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HP’s Instant Ink knows when your printer is out before you do, sends you new ones

HP has introduced new Envy and OfficeJet inkjet printers. The all-in-one, Wi-Fi-enabled machines offer minor upgrades over existing models, but the highlight is that they are “Instant Ink ready,” meaning that they include a subscription service that sends ink refills automatically and avoids the cost of buying ink at retail.

The Instant Ink service isn’t new, but HP is putting more emphasis on it with these new printers. Users can choose various monthy plans, and can opt out at any time. Each cartridge holds more ink than an XL cartridge, HP says, and the service doesn’t charge based on when it replaces cartridges, but instead charges monthly based on how much you print per month.

With the Instant Ink program, HP automatically sends out replacement cartridges before they run out.

With the Instant Ink program, HP automatically sends out replacement cartridges before they run out.

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The plans starts at $3 per month, which is designed for those who print less than 50 pages a month; HP says this plan saves users $96 annually versus buying ink cartridges at retail. Quoting a study from InfoTrends, HP says the average home consumer prints an average 43 pages, so its lowest plan is ideal for such users.

For those who print more, there’s a $5 per month plan (100 pages) and $10 (300 pages). If you print pages above what’s allocated, there is an extra charge, but “unused” pages in any month get rolled over. And you can always switch to another plan if you end up printing more or less than you expected, as you aren’t locked in. HP provides return envelopes for recