Why is printer ink so expensive?

black Canon photo printer
Printing money: ink cartridges are pricey

If you thought filling up the car with petrol was costly, filling the printer with ink can be even more so. Why is printer ink so expensive? There are many reasons, which we’ll deal with one by one below, along with tips on how to save money on printer ink.

Because printers are so cheap

It’s a bit of cliche, but it’s certainly true. You genuinely can buy printers that are cheaper than the cost of the ink cartridges that go in them.

That’s because the printer manufacturers are adopting razor blade economics: they sell you the printers at or below cost, because they know they will get the money back on the ink.

As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the printer, the more expensive it is to run. That is starting to change, with printer ink being sold on subscription and with high-capacity ink tank inkjet printers now becoming more popular. But when you’re looking at buying a new printer, it’s crucial to consider the cost per page, not just the cost of the printer itself.

Because printer manufacturers block compatible cartridges

There’s no two ways about it: printer manufacturers crank up the cost of their own cartridges because they make it as hard as possible to use third-party ‘compatible’ cartridges.

Official ink cartridges are often fitted with security chips, which tell the printer they came direct from the manufacturer. If you try and install third-party compatible cartridges into many printers, the device may refuse to print or throw up warnings that slow the entire process down.

It’s a game of cat and mouse, and many printer users (like me) simply don’t bother with the cheaper compatibles because you can never be sure that they will actually work.

This kind of practice is, in my view, anti-competitive and should have been made illegal decades ago.

Because high-quality printer inks are expensive to develop

Pile of printed photos

In the printer manufacturers’ defence, printer inks are A LOT more complex than the stuff that fills a Biro.

Printer inks have to reproduce colours accurately, dry almost instantly (but not dry up in the cartridge), and last for decades when they’re hung on a wall. It is a hugely complex chemical industry and it’s not cheap to run.

Another reason to avoid those compatible cartridges – especially for photos – is because the cheaper inks often don’t deliver the same print quality. They very worst compatibles and refills can even damage printers.

So, even if the printer manufacturers manipulate the market (as I’ve described above), they do have serious production expenses to recoup.

Because you’re not buying the XL cartridges

Most models of printers can take different cartridge sizes. As with most things in life, buying in bulk is usually much cheaper when you consider the price per page. Take, for example, the different sized cartridges available for the Canon TR8550 printer sitting on the desk in front of me:

Cartridge sizeInk levels (BW/colour)Price per pagePrice
All prices from CartridgePeople.com; correct at time of publication

As you can see, buying the XXL compared to the standard-sized cartridge makes the ink more than four times cheaper, albeit at a much bigger up-front cost.

If you’re thinking about buying bigger cartridges, first check:

  • Your printer accepts them
  • That you’re going to use them within months (ink can dry out if left unused)

Because you’re buying direct from the manufacturers

Getting your cartridges direct from the printer firm is usually a more expensive route (unless you’re part of a subscription programme, where it may be your only choice).

This is not an affiliate deal, I get no kickback for the recommendation, but I normally buy my printer cartridges from StinkyInk (UK), who offer the winning combination of good prices and fast delivery. Handy when the kids need homework printed off and I’ve let the printer run down to the last millilitre of available ink…

Amazon and supermarkets are both generally cheaper than buying direct from the manufacturers too.

Why do Canon printers run out of ink so quickly?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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