Measuring ink cartridge life in the real world

One of the things that caused some chatter on the Web in our first look last week at Epson’s Stylus Photo R2880 was the following statement:

“in our initial testing, we were able to print nearly twice as many photos using the same amount of ink on R2880 as we were able to do with the R2400.”

Our results — which were based on observations from our second round of installed ink cartridges — weren’t done with any specific methodology in place. It was based on our general performance testing, alongside standard print quality test prints that we generally use. Since then, our initial findings haven’t held up, and while we stand by what we saw in that specific round of printing, it was obvious that we needed to look at this issue a bit deeper.

In the past week, we have spent a fair amount time trying to come up with some type of test methodology to give a realistic sense of ink usage on the new printer. This week we ran some initial tests, and we’ve gotten some interesting data, but this is an issue bigger than the R2880. We wanted to share our results as a starting data point for a wider discussion of ink yield in photo printers.

The ink problem

Determining ink yield isn’t an easy task; there are a number of variables that come into play that make it hard to come up with a reliable number that works in the real world. Some of the variables aren’t just built into the printer. They also include how the printer is used. Here are a few of the factors that are involved (in no particular order):

  • The range and type of images you print. If you print more portraits, or in black and white, you might find that you’re using a much narrower set of inks more frequently than others.
  • Print quality settings. If you print using your device’s highest quality setting, you’ll use more ink than you would at a lower quality level.
  • Print output size. Relatively speaking, the larger the paper, the more ink that gets laid down on the page.
  • Cleaning cycles and maintenance; some printers perform regular printhead checks that use small amounts of ink. (HP posted a firmware update earlier this year that reportedly fixed a problem related to overzealous cleaning of the printheads.)
  • The swapping of matte and photo black ink cartridges (in the case of the Stylus Photo R2880 and R2400); this also wastes ink.

Measuring — and comparing — ink yield

We could just say that it’s hard reliably to determine ink yield and leave it at that, but this is a hot-button topic. And, with increased competition among the printer vendors, who are producing much higher quality photo printers, people will turn to other factors when evaluating a printer. It’s reasonable to expect that people would want to know how much ink they’ll go through over the course of time. But looking at the variables involved, it’s darn near impossible to tell someone what they’ll get.

What makes this more frustrating is that, even if you were able to develop a test that will reliably tell someone how many prints they can expect from a particular printer’s inkset, it doesn’t help you compare one printer against another. Each company uses different sized cartridges throughout their printer line, and none of those capacities match up with cartridges from their competitors. So, one can look at getting lots more prints out of an HP Photosmart Pro B8850 from a set of ink than they would from the R2880, but the latter printer’s inks are much smaller (and cheaper) than the HP device. This is one of the reasons we’ve been reporting cost per ml of ink in our reviews, but that doesn’t help people with ink yield.

What everyone wants is number that measures the cost per page, and that’s what we’ve thinking about. The question is how realistic it is to expect an answer that means something.

In looking at this issue specifically for the R2880 review, we wanted to be clear, and we wanted to be accurate. Our remark in the first look was counter to that reported by Vincent Oliver in his R2880 review on photo-i, and we didn’t want to add any more confusion to the market. (We think having many independent reviews of a product is a good thing.)

Our intent in this instance was to compare the efficiency of ink usage between the older R2400 and the newer R2880, which was complicated by the fact that the ink capacities and prices of the cartridges used in the two printers was different: 13ml for the R2400 (currently $14.24 on the Epson online store) and 11ml for the R2880 ($13.29 on There’s been a lot of invective online about the shrinking size of the R2880 (and R1900) ink carts, but Epson representatives have told us that they’re working on technology to make ink usage more efficient, so one would expect to see some improvement in this area.

The test

The question was how to come up with a test that made sense, and would be repeatable by others. We ultimately decided that printing with a freely available test chart was a good place to start. We would use one representative page, with a good balance of photos and test ramps, printed over and over until we ran out of ink. For our first tests, we chose an image (Profile Test Images) that Bill Atkinson has graciously made available “for free download to assist other artists.”

So we set up a test bed with the R2880 and the R2400, loaded them each with new, full ink cartridges, and resized the Profile Test Image file to 8″ by 10″ in output size at 240 dpi. We felt that this size was a decent compromise, and would also give people a better idea of how ink usage would scale as you increased page size. We printed each page from Photoshop CS3 in 10- or 20-copy batches until we ran out of our first ink cartridge. We then replaced that ink cartridge and printed until we had to replace the second cartridge, and stopped there.

During the process, we took screen captures (at a size of 200%) of the ink levels at 10-page increments. While we know that the capacity levels aren’t entirely accurate, it was a better option than ripping the cartridges apart and measuring the ink left in them. Using Adobe Illustrator, we built a grid that let us come up with an estimate of ink used in each cartridges. Again, we know that isn’t necessarily the perfect solution, it was better than no data at all, and added a crucial data point to the cost per page metric.

We used Illustrator CS3 to gauge ink usage.

The findings

We found that, contrary to our initial results, the R2880 and R2400 ink yields were actually pretty similar, with a slight edge to the R2880. The R2400, with the bigger ink tanks, ran out of both yellow and light magenta inks at 90 pages exactly. The R2880 ran out of yellow ink after 74 pages (the second cartridge to go out was vivid light magenta, at 96 pages). Using Epson’s current prices for ink, the R2400 used approximately $70.72 worth of ink before we had to replace any cartridges, resulting in a cost per print (of ink only) of roughly 79 cents. The R2880 used approximately $54.40 of ink before requiring a swap, for a cost per print of 74 cents. At 90 pages, the R2880’s cost per print was approximately 75 cents; given the margin of error here, we’d consider it roughly the same.

Stylus Photo R2400 ink yield measurements (90 pages)
Ink Color% UsedmlCost ($)
Light Light Black25%3.253.56
Light Magenta100%13.0014.24
Light Cyan59%7.728.46
Light Black81%10.5311.53
Estimate of ink used in printing 90 test images at 8″ by 10″ output size on Epson Stylus Photo R2400. Ink usage based on 13ml cartridge size and $14.24 price per cartridge.
Stylus Photo R2880 ink yield measurements (90 pages)
Ink Color% UsedmlCost ($)
Light Light Black69%7.569.14
Light Vivid Magenta94%10.3112.46
Light Cyan50%5.506.65
Light Black9%1.031.25
Vivid Magenta66%7.228.72
Estimate of ink used in printing 90 test images at 8″ by 10″ output size on Epson Stylus Photo R2880. Ink usage based on 11ml cartridge size and $13.29 price per cartridge.

Does it mean anything?

The point of this post is not that the ink yield of the R2880 is slightly better than the R2400 — that’s something we’ll cover in the final review. We are comfortable with this test for these two printers, and we think this is interesting data, but we’re on the fence about how useful it is. And we’re not even sure that it’s repeatable from vendor to vendor. We do think there is something there, and we’re hoping to get feedback from you regarding this test.

We know that there are plenty of holes in the way we tested this, and we’re thinking about how we would do this in a more varied environment. Ideally, when we tested, we would extract all of the ink from the existing ink cartridges and measure it carefully, but breaking into cartridges, dealing with sponges, ink sacs and other containers is problematic.

Using the ink gauges for the vendors doesn’t make much sense either; at the entry level especially, the gauges are off by a few percentage points, and they’re certainly not going to be consistent from vendor to vendor. On the other hand, it might be good enough as another, albeit inexact, data point that helps you determine whether a printer is the right one for you.

As we noted at the beginning of this lengthy post, ink cost is a hot topic, and we know that reliable, repeatable data that helps determine ink efficiency and yield would be a useful thing. But, as we deal with larger-capacity printers, the time and costs associated with testing every new printer at a deep level becomes prohibitive to us, and we’d like to hear from you on this. Weigh in on the comments below or drop us an email if you have thoughts on the matter.

17 thoughts on “Measuring ink cartridge life in the real world”

  1. It’s too bad that the initial results of ink consumption in the new printer didn’t turn out to be as significant as first observed. As far as dedicated testing of a lot of printers on this issue, indeed, cost becomes such an issue, especially with printers with huge carts. I’m not sure how you really approach that.

    It may be that the only way to really do that is to find those that keep really good records about their ink consumption. I’ve run into a few of these people out on the forums over time. But then, you have a problem of a non standard set of prints to judge things by. Some users might trend towards light prints. Others dark.

    One thing for sure, this is a big issue. I bought my B9180 based on the technology promises of using less ink because of head clogging issues. Turns out that I’ve pumped a lot of ink through it, possibly because of it’s over-zealous ink usage during cleaning. And, I know of those with HP printers that have jammed up because of the amount of ink dumped in the auto cleaning process.

    One thing I really wonder if you could do is access the data from commercial printers. This doesn’t help so much with 8.5″ and 13″ wide printers, but it could help with larger ones.

  2. Nice, thoughtful article. I appreciate that you have taken on this bear. The number of variables certainly is formidable.

    It might be useful to define several classes of printing: snapshot (4×6), proofing (8 x 10 good quality), exhibition (11 x 17 maximum quality) and standardize a size and image for each. And some might want to see a BW metric as well.

    Then you probably have to standardize the printing source: photoshop, elements, Qimage, etc.

    All of this would get extremely time consuming and expensive(!)

    So, I would think that some sort of industry standard might be considered, but then you create the issue of manufacturers building printers to test well.

    That would lead to also “measuring” speed and print quality, and then you have to wonder whether the additional cost to everyone (us, the consumer) is worth it.

    And don’t forget calibration and calibration standards, etc.

    Cost itself is pretty hard to control for. Consider: not everyone pays the same amount for ink anyway (e.g. sales tax, discounts, ink that comes with the printer, etc.) Using MSRP as you have done probably eliminates that issue.

    All in all, pretty hard to isolate anything well enough to measure, and hard to measure anything really meaningful.

  3. This is a very difficult test to do. You’ve done about all that can be done without going completely bonkers.

    One thing not to worry about is the cartridges and the ink-out notices from the printers. Whatever they are, they are. Even if they vary from cartridge to cartridge by a few percentage points, and from manufacturer to manufacturer, due to the different methods of cartridge manufacture and delivery.

    The point being that the user is going to remove the cartridge when it’s empty by the manufacturers standards, and so there’s no point in worrying about it. I see a number of sites concerned about exactly how much ink is left in the cartridge when they’re told it’s empty.

    I’ve thought that a way to get a standard print for these tests would be to work out a print that gives a reading of 18% grey, but with all colors represented. I know that sounds difficult.

    But, let me give you an example why it might work. I had several mini-labs in my lab, which was basically a commercial photo lab. In order to calibrate the machines auto correction, we had to print out thousands of rolls of film over an entire years worth of seasons, with every kind of picture imaginable.

    I know that sounds odd. But here’s the way it worked; Agfa had already done that for the initial calibration. We then brought that in more specifically for our own biased work. Different channels for different films etc.

    But, Agfa’s work was done somewhere else, so if we did it over the year, with our own work (it was thought), it would be a bit more accurate.

    What was found out, after a few years, was that after all of the analyzing, the average image turned out to be the equivalent of an 18% grey scale, just as Kodak knew many years ago for B/W, BUT also that the colors averaged neutral grey, and 18% as well.

    By Damn!!!

    If we could figure out how to make a print that had that average, it would be the closest thing to a truly usable print for the average user.

