I’m through with cheap consumer printers.
Due to the nature of my wife’s work, we print a lot by home standards. We buy paper by the case, not the ream, and a case of paper probably lasts us a little more than six months.
Our workload just isn’t practical for the kind of printers you find next to the telephones at consumer electronics stores. So I bought an HP Laserjet 4100. And even if a case of paper lasts you a couple of years, you might want to buy an office-grade printer too.A typical consumer monochrome laser printer, if you shop around for a good sale, costs around 60 bucks. Replacement toner cartridges cost anywhere from $50-$70, depending on capacity. And at some point, which could be as little as 20,000 pages, the drum or the fuser or some other semi-replaceable part will wear out and you’ll have to replace it, at a cost of $100-$150. Most people don’t do it, since it’s cheaper to just buy another printer. And by that point, the printer will be discontinued, replaced by a new model that’s a little smaller, a little faster, a little quieter–and uses different, incompatible toner cartridges. If you got lucky and found toner on sale and stocked up, you’re out of luck.
Let’s do the math. 8 toner cartridges at $60 apiece, plus the printer at $60 gives you a total cost of $540 to print 20,000 pages. That’s 2.7 cents per page over the practical lifespan of the printer.
Businesses are discarding old HP Laserjets like crazy, either because the maintenance contracts on them get to be too expensive, or because they’re replacing them with units that can print color, or units that can scan and fax in addition to printing.
This week I bought an HP Laserjet 4100 from a computer recycler for 30 lousy bucks. The toner cartridge still has about 5,000 pages left in it, and the fuser/drum assembly will be good for another 175,000 pages. It’ll take me 17 years to wear that out–and since the printer is already 7-9 years old, I don’t know if the rest of the printer has 17 years left in it.
But there are still Laserjet 4000s in service and that printer came on the market about four years earlier, so I’m pretty confident I’ll get four years out of the hardware.
I’m less confident of current consumer laser printers lasting four years doing what I ask of it.
It’s possible to find toner cartridges for HP 4100s at a cost of anywhere from $20-$50 and last 10,000 pages. The "maintenance kit" that includes a drum and fuser costs about $150. I probably won’t ever need one, but if you find an HP 4100 with more miles on it, you may.
Old toner cartridges have an expiration date on them, but you can ignore that as long as the cartridge is still sealed. Once the cartridge is opened, you can expect it to last 2-2.5 years. So buying old cartridges for $20 or $30 off Amazon or eBay is fine, and stocking up if you see a bunch of them is fine.
Let’s do the math on a less than ideal HP 4100 that needs a maintenance kit and toner cartridge right away. At $50 for the printer, $150 for the maintenance kit, and $100 for two cartridges, you’re looking at a cost of $300 to print 20,000 pages, yielding a cost per page of 1.5 cents.
I’m looking at more like half a cent per page, since I lucked into a low-mileage unit.
Either way you look at it, a used HP 4100 is a better deal than a consumer-grade printer. The cost per page is lower, and it’s a lot more convenient because you’ll be changing toner cartridges and filling the paper tray less often.
Even if you have your heart set on buying new, the economy is similar, but the financial hit up front is a lot higher. The HP 4014 currently costs $800, and the cartridges are around $100. At 10,000 pages per year, the cost per page is a reasonable 1.5 cents over the course of 15 years.
Personally, I’d rather buy a used older model that’s already depreciated, keep the up-front cost low, and recoup the savings quickly.
And yes, I am partial to HP. One of the reasons they’re common is because they work well. When I supported printers for a living, I could almost set HPs up and forget about them. They didn’t even jam all that often. I’ve also supported a lot of Lexmark printers. They were pretty reliable, but we had more strange issues with printing than I ever saw with HPs. And I see the same pattern at work today, though I’m no longer responsible for fixing the printers. The HPs just work, but about once a week the Lexmarks die suddenly with a weird error message.
And by virtue of being the most common, HPs will be easy to find in the first place, and in the long term, it will be a lot easier to find parts and toner for them. I owned a Lexmark 4039 laser printer for many years, but the toner was more expensive than HP toner because it was harder to find, and once the printer was old enough that I needed parts, I couldn’t find them at a reasonable price.
What about cleaning the printer up? Some offices are much more kind to their printers than others. My 4100 seems fairly typical. It had a couple of stickers on it telling where to call for service, and a number of black marks that looked like they came from shoes. Maybe it sat under someone’s desk for a while and got the occasional kick.
Labels come off pretty easily with lighter fluid. Squirt a little lighter fluid onto the end of a napkin or a cotton swab. In the case of paper labels, wipe them until they’re saturated with lighter fluid and let it dry, then repeat the process a couple of times. The label will peel off very easily. If any adhesive residue remains, another wipe or two will take care of it. In the case of plastic or metallic labels, just rub the edges and let the lighter fluid wick under it until one of the corners lifts. Pull that corner up some more, then dab some more lighter fluid underneath. Eventually the adhesive will weaken enough to allow you to peel off the label. Then wipe away any remaining adhesive afterward.
Some marks will come off pretty easily with lighter fluid too. Others don’t even require that much–some will respond just fine to window cleaner, or just a little soap and water.
Stubborn marks will usually come off by buffing with car wax or metal polish.
My 4100 looked a little rough when I brought it home, but it took me about five minutes to make it look more presentable.
So if you’re in the market for a monochrome laser printer, don’t go to any of the big-box stores. Search Craigslist instead for an old HP office printer. HP Laserjet 4000s, 4050s, and 4100s are in a sweet spot right now in regards to pricing and availability of toner cartridges. Toner for the older HP Laserjet 4 and 5 printers (which date to the mid 1990s) is harder to find.
Don’t pay any more than 50 bucks for a bare printer. Be prepared to pay more for one that has extras like networking, a duplexer, or an extra tray, but it’s not uncommon for people to sell those parts separately, since they’re often worth more than the printer. Networking is nice to have if you have more than one computer. Duplexing is nice but it won’t help you if you mostly print single-page jobs. If you don’t know what you’d use extra trays for, then you probably don’t need them.