From the April/May 2008 Issue
I bought my first HP LaserJet printer in 1992. It was one of the best printers
ever made — the venerable Model 4, churning out a whopping eight pages
per minute at the incredible resolution of 600 dots per inch (dpi). It cost
an arm and a leg — just under $1,400 after every discount I could beg
or wheedle. I retired it a while ago, but it still does service today in the
church to which I donated it, churning out bulletins and correspondence with
In the three years since I retired my LJ4, I’ve searched in vain for
a replacement. With literally hundreds of models from which to choose today,
you might think the choice is easy. It is not, for the following three reasons:
• There are too many choices
Whether it is an inkjet printer, a laser printer or a color laser printer, just
about every consumer electronics company from HP to Hyundai has jumped into
the printer market. Each uses a proprietary design for replacement ink or toner
cartridges, each works differently in terms of speed and resolution, and there
is no easy way to make a head-to-head comparison.
• There’s little delineation between personal and business
use. It would be lovely to return to the old days, when “business”
printers were designed for high-volume output and carried a price tag to match.
Today, it is nearly impossible to find a printer optimized for business use
— they are filled with such features as photo printing that may or may
not have relevance to the office environment. One model I saw even has a built-in
MP3 player so you can listen to music while printing.
• They don’t cost enough. This isn’t just
my opinion. The American Consumer Institute released a study late last year
that found that printer companies are ripping off consumers to the tune of $6
billion a year. The study found that inkjet printers are routinely under-priced
to entice consumers to purchase the product. Once purchased, consumers are trapped
into spending hundreds of extra dollars to operate the printers due to the high
price of printer ink. This business model reflects the well-known “razor/razor
blade model,” wherein durable assets (printers) are sold below cost and
“consumables” (ink) are marked up substantially. In fact, ink is
currently priced higher per milliliter than the world’s finest champagne,
gasoline and most luxury fragrances.
When it comes to shopping for printers, accountants and their clients are seriously
handicapped and misled at the point of sale by the lack of information about
printing costs. They pay for cartridges without knowing how much ink is in them
or how many pages one will print. They are forced to shop blindly due to a lack
of standardized printer ink unit pricing (such as cents-per-page printed). It
is not enough to look at the prices of printer cartridges either, since the
lowest priced cartridges often have the highest cost-of-ink per page.
Five Tips for Simplifying the Process
So what’s a reasonable office manager to do? There are few hard
and fast rules, but the following five steps may help in the process, particularly
for accounting firms looking to update their hardware at the end of tax season:
Don’t fall for the “all-in-one” solutions. The combination
printer/fax/copier/scanner machines may seem attractive, but they may also carry
a penalty in the cost of their ink cartridges. A better idea is to fax directly
from your computer desktop, invest in a good office scanner (scanners are automatically
copiers, too) and buy the printer that will best do the job.
Assess the need for color. For most tax and accounting professionals,
only the final, finished client copy or document to be filed needs color, and,
for the limited number, a color laser jet may be the best investment. Prices
are falling, and, while the toner cartridges are pricey, they are still light
years away from the cost of replacing color inkjet cartridges.
Go laser. Old school thinking was to use inkjet printers for
drafts and save the laser printers for the final version. But even though the
initial investment may be higher to go all laser, the average toner cartridge
gets 2,000 copies for about $100. A cheapie inkjet printer may be almost free,
but you’ll pay $45 or more for a cartridge that gets from 150 to 400 pages
per cartridge. You’ll pay roughly $250 more for the same number of printed
pages — roughly the cost of a laser printer today.
Check for printer drivers. As hard as it may be to believe,
printer manufacturers crank out these machines with almost callous disregard
to whether or not they will actually work with current or past operating systems.
Go to the manufacturer’s website and check to make sure before you buy.
Do research online. It is not hard to find information about
printers, especially if they are having massive problems. I use Amazon.com’s
reader feedback or I Google “[name and model of printer] problems.”
If (and until) printer manufacturers begin giving consumers real information
about real costs, the problems with buying a new printer will remain. And they
apply just as well to home use and home offices as they do the work office.