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HP Tries to Explain Why Printer Ink is So Expensive

You've been able to buy an ink jet printer for close to a song these days, especially when they go on sale. But when the inexpensively priced printer stops printing things with the same sort of graphical fidelity as it did out of the box, things can get expensive from there.

That's the thing with ink jet printers – the hardware itself is cheap, but the ink refills will get you in the end. But have you ever asked yourself why the ink is so expensive? Sure, it may be the razor and blade model, but it's still an awful lot to pay for just 10 to 20 milliliters of liquid. In comparison, a Heinz ketchup dipping pack contains 27 ml of ketchup, while the older single packets held 9 ml.

The difference between ketchup in printer ink, however, is vast. HP claims that it spends $1 billion a year on ink research and development – that's some high-tech ink.

"These liquids are completely different from a technology standpoint," said Thom Brown, marketing manager at HP, in a Computerworld story.

HP's first ink jet printer in 1985 had 12 nozzles in the print head and fired droplets at a rate of 10,000 per second, which doesn't even compare to today's Photosmart ink jet that uses 3,900 nozzles that fire 122 million drops per second.

Still, that won't help consumers feel better about paying lots for a little ink cartridge. Computerworld suggests that it may help consumers decipher ink jet cartridge replacement value to list the liquid volume inside each cartridge.

Brown, however, said that doing so would just confuse the customer. "Each system has a different way it uses ink or the drop size is different. If you looked strictly at volume you wouldn't see those differences and it would be confusing to the customers."

To HP's credit, it does list the maximum page yield, but that's only for black and white text and it's from a non-standardized measurement.

For now, it seems that consumers will either have to look at more economical, aftermarket, but perhaps less satisfactory ink replacements. There's always laser too.

Marcus Yam
Marcus Yam served as Tom's Hardware News Director during 2008-2014. He entered tech media in the late 90s and fondly remembers the days when an overclocked Celeron 300A and Voodoo2 SLI comprised a gaming rig with the ultimate street cred.