Instant Ink or Instant Profit?

Everything you need to choose the right printer

Instant Ink or Instant Profit?

HP has a new program called Instant Ink. The premise seems quite ingenious: Instead of paying a small fortune for ink cartridges, and having to remember to order cartridges before you run out of ink, for a small monthly fee your HP printer can talk to HP and HP will send you cartridges before you need them, based on your usage. For as little as just $2.99 a month!

This may sound great at first – convenient and inexpensive. But let’s examine this in a detail and see who really comes out ahead – the customer (you) or the manufacturer (HP).

We’ll use the HP OfficeJet Pro 8720 , a popular and very capable all-in-one machine. It prints, copies, scans and faxes at reasonable speeds. It includes all the features a typical home user or small business might need. But what is the best way to get ink?

First, the regular, “old fashioned” way: Buy ink cartridges when you need them. The 8720 (and the other 87xx models) use the 952 series of cartridges. There are a total of 8 cartridges – Black, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow in both “regular” 952 and “high yield” 952XL.

There is also a special 956XL super-high-yield black cartridge which is not compatible with the 8710 – a way to help steer people to the more expensive printers for something that likely costs HP < $1 to change. But I digress…

Prices shown here are MSRP. You may find lower prices on Amazon, particularly for multi-packs.

952 Black – 1,000 pages – $31.99 – 0.032/page
952 Cyan/Magenta/Yellow – 700 pages – $21.99 – 0.031/page
952XL Black – 2,000 pages – $43.99 – 0.022/page
952XL Cyan/Magenta/Yellow – 1,600 pages – $33.99 – 0.021/page
956XL Black – 3,000 pages – $52.99 – 0.018/page

As you can see, just picking the right cartridges can make a HUGE difference in costs. Even ignoring the 956XL, just switching from 952 to 952XL changes the cost for a full color (Cyan/Magent/Yellow/Black) page from about 12.5 cents/page to 8.5 cents/page!

But how much do you print? 50 pages a month? 100 pages a month? 300 pages a month? 1,000 pages a month? And do you mostly print black, full color or a mixture?

Let’s take a look at HP Instant Ink. They have 3 plans available currently for the 8720 printer. We’ll compare those 3 plans (50, 100, 300 pages per month) and also compare a large user (1,000 pages using a 300 page plan). To keep the calculations simple, we’ll round off the numbers (e.g., $3/month instead of $2.99, which HP actually does in some of their own calculations as well).

Occasional Printing – 50 pages/month

$3/month = $36/year for 600 pages = 0.06/page
According to HP: With standard cartridges $132/year, savings $96/year

Moderate Printing – 100 pages/month

$5/month = $60/year for 1,200 pages = 0.05/page
According to HP: With standard cartridges $264/year, savings $204/year

Frequent Printing – 300 pages/month

$10/month = $120/year for 3,600 pages = 0.033/page
According to HP: With standard cartridges $792/year, savings $672/year

Heavy Printing – 1,000 pages/month

$10/month = $120/year for 3,600 pages + 8,400 pages at $1 per 25 pages = $336 = $456
According to HP: With standard cartridges $792/year, savings $336/year

At first glance, these plans all save you, the customer, a lot of money. But do they really?

Problem # 1: Standard cartridge pricing

How does HP come up with the “standard cartridges” pricing? Let’s start with the 952 cartridges and see what happens:

Occasional Printing – 50 pages/month
Black: 600 pages x $32 / 1,000 pages per cartridge = $19.20
Color: 600 pages x $22 / 700 pages per cartridge = $18.86 x 3 colors = $56.58
$19.20 + $56.58 = $75.78
Hmmm. That isn’t quite $132. So let’s just add the FULL cost of the cartridges:
$32 + ($22 x 3) = $98
That still isn’t quite $132.
How about 952XL High Yield cartridges?
$44 + ($34 x 3) = $146
Well, that’s closer to $132. But if you put in a set of high-yield cartridges then you would have enough ink for 32 months, not just 12 months. And some black ink left over.

So $132 should be more than enough for ink cartridges even for Moderate Printing – 100 pages/month where HP claims $264/year.

That being said, based on normal rated yields, the regular cartridges will cost you more than $36. Based on the above calculations, $75.78. Using the high-yield 952XL cartridges, the total would be

Black: 600 pages x $44 / 2,000 pages per cartridge = $13.20
Color: 600 pages x $34 / 1,600 pages per cartridge = $12.75 x 3 colors = $38.25
$13.20 + $38.25 = $51.45

Now, $51.45 is a bit more than $36. Plus you have to buy the cartridges ahead of time instead of paying just a few dollars each month. But as you will see, there are more problems with Instant Ink.

Problem # 2: Partial months

Nobody prints the same amount every day. You might print a few pages a day and print a bunch of reports at the end of the month. You might print a few pages a month and print a lot of reports around April 15 for your income taxes. You might print extra color pictures before a big party. Everyone is different, and it is hard to predict.

