The first rule of thumb in shopping for printers is as follows: There are no "cheap" printers. The ink that you'll have to buy for a low-priced printer will be relatively expensive, so each time you buy replacement ink or toner on a bargain machine you'll chip away at the up-front savings. The operating cost of a printer has to be a major factor for businesses because even one additional user can quickly bring up the cost of running a lower-end machine.
It's a tradeoff: If the sticker price is delightful, the operating cost of the printer will likely be high. Vendors make money on those super-cheap inkjet printers by charging more for the replacement ink to print an equivalent number of pages. So the $120 inkjet printer charges $35 for a four-ounce cartridge of ink; while the $49 printer charges a mere $22 -- but that's for a 1.5-ounce ink cartridge. Do the math: One costs $8.75 per ounce, while the apparently cheaper one costs $14.65 an ounce. If you print a lot, you will pay a lot more over time for the privilege of owning that cheap inkjet printer. The same is true in laser printers, but the discrepancy is not nearly so large.
The hardware/supplies tradeoff is such an obvious issue in the industry that there is even a service, FreePrinters.com, that offers to address the conundrum head-on by giving businesses a free printer in return for a commitment to purchasing a pre-set amount of supplies from the same source. For businesses that print more than 500 color pages per month, they tout the benefit of giving a set cost for supplies, and in exchange for that commitment they will also service your printer for free.
The same principle of cost-tradeoff applies across the range of laser or inkjet printers. A laser printer in the $300 range will give you a slightly higher cost per page than a more expensive laser model. The costly lasers and inkjets are optimized for higher-volume printing, and this includes bigger ink and toner cartridges and more efficient use of consumables to lower the cost of each page you print.
Your choice in shopping for a printer, therefore, is whether to pay more up-front in order to lower your operating cost (and get more speed and perhaps more functionality) or go for a cheaper machine now and spread the cost over the coming months or years with the consumables.
Knowing that your choice is when to save money on your printer (not whether to save), you should approach this choice by first deciding which fits your budget: saving on the initial cost or saving on long-term cost.
If you have the budget for a laser printer, it may be worth the additional up-front investment – you’ll get something that requires less money to operate, and prints a lot faster, and with less noise. If you can’t afford the long-term savings, console yourself with the thought that with a cheaper model you’re simply amortizing the total cost of ownership over the coming years of operation.
If it happens that your printing needs are very modest, and will remain so -- you have taken to heart the notion of the paperless office, you email everything, and you like to read documents on your screen instead of on paper -- then you are in the happy, if rare, position to be able to save money buying a low-cost printer because you won't, in fact, be printing enough copies a year to bust your budget.