The Economics of Consumer Photo Printers: Only Good for Homemade Porn?

I just remembered that I meant to print out something at work today, and it's 11PM and I don't own a printer, so it's not happening today. But it got me thinking about laser printers, so I looked up a few on costco.ca and bestbuy.ca.


Checking out the laser printers, I saw a bunch of those little home photo printers, like the Canon Pixma series, and I got curious: how did the total operating cost of those things, once you factor in ink and photo paper, compare to my current solution: photolab.ca?

Are my Intuitions any Good?

Intuitively, I figured that buying your own printer and consumables would be expensive up front, but pictures would have a lower marginal cost, so once you amortized the cost over hundreds of prints, you'd eventually reach a break-even point after which owning the photo printer was the cheaper option. I did a bit of investigative work to try and locate this break-even point. Foreshadowing: my intuitions can be waaay off the mark.

Photolab's up First

First, the photolab.ca approach. The cost is exactly 0.19$ per 4x6 print (it drops to 0.15$ if you order >100 at once, but let's ignore that and assume we're printing small batches every week). You then pick it up at a Loblaws or Superstore and pay on reception. I've used them and found the quality to be great [if you're in the Solace offices, all the pics you see in my cube are from there].

Buying a Pixma MP620

Next, let's choose a Canon photo printer to compare against. Best Buy has a few cheaper Pixma units, but they're all end-of-lifed and the Canon website doesn't sell ink anymore. Cheapest current-ish one I found is the Pixma MP610, which looks like something I'd buy, and goes for 129.99$.

Canon sells the 3-colour CMY cartridge pack for 64.99$ (site is not linkable, it's called "CLI-8 Colour Combo w./ PP-101 4x6 50 SH PK"), rated for 280 pages of letter paper at 5% coverage. In terms of surface area, a 4x6 print is equal to 0.2567 pages of letter paper, but since you're printing border-to-border instead of sparse text, you'll need 100% ink coverage. We can thus estimate that the cartridges will give us 54.542 4x6 prints, which is handy because coincidentally, the box includes 50 pages of 4x6 photo paper, so let's round that 54.542 down to 50 to account for the waste from cleaning the heads. This makes our cost per page 1.30$ per 4x6 print. On top of the cost of the printer. That's not a typo.

Comparative Results

Now you know where this is going, but I thought it would be extra fun to graph these costs (assumes the cost-per-photo is evenly amortized, in reality the blue line would be a staircase curve):


And here's what it looks like if a sales guy were to walk over and GIVE YOU THE PRINTER FOR FREE:


I think the conclusion we can draw from this is that the premium for home printing is huge, so I suppose it would only be worth it if:

  1. You regularly have a very pressing need for printouts and can't wait 24 hours for the lab to process your order, or
  2. You wish to get your printouts without an anonymous technician seeing them - wink wink nudge nudge.

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