Printers: How to buy the best printer Printer running costs and ink cartridges
Choosing the right printer will save you money in the long run, as your printing costs will be kept low, but you can also help keep your printing costs down by saving on printer ink cartridges.
The cost of a set of ink cartridges and the number of prints you get from them influence print costs. Cheap cartridges can work out expensive in the long run if they don’t produce many prints.
How often you print can have a big impact on ink costs too.
Printer reviews - you can find out the ink costs per page for printing text, graphics and photos in our printer reviews.
Cheap ink doesn't always mean cheap prints
Some printers produce cheap prints if you print lots of documents in one go, but in some cases, running costs can increase by up to six times if you only use it to print occasionally.
We test printers for the cost of printing lots in one go, and the cost of printing occasionally, to help you find printers that offer the best value for money.
As our graphic shows, time can have a significant impact on ink costs when printing just 50 colour pages.
Cheap printers can cost more in the long run
The cheapest printer in the shop might produce pricey prints and there’s no way of knowing how expensive a printer is to run by just looking at it in a store.
If you print regularly, it may be more cost effective to buy a slightly more expensive printer to make bigger savings on your printing costs.
Some printers use ink to clean their print heads – this is ink you don’t get to use on your printed pages.
Which? uses a special ‘occasional printing’ test to find out the true cost of printing from a printer. We run our printing cost test over several weeks, printing on some days and not on others to take into account some of the ink used by the printer to clean itself. While this can take a long time, we feel this better reflects how much a printer will really cost you in the long run.
Our tests have found it can be expensive in the long-run if you don’t buy the right printer – we found that a £35 printer could work out more expensive than a printer costing £130 when used over the course of a year, depending on how often you print.
Latest printer reviews – see our reviews of printers tested for occasional printing costs so you can get the best value printer.
Shopping for cheap ink cartridges
It's important to shop around for ink - we've discovered some retailers charging three-times more than others for the exact same cartridge.
Online retailers offering free delivery usually offer the cheapest ink cartridges, but it's worth checking different retailers' prices before choosing a cheap ink cartridge.
We've also found that the cheapest retailer one month may not be the cheapest a month later, so check cartridge prices at a few retailers every time you buy.
Starter and high-capacity cartridges
New printers may come with starter or introductory printer ink cartridges. These contain less printer ink than standard cartridges and may run out after printing only a few pages.
Check whether your printer is sold with these smaller capacity cartridges. If so, make sure you buy a set of cartridges when you’re shopping for your printer.
High-capacity (or XL) cartridges cost more than standard capacity cartridges but produce more prints, so they’re usually cheaper in the long run, unless you find a retailer selling standard capacity cartridges very cheaply.
XL printer inks are easier to find online than on the high street and are available for some, but not all, printers.
Best Buy printers - Which? uses XL cartridges when testing printers as they usually offer the best value.
Combined and single colour cartridges
A combined colour cartridge contains three inks - cyan, magenta and yellow - in one cartridge. The downside is that when your printer runs out of one colour, you’ll need to replace the whole cartridge, even if there is ink for the other colours remaining.
This is a problem if you print a lot of one colour. For example, if you print photos containing large expanses of sky, you'll use more cyan ink. You would have to replace the whole colour cartridge when the cyan ran out, even if there was plenty of magenta and yellow left. In the long run, this can increase your printing costs.
However, our tests have found that some printers with combined colour ink cartridges don’t use as much ink for cleaning their print heads, which could save you money, depending on how often you print.
Cheaper photo printing
It’s usually cheaper to get your photos printed at a high-street or online retailer than to print lots of photos on your home printer.
Online photo processors typically charge less than 10p per 6x4-inch photo and you could save even more by buying pre-paid credits - bear in mind you'll have to pay for postage too.
Remanufactured, compatible and refill cartridges
Genuine ink cartridges produced by the manufacturer of your printer are the safest bet for consistent print quality.
However, you may be tempted to try other third-party ink cartridges or ink refills with your printer to reduce costs as these are usually cheaper to buy. There are pros and cons to third-party inks - some produce good prints at a fraction of the cost of printer branded inks, but with others you may have problems getting them to work with your printer.
We’ve tested ink refill kits that allow you to refill your own printer cartridges and we’ve generally found them messy and inconvenient.
We’ve also looked at continuous ink systems (extra-large ink supplies that sit outside of your printer, feeding in to the cartridges), but don’t recommend them as they’re awkward to use and don't always produce good results.
Ink cartridge reviews - remanufactured, compatible and refill cartridges tested and reviewed.
A replacement print head for a printer could set you back up to around £50. You can reasonably expect the print head to last three years.
Not all printers have the print head in the printer, some have them on the cartridges - so every time you buy a new cartridge you get a new print head. Cartridges with the print head incorporated tend to be more expensive.
If you have a laser printer, the drum will have a limited life expectancy of around 20,000 pages – and will cost you over £100 to replace.
Although it’s not great for the environment, the cost of replacing the part can be offset against the price of a new printer, and sometimes it'll actually be cheaper to buy a new one.
For information about recycling your old printer contact your local council.