Before I begin the cost comparison between colour and black and white laser printers, let me begin by warning you that there is a huge discrepancy in what vendors are charging for toner cartridges. As an example, HP recommends a retail price of R1,089 (incl) for a toner cartridge to fit the “baby” P1006 laser printer. Two national chain stores price this cartridge at R899. But small resellers charge around R650 for the same cartridge. So lesson one: Shop around
So now let’s look at the cost per page for a small black and white laser printer like the one above. HP calculate page yields at 5% coverage. In practice, the number of pages you will get from a cartridge will vary depending on your “normal” font size, line spacing, whether or not you use economode (grey printing for draft documents), the density of your firm logo on letters, and whether or not you are printing a lot of pictures and graphics. Did you know that a 12 point font uses nearly twice as much toner as a 10 point font? Or that some firm logos cost more than a Rand per page in toner? So if you have a really bold black firm logo, you should consider talking to a design firm to recommend something a little less expensive to produce. (See the advertising on Tech4Law for local logo design firms.)
The price per page also varies based on how much you are paying for the cartridge – as shown on our opening paragraph. So that we compare apples with apples, we’ll use the price charged by the national chains as our basis for comparison. This puts the black cartridge cost at 52cents (excluding VAT) per page. Remember that you can recover VAT which is why I have excluded it from true page cost.
Now let’s look at a small-medium HP colour printer like the CP2025N. Firstly, if you are only printing black pages on the colour printer, it actually works out a bit cheaper than the black-only printer, at 45 cents per page. But when you begin using colour, that increases to a scary R2.06 per page. This isn’t the whole story though, since law firms aren’t typical users of colour printing. Let’s assume you have a colour logo on your letterhead, which is why most law firms would want to use a colour laser printer in the first place. For this example, it is not necessary to calculate the size of the logo, only the cost comparison between colour and black toner. On the colour printer, black toner only costs 45 cents per page. If the same page were printed in just one colour, the cost would be 50 cents. As you can see, not much difference at all. However, if you use a colour printer for home use, for example producing school projects in colour, you would in all likelihood be paying closer to the R2.06 per page calculated by HP.
So far so good. Colour logos at a law firm cost much the same as black logos – in the case of low volume printing. So on the face of it, you can differentiate your firm and create a better perception of your firm by using colour on your letterheads. Of course, you’ll need to guard against staff making use of the printer for other purposes, such as printing photographs, full colour presentations, etc. – because this type of printing will push your toner costs up substantially. Remember that HP uses a 5% coverage to calculate their R2.06 per page? A full-colour presentation can increase your cost per page to more than R7.00! So the real question is whether or not you can prevent staff from abusing the colour printer. In my experience, in the beginning the control is good. Partners threaten staff with all kinds of punishment if they abuse the colour printers for personal use. And in some firms, only certain “trustworthy” users are given rights to do colour printing. But pretty soon, the rules are forgotten, and colour printing becomes a way of life for the firm.
There is another cost to bear in mind when changing to a colour letterhead, and that is the capital cost of purchasing new colour printers throughout the firm. While colour printers are much cheaper than they used to be, they still aren’t cheap enough for your firm not to feel the cost. You’ll also need to stock up on some spare toners, since there is often a delay while vendors source replacement (less common) colour toner cartridges. And you can’t run the risk of your firm not being able to print while you wait for new toners!
But what about larger law firms, where volumes are much higher and the small laser printers used in the above comparison won’t handle the volume? It seems that the higher the volume, the less the cost per page. The HP laser 9050 black-and-white printer produces 30,000 pages from its toner cartridge, which results in a cost-per-page of about 12 cents (excl). But if we look at a large colour laser printer, the price per page for the black cartridge only is 21 cents, with colour at 32 cents – nearly three times as much as the black-only laser printer. So on larger laser printers, if the primary purpose is to print colour letterheads, then it costs nearly three times as much for a colour logo as for a plain black logo.
This raises the question as to whether firms get real value from having a colour logo on their letterheads. Before laser printers, there were a few firms that used pre-printed colour letterheads, but that became impractical with laser printers, so the legal profession standardized on plain black letterheads. Internationally, some of the larger law firms have returned to colour, claiming that it differentiates their law practice from all the other firms out there. The real question is whether or not clients care if their invoice or letter from their law firm is in colour? In my experience, if a law firm with a plain black letterhead gives better client service, they will beat the firm with the colour letterhead every time! There are other areas where colour is useful, for example, for highlighting changes to documents. In such cases, the proofreading time saved by partners could offset the higher cost of colour printing.
So should law firms change to colour printing? For small firms with low volumes, colour printing may be an option. But for volume printing, plain black still rules. At least until the price of colour toner drops to the same level as black toner.