    There will never be a way to give everyone an accurate number for them, as their use is likely not average, but at least it won’t be biased in one way or the other.

  4. Just curious- Now that you have done this great test to compare the 2 Epson printers, do you have plans on testing the HP B8190 to the Epson R2800 to see how they compare to each other? I am flopping between the two printers and although the difference would most likely not be very different it might make my choice a little easier.

    But then again I could just wait for your final review of the R2800.



  5. I’ll have the R2880 review up in the coming week, and I will definitely – either in the review, or in a separate post – have comparative info with the B9180, Canon’s Pixma Pro9500, and the R1900 as well.

    (I won’t be doing the ink comparison test for the B9180, though – I’m still not sure how helpful it is in the end, given all the variables.)

  6. Wouldn’t weighing the ink cartridges on a high quality scale accomplish the comparison you are looking for?

    After all, you are really only interested in the change in weight and its respective percentage. Then varying volumes and vendor designs are eliminated as factors with the only variable being ink usage.

  7. That’s a good idea, and one worth pursuing.

    Weight is something we’ve discussed as an option, although there are some issues there as well, especially if we worked on comparing printers from different vendors. But that, including the cost per ml of ink on each vendor’s part, might give us a metric that is accurate and repeatable.

  8. In order to compare ink value across company lines, I suggest comparing on a preset dollar value. For example, how many prints can you expect from $200.00 worth of ink? I suggest you figure out how much one full set of inks for HP costs (as they ship the most ink per cartridge), then buy as much Epson and Canon ink as possible with the same dollar outlay. Buy all the ink sets from one vendor for neutrality, then load up the printers and start printing.

    Use similar papers from each vendor and do a side-by-side comparison. If you decide to mix glossy and matte, the ink loss based on swapping the blacks in Epson would be part of the prints per $200.00.


  9. For those using ink jets in photo labs, along side of silver halide processes, the comparison inevitably comes down to out the door cost per square foot of printed paper, usually reduced to, or expressed in, 8×10 inch equivalents.

    For silver halide, this includes cost of paper, plus cost of chemistry, plus labor. For ink jet prints, this includes cost of paper, plus cost of inks, plus labor. Capital costs are generally captured elsewhere.

    Bean counters will inevitably argue against ink jets for all the wrong reasons. A silver halide print costs roughly one fourth to one fifth what an ink jet print does to produce in very large volumes. But if you trust Wilhelm, it also lasts about one fourth to one fifth as long.

    Add to print longevity the advantages of choice of substrates, process stability, lack of serious environmental issues, and user control over the entire process, and you have the value added proposition sold by Epson, HP, and Canon.

    In the end, an ink jet print is special, and should be priced to the end consumer that way. We do need accurate costs for comparison purposes, but we needn’t be terribly concerned if we properly place ink jet printing in its proper niche, at the high end of the photo printing market. The margins are great there.

  10. R2880

    Epson should be ashamed of them self. They come out with 3800 which hold all nine ink cartridges now they with R2880 which is the same as R2400 & 2200 which you half to change over photo black to black matted ink, in doing so you waist
    a lot of ink, they know this. They are ripen of the consumers & they know this.
    BILL N

  11. Epson and other print manufacturers should indeed be ashamed. The ‘won’t print because one ink cartridge has run out’ business is particularly galling, and I don’t buy the explanation about this being necessary to prevent damage to the print heads. If that is so, then it is a faulty design to begin with!

    Printer manufacturers need to begin thinking about respecting customers and treating them as customers rather than ‘consumers’. They need to start making products that last and that don’t encourage wasteful usage, even if they need to charge a premium-price. There’s enough waste. Epson et al, stop thinking about profit above all else, please.

