Ink tank vs cartridge printers: what's the best value for money?
Printer ink cartridges cost a fortune, they need replacing frequently and you never seem to have the right replacement on hand when one runs out. At least that’s a fair summary of my at-home printing experience. So are ink tank printers that don’t use cartridges the answer? I’ve trialled both types to find out.
The four major home-printer companies sell ink tank models alongside a range of cartridge-based printers. Epson calls them Ecotank, Canon has Megatank printers and HP sells Smart Tank models. Brother, though, takes the naming award with its “INKvestment Tank” range.
I bought a mid-range do-it-all ink tank printer, the Epson ET-2850, and a near-identical Epson XP-3100 ink cartridge model to see what the difference is. They are both multi-function devices, so they can duplex print, copy and scan.
The first obvious difference is the price. The Ecotank model costs $499, whereas the cartridge-based one sells for $149 – but I picked mine up in a sale for just $49. Faced with this choice, why would you pick the model that looks similar, has identical functionality, but costs nine times more?
Print more for much less
The XP-3100 comes with ink cartridges that’ll print up to 130 pages each. However, Epson warns that you’ll get less than that as some of the ink is used for printer set-up.
After printing a few hundred pages and a dozen photos, I’d changed all four cartridges and used a good glug of ink from those too. I bought the best value XL-sized cartridges that cost $27 each for cyan, yellow and magenta (350 pages) and $40 for black (500 pages). With a set of fresh cartridges, my $49 printer had already cost $170.
Ink in the cartridges works out costing about 8c per page.
The ET-2850 Ecotank printer is supplied with enough ink to print about 6500 black and white pages and 5200 colour pages. Replacement colour ink bottles cost $18 (6000 pages) and black ones are $35 (7500 pages).
Ink for the Ecotank costs less than half a cent per page.
Ink cartridge costs soon add up
To print 6500 black and white pages with the XP-3100, I’d need to buy 13 XL-sized cartridges. The total printer and ink cost would be $669. That’s $170 more than the cost of the Ecotank printer and ink that comes in the box.
It gets much worse if I was to go on and print a further 7500 pages. The extra black ink for the Ecotank would cost just $35 compared to $600 for the equivalent black cartridges.
If you print colour, you’re even better off with the Ecotank. Whereas black ink cartridges are 17 times more expensive than Ecotank ink, colour ones are 26 times the price.
At $499, the ET-2850 Ecotank printer looks expensive next to the seemingly identical XM-3100. For just $49, or even the undiscounted $149 price, it seems to be a bargain. But manufacturers are sneaky. You pay much less for cartridge-based printers like this, because they know you’ll end up paying much more for ink in the long run.
You are far better off paying more up-front for the Ecotank printer.
To make matters worse, my ink cost calculations don’t include ink used to clean the printing heads. All inkjet printers use some ink for maintenance between print jobs, to prevent ink drying and clogging the heads.
I say “some” when I actually mean it could be an eye-popping amount. While some models are quite frugal, in our lab test, the XP-3100 model used 500% more ink to print 30 pages in short batches over a month than it did printing those 30 pages in one go. That’s no typo – FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT! That ink doesn’t come cheap.
The Ecotank printer will also waste some ink keeping itself in tip-top shape, but as its ink costs so much less it doesn’t matter as much.
Leaving your printer on rather than turning it off and on again each time you print will minimise the print head cleaning. It won’t chew through power either – a printer on “standby” uses just a few watts.
Both printers work well
I didn’t find any other reasons to choose the cartridge printer over the ink tank model. I’d be happy with the performance of either of them.
They both connected wirelessly first time through my home network. They can also connect through WiFi-Direct, which links the printer to a device without a network. I had no connection problems with either of them during my trial. The printers connect to Windows and Apple computers. You can print from a phone or tablet using the Epson Smart Panel app or direct by using Apple AirPrint or Google Cloud Print.
Printing functions are managed through the Epson Smart Panel app, or by navigating a menu on the printer using a 1.5” display and buttons. Using the app is intuitive. Using the printer menu is a clunkier experience, but still manageable. The experience is identical for both printers.
