how it compares with others.

Poto quality

These tests use manufacturers' best-quality photo paper. We print an A4 photomontage and a borderless 6 x 4in colour photo to assess skin tones, colour transitions and gamut. We also print a borderless 6 x 4in black-and-white photo, as monochrome performance can vary considerably.

Draft mode

Our draft test examines quality and speed of text printed on plain paper. We print ten copies of a standard 5 per cent coverage A4 letter, as developed by IDC Consulting. We look for spidering around the edges of characters that should have a sharp outline: the ink appears to bleed onto the paper.

Standard modee

We use two tests for standard mode, both on plain paper. We print ten copies of the 5 per cent letter to assess quality and speed. The second test involves printing a single-page map from www.streetmap.co.uk

Presentation graphics

When you want to produce good photographs without the cost or thickness of glossy photo paper, plain paper won't do. For this, we use coated inkjet paper. We print our mono quality test, which determines the image quality of a greyscale file with black-and-white photos, fades and varying font sizes of text.

Fade resistance

Instead of conducting our own longevity tests for this Labs, we use Henry Wilhelm's figures. Wilhelm (www.wilhelm-research.com) is an independent research company, which uses accelerated fading to predict print permanence. The figures you'll find on the feature table represent the years of display before noticeable fading, changes in colour balance and/or staining occurs.

Wilhelm uses the industry-standard scenario where photos are placed behind glass frame in a home and exposed to daylight (450lux) for 12 hours per day. The accelerated testing is carried out at 35klux with glass-filtered cool white fluorescent illumination.

Printers not intended by manufacturers for printing photos (such as the Dell 720 and Lexmark Z735) aren't rated for fade resistance, so are best suited to those who won't need to print photos.

Do bear in mind that, although photos from some printers will last considerably longer than others, you still need to store them in a relatively airtight place. Air pollutants will degrade colours far quicker than light, so keeping photos in a frame or album will ensure they last longer.

How we work out the ratings

At the bottom of each review, you'll see six star ratings. They're calculated using a complex mixture of benchmark results, objective scores and subjective quality ratings. For full details on how we calculate the Running Costs rating.

Quality

The Quality score is based on the ratings given by a panel of judges to the prints from each printer. All prints are judged 'blind': the judges have no idea which printer printed the images, as the name is written on the back of each print.

We assess quality both under fluorescent lighting (for text and colour graphics prints) and natural daylight for all photos and the mono-quality print. We weight each of the quality tests differently, with the photomontage gaining the highest importance. Text quality is important too, although draft quality is less important since this mode is mainly about speed.

Speed

Print speed can't be ignored, and a printer that offers equal quality to another but delivers prints quicker is naturally a better choice. However, we haven't given speed as high a weighting as quality in the Value for Money rating, since most people would rather wait a bit longer for a higher quality photo.

We time from the moment the paper is picked from the input tray to the moment the last page is dropped onto the output tray. This eliminates any processing time introduced by our test rig and purely tests the engine speed of each printer. The results are shown in the graphs on the right.

Features

We award points for many aspects of each printer. These range from warranty to OS support and driver options, and cover all physical attributes such as paper handling, connectivity and any TFT displays. Points are also awarded for the ability to print on CDs/DVDs and optional interfaces such as networking and Bluetooth. Lastly, we give points based on Wilhelm's fade resistance figures.

Value for money

The Value for Money rating is a weighted average of the Quality, Speed, Features and Running Costs ratings. We then factor in how much each printer costs (including delivery) to give a bang-per-buck result.

Bear in mind that the Value for Money rating is specific to each group of printers, so you can't compare the value of an entry-level inkjet to a premium photo printer, or the value of a mid-range model to an A3 printer.

Overall

The Overall score is a straight average of the Quality, Speed, Features, Running Costs and Value for Money ratings.

Ink costs exposed