  12. Firstly, I completly agree with Simon Griffee. I have impression that printer manufactures conference bargain against customers. Secondly, due to russuan-chinese masters in Russia and other countries CIS rechargeable cartridges and SNPCh(may be translated as “sistem of continuous filling of ink”)are often used in Russia now because one Epson cartridge for 2400 and 2880 costs 480 rubles(22USD). Printer manufacturers wanted high profits so because of this most of customers are obliged to buy rechargeable cartridges and SNPCh.
    P.S. Please, don’t kick me for me English.
    P.P.S. Of cause I think it can be interesting to compare Canon 9500 and Epson 2880. Though the information published on official sites of Canon and Epson says that Canon cartridge “lives” longer then Epson one more than 1,5 times.

  13. Testing a printer’s ink usage can be quite expensive, but here is one test that provides what I think are acceptable results:

    Run one test on each grade of paper at every resolution listed in the driver. A cheaper way is to choose the paper and resolution you think you will use most often and just run one test on that paper at that resolution.

    Using your graphics software (anything from MS Paint included with every copy of Windows, to Corel or Adobe or anything you like) to produce a 1″ square filled with the color of the inks you want to test (I use black because it is easiest to designate in either RGB or CMYK, and has no other color mixed in). Now copy that 1″ square in an 8 1/2″ X 11″ background (or whatever size sheet you will use) so that the page is as full of 1″ squares as you can put there.

    Next, print 50 copies. If the cartridge hasn’t emptied print another batch. Keep printing until the cartridge is empty, then count the squares printed and you will have the number of square inches one cartridge will print.

    It also provides a fair approximation of the other colors as well as show how sturdy the print heads are (if the print head fails during the test or just clogs up and can’t be unclogged you might have problem).

    Any cleainings during the print process will enhance the results because, as most of us already know, many inkjet printers will do cleanings during larg batch printing.

    I hope this helps a little bit. Although the procedures and results here can give a good idea of how much ink can be used, the “print-a-square” method gives very precise data, and is repeatable, although rather expensive.

  14. Thank you for the informative info. I received the Epson R2880 about three weeks ago and I’m planning on sending it back tomorrow. I’m no stranger to Epson printers as I own the 7600 and 2200 which served me very well over the last nine years. I just replaced the 2200 with the R2880 and I’m not happy with the printer due to ink consumtion. When I first received the R2880 I printed three pages of Velvet Fine Art (13×19) and the ink out light went on for the cyan. I called Epson and they sent me a new cartridge, but now after printing eight (8) pages of Velvet Fine Art and three (3) pages of their enhanced matte, the ink lights for light magenta and yellow are flashing. My Photo 2200 would print about two full packs (40 sheets – 13×19) of Velvet Fine Art paper before any inks would need replacing.

    To my fellow Americans… I would certainly not recommend the R2880 because of my experience with ink consumption. I remain a supporter of Epson printers based on my 7600 and 2200 which served me well… but not their R2880!

    Paul Bonnichsen
    Kansas City, Missouri

  15. Hi,

    I am looking for ink cartridges for the Epson RX420. I have bought compatibles in the past but the ink quality is not so great or the chips dont recognise. Any help would be appreciated 🙂

  16. I just bought a new R2880 10 days ago. Still on my first set of inks. I have printed approximately 12-14 prints each of which was less than 8×10 on glossy paper at 1440 dpi in Adobe RGB out of Photoshop CS 3. It appears that roughly half my ink is used. I printed on 2 separate days. On the second day I printed 8 prints in a row. After a long cleaning cycle at the start of the second print session it printed 2 or 3 prints then stopped in the middle of the print queue for another cleaning cycle before resuming printing. I’m quite astonished and not sure what to do.

  17. What calculator did you use? The numbers in the Stylus Photo R2880 ink yield measurements (90 pages) grid don’t add up. One, the cost column doesn’t seem to follow the expected calculation: (Cartridge Cost * Ink Used / Cartridge Volume). For example: Light Light Black ($13.29 * 7.59ml / 11.0ml) = $9.17 but you have listed $9.14. Also, the both Totals are wrong.

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