Print quality met my expectations for a do-it-all home printer. My untrained eyes couldn’t see much difference between documents or photos printed on either printer. If anything, colour photos printed with ink cartridges were a little more vibrant, but there was very little in it.
In our lab test, the XP-3100 scored about the same as a slightly older EP-2810 Ecotank model. Neither of these printers is as good as our office LaserJet, but these home models don’t cost several thousand dollars.
My two “ink experiences”
In my head, I saw myself pouring ink from a bottle into a tank using a funnel – and spilling it everywhere. However, that’s not the experience at all.
The Ecotank ink bottles are “keyed” so each bottle will only fit on to the correct tank. You can top up each ink at any time by inverting a bottle on to a tank and letting it fill. Ink doesn’t start flowing until you push down on the bottle, and it stops flowing automatically when the tank is full. There’s no mess at all – no drips or spills.
In use, you can see how much ink remains through transparent windows on the front of the printer, just like on a kettle. Printing several hundred pages and two dozen photos during my test, I didn’t need to refill the ink tanks.
Ink cartridges are mess-free too. To replace one, you unclip the spent cartridge and clip in the new one. The printer than automatically checks you’ve put the correct cartridge in place.
With ink hidden inside cartridges, it isn’t so easy to see how much is left. There’s an ink level displayed in the app and you can navigate to a similar screen on the printer display, but the first you’re likely to know is when the printer gives you a “low ink” warning. That’s followed a few pages later by a request to “replace cartridge”. The XP-3100 model lets you print in black and white if a colour cartridge runs out. However, if black runs out you can only scan – you can’t print or copy at all until you replace the cartridge.
By weight, only about a third of an Epson 212XL cartridge is ink you can use. The rest is a small amount of ink kept in reserve, a plastic casing and a microchip.
Every new cartridge has a tear-off plastic tab (waste), is sealed in a plastic bag (waste) and is packaged inside a printed cardboard box (recyclable).
That’s a lot of resources used to deliver a small amount of ink to print relatively few pages.
Thankfully, there are recycling programmes for used cartridges. That’s important because recycling them isn’t easy as the spent plastic case still contains a small amount of ink and a microchip.
Check the New Zealand website of your printer manufacturer to find out how to get your used cartridges and ink bottles back to them. Most will send out a postage-paid bag for you to fill and return. You can also drop off used cartridges or ink bottles of any brand at Warehouse Stationary stores to be sent for recycling.
By switching to ink tanks, you generate one recyclable ink bottle instead of 15 cartridges.
Why do cartridge-based printers still exist?
After this trial, I’m struggling to find any reason at all to buy an inkjet printer that uses cartridges:
Cartridges don’t make a printer any easier to use.
Cartridges don’t result in significantly better print quality.
Ink in cartridges costs many times more than in bottles.
Every cartridge wastes resources: ink, plastic, packaging and microchips.
It’s a no-brainer decision. If you need a home printer, get an ink tank model. Ignore the extra up-front cost – if you’re going to print enough at home to justify needing a printer, you will print enough to justify the extra up-front cost of an ink tank printer. It’ll pay for itself sooner than you might believe. When you need to cough up for the first of many rounds of cartridges, you’ll begin to regret that “bargain”.
Chantelle Banbury, corporate communications specialist at Canon, told us they offer cartridge-based models because “although the cost of each individual print is higher, a user may not print enough to make up for the higher upfront cost of a tank-based model.” A representative from Epson had similar reasoning, saying, “There is a market for both EcoTank and cartridges printers as some people don’t print a lot and don’t want to spend more than $45 on a printer.” An HP spokesperson echoed that “HP offers a range of printer models, including ink cartridges and ink tanks, to meet the varying needs and preferences of customers.”
The printer manufacturers told us they were seeing an increasing number of consumers choosing tank-based printers. Epson’s spokesperson said, “there is a growing awareness around long-term ongoing cost and environmental aspect of the cartridge printers and consumables.” According to Canon, approximately 18% of printers sold are tank models, up from approximately 8% a few years ago.