Deciding between a color inkjet versus a color laser is tough for me. So I decided to sit down and do the math, and the results were exactly the opposite of what I expected.
The least expensive color laser printer on the market is the Minolta-QMS Magicolor 2300W. It’s $650 with a $200 rebate. It should also be noted it’s a Windows-only printer, which I don’t like since I frequently run Linux, and I might like to run Gimp and Sodipodi on Linux and print to my color printer. So for Linux use (and faster printing on the Windows side), I’d have to step up to the Magicolor 2300DL, which is $100 extra. The Minoltas have excellent resolution for their class (1200×1200, as opposed to 600×600 in most competing printers) and the toner gives a waxy, photograph-like shine.

While it’s surprisingly easy to find a color inkjet for less than $40, the least-expensive color inkjet I would be willing to consider is the Epson Stylus C64, because it’s the least expensive inkjet I know of that has separate cartridges for all four colors. And, while slow, it offers excellent resolution (5760×1440 dpi). But the slightly higher-priced Epson Stylus C84 gets better reviews (and I’ve seen the C84). I’ll base the comparison on the C64, but since the two printers use the same cartridges and I’m projecting total costs over a long period of time, the price difference between the C64 and C84 is negligible.

The reviews of the Minolta that I’ve seen complain about the cost of the consumables. While the cartridges are expensive ($150 per pop), this criticism doesn’t take into account the cost per page. While the cost of inkjet cartridges is easier to swallow, inkjets are notorious for their high cost per page. So the right question to ask is which printer is cheaper over the long term?

A set of Minolta cartridges will cost $384. A set of cartridges will yield approximately 4,500 pages. Divide 384 by 4,500, and you come up with a cost of 8.53 cents per page, not counting the paper.

Epson cartridges cost $12.34 each, and you need four of them. They yield approximately 400 pages per cartridge. Multiply 12.34 by 4, then divide by 400, and you come up with a cost of 12.34 cents per page, not counting the paper.

The Minolta 2300DL costs $550, while the Epson C64 costs $57. So the price difference is $493. A page printed by the Minolta costs 3.81 cents less than a page printed by the Epson. So divide 493 by 0.0381, and you’ll have to print 12,389 pages for the Minolta to come up cheaper.

If you can live with Windows-only printing, the 2300W comes out ahead after 10,315 pages.

There’s an additional cost with the Minolta, however: The drum unit needs to be replaced every so often. The worst-case scenario, if you do a lot of single-page prints, is 10,000 pages. That’s $150, which means another 3,900 pages you’ll need to print in order to come out ahead.

I guarantee the Epson will break down faster than the Minolta, but seeing as the Epson costs $8 more than a set of its ink cartridges (and includes a set of cartridges), I’m willing to call that a wash, especially in light of the Minolta’s higher power consumption and heat generation while printing. How much the Minolta will increase your electric bill is an unknown, as is the number of times the Epson will need to be replaced. (But most people I know who have had a computer for five years and print a lot have gone through 2-3 inkjet printers.)

Seeing as I go through 3-4 reams of paper a year, tops, it would take the Minolta five years to pay for itself. And that brings up another problem. Have you ever tried to buy supplies for a five-year-old laser printer? In five years, I’m much more likely to have to pay full retail for the supplies ($125 for the cartridges, and $170 for the drum unit), if I can find them at all. Chalk up another 4,000 pages due to probable increased costs.

If you primarily print photos, the economics change slightly. These numbers are based on 5% coverage. Photos tend to cause printers to guzzle ink five times as quickly as they would printing things like web pages, so if your primary intent is to print photos, divide those page counts by four or five. That brings me closer to my range, but not quite close enough.

So I’ve reached a surprising conclusion for myself: For color printing, I’m better off with an Epson inkjet.

I do expect the cost of color lasers to continue to drop, but what that tells me is that when the Epson breaks or after a couple of years, I should re-evaluate. But until color lasers drop below the $350 mark or my printer usage increases dramatically, a color laser just doesn’t make sense for me.