Most people will just make an educated guess. Either they will guess high and waste their monthly allotment (you only get to “roll over” one month’s worth of pages), or guess low and pay a higher per-page price.

As an example, if you go with the lowest plan of 50 pages/month but your actual printing averages only 40 pages/month, then you will still pay $36/year, but your cost per page will go up and the cost of using regular cartridges instead will go down. Another way to look at is your cost will be the same but what you would have spent with regular cartridges will be lower and therefore your savings, if any, will be lower.

Problem # 3: Alternative Cartridge Sources

Ink cartridges are available from many places besides direct from the manufacturer, and prices can vary quite a bit. Even when purchasing from HP, there are options that can save money. For example, a 3-pack of 952 regular color cartridges (Cyan/Magenta/Yellow) lists for $62.99 instead of $65.97 when purchased separately.

If you are open to using remanufactured cartridges available at Amazon or elsewhere then you can save even more!

Problem # 4: Initial Ink Supply

The HP Instant Ink program makes it sound like a special bonus that you get a 3 month free trial. But guess what? Your printer already comes with that ink. The cartridges that are included with an OfficeJet Pro 8720 are rated for 745 pages black and 400 pages color. Even with all pages printed in color, that is eight months included (5 more than the free trial) based on a 50 page/month plan, four months included (1 more than the free trial) on a 100 page/month plan, and covers at least the first “free” month of a 300 page/month plan. And no, you can’t cheat the system by waiting until the initial ink has run out – you have to sign up within a week of installing the printer!

Problem # 5: Color vs. Monochrome (black)

Except for graphic artists (and probably even many graphic artists too), most people print a lot more monochrome (black only) than color pages. Even when we print color pages, they are often only a little bit of color – e.g., blue web links or occasional logos – and mostly black. HP knows this – that’s why black cartridges tend to hold a lot more ink than color cartridges. Using the 952XL as an example, the black cartridges are rated for 2,000 pages and the color cartridges are only rated for 1,600 pages. Plus there is the 952XL rated for 3,000 pages – with no color version available. In fact, most moderate to high-volume print users I know of print mostly black. Typical might be 80% black, 20% color (which also counts as black too). But let’s be really conservative and figure on 50% full color (including black) and 50% monochrome. Now the equations really change for Instant Ink. Going back to the previous calculations:

Occasional Printing – 50 pages/month
Black: 600 pages x $32 / 1,000 pages per cartridge = $19.20
Color: 300 pages x $22 / 700 pages per cartridge = $9.43 x 3 colors = $28.29
$19.20 + $28.29 = $47.49

That’s not so far off from $36. How about if we go to 952XL?
Black: 600 pages x $44 / 2,000 pages per cartridge = $13.20
Color: 300 pages x $34 / 1,600 pages per cartridge = $6.38 x 3 colors = $19.14
$13.20 + $19.14 = $32.34

WOW!!! Now we got to a lower price than Instant Ink. And that is with a full 50 pages/month. If you print fewer than 50 pages/month, your actual cost will go down even more.

With moderate printing the equation tilts slightly towards Instant Ink because the Instant Ink per page cost is a little lower than with the occasional printing plan. However, that assumes “full months” which is not always going to be the case. The same applies to frequent printing.

Now let’s try the heavy printing of 1,000 pages/month, using the 956XL cartridge:
Instant Ink: $10/month = $120/year for 3,600 pages + 8,400 pages at $1 per 25 pages = $336 = $456
Regular cartridges:
Black: 12,000 pages x $53 / 3,000 pages per cartridge = $212.00
Color: 6,000 pages x $34 / 1,600 pages per cartridge = $127.50 x 3 colors = $382.50
$212.00 + $382.50 = $594.50

$594.50 is quite a bit more than $456. But it is a lot less than the $792 claimed by HP for only 300 pages/month. Plus it is based on 50% color. Most typical users will print a lot fewer color pages, and if they print that many color pages then I generally recommend a color laser printer instead.

Just for fun, let’s try this with 25% color instead of 50%:
Occasional Printing – 50 pages/month
Black: 600 pages x $32 / 1,000 pages per cartridge = $19.20
Color: 150 pages x $22 / 700 pages per cartridge = $4.72 x 3 colors = $14.16
$19.20 + $14.16 = $33.36

That’s less than Instant Ink, assuming a full 50 pages per month and using only the more expensive per page regular 952 cartridges.

So who really wins with Instant Ink? HP.

Automatic Refills?

If the reason you want (or think you want) a program like Instant Ink is the automatic refills, there are other ways to get that feature while still saving money. One of the easiest is the Amazon Dash Replenishment program. This is available for multiple brands (HP, Brother, Epson, Samsung, etc.) and both inkjet and laser printers. So if you want convenience, you can get that without overpaying for the privilege.