The purchase price of a printer is one thing, but the total cost of ownership is quite another.
Printing costs fall into four main categories. There's the purchase price, the ink or toner, the electricity used, and any parts that may need replacing within the expected life of the printer.
We haven't forgotten the cost of paper, but these days any decent brand of A4 paper should do the trick for general office printing, regardless of the type of printer. Automatic duplex printing helps reduce paper costs, so it may be worth looking for that capability.
As a general rule, the lower the purchase price, the higher the running costs. To some extent this is a function of marketing: sell the razor cheaply, and make money on the blades.
But it also results from design decisions. It usually costs more to make parts that are going to have a long service life, so a cheap printer will generally have some elements that require relatively frequent replacement. For example, if you buy one of the cheapest inkjet printers you may find that you're paying for a new printhead every time you replace the ink tanks, because these two parts are fused together and sold as a single unit. (That's not necessarily a bad thing: see 'How often do you print?'.
Ink and toner
Buying ink and toner is a bit like buying soft drinks at a fast food joint: the unit price drops rapidly as the size increases. So regular ink cartridges are quite expensive, high capacity cartridges may be less than twice the price but good for perhaps three times as many pages. Much the same goes for laser (or LED) printers - high capacity toner cartridges almost always give a lower cost per page than the regular cartridges.
Furthermore, the cost per page for inkjets with permanent tanks that are refilled from bottles is far lower, usually similar to or even below that of otherwise comparable laser printers.
The cheapest inkjet printers have no consumable parts other than the printhead/tank assembly and the waste diaper that soaks up the ink used to keep the nozzles clear. In this class a diaper replacement typically costs about the same as a new printer, so people rarely bother. More expensive models tend to incorporate a waste collection unit that is moderately priced and relatively easy to replace when required.
Similarly, low-end lasers pack more than just toner into their toner cartridges. These cartridges may also incorporate the drum and waste toner bin, for example. More expensive models usually keep all these items separate, so their list of consumable items might include a drum unit (perhaps lasting around 40,000 pages), a waste receptacle (maybe 50,000 pages) and a belt unit (perhaps around 100,000 pages). Each of these is usually relatively easy to replace without calling for a technician, and splitting them out means each can be replaced as required.
Printer manufacturers have made great strides in reducing the electricity consumption of their products. One way this has been achieved is through more aggressive 'sleep' strategies where the printer is put more rapidly into a low-power mode between jobs, coupled with reductions in the power level while asleep. For example, the Brother HL-3150CDN consumes just 0.57W in deep sleep mode.
However, laser printers work by fusing (melting) toner onto the surface of the paper, and heating takes power. Consequently, that same HL-3150CDN uses an average of 335W during printing.
Inkjet printing is very different. The print heads either heat a tiny amount of ink to generate a bubble that forces a droplet out of the nozzle, or they use a piezoelectric mechanism where an electrical current causes an element to flex, propelling the droplet. Either way, the power consumption is very low - in the case of the Brother MFC-J6935DW multifunction device, just 29W while copying.
Managed printing services
As Business IT reported last year the way managed printing services (MPS) work is that the provider spreads all the costs (except electricity) over the expected number of pages that will be printed, and then charges per page.
Exactly how much service you get varies. A small business with simple printing requirements and low volumes may be attracted by the certainty of having the capital and operational costs wrapped up into a simple per-page charge so there are no nasty surprises when expensive service parts are needed.
But if you don't reach the minimum print volume specified in the agreement, the actual cost per page can shoot up. Let's say you agree to pay 10c a page on the basis that you will print at least 10,000 pages over a 12 month period. But if you subsequently change certain business practices in a way that means a lot less printing is done and the actual volume turns out to be 5000 pages, you end up paying 20c - not 10c - a page.
Underestimating your output volume can also be costly. Perhaps your business grows much faster than expected, and you produce 20,000 pages rather than 10,000. You still pay 10c a page, but if the MPS provider had known that was going to be the volume it might have installed a different printer that was more expensive but with lower running costs, in which case it might have charged you 8c per page - that's hundreds of dollars less over the course of the year.
Some MPS providers take a more active role than merely delivering consumables just in time and arranging for repair or replacement when faults occur. They may actively monitor your printing in detail so they can dynamically manage the makeup of the printer fleet installed in your business, and perhaps even provide guidance about where particular printers should be located.
None of these factors should be considered independently or without regard to the expected usage. For example:
A cheap printer may seem to involve expensive inks or toners, but if you print very little then the actual total cost per page can still be lower than a more expensive model because you don't spend enough on the ongoing costs to be able to recoup the higher purchase price.
If you only print things once a month (e.g., hard copy reports), then standby power consumption is largely irrelevant because the printer will be switched off most of the time.
Regardless of the resolution or sharpness, laser and inkjet prints have their own distinctive appearance. If you associate the shiny 'laser look' with quality, then you might not be happy with the matte finish you get with inkjet print on plain papers. On the other hand, the uneven reflectivity of fused toner on plain paper means photographic elements on a laser-printed page may look strange. Don't forget that a small number of laser printers can use white or clear toner to overcome this issue.
If you are looking at an inkjet printer, do check whether it uses water-resistant inks - especially if people are in the habit of running highlighter pens over your documents, or resting coffee mugs on them.
(See also 'How green is your printer?' - in many cases, features and characteristics that help save the planet also help save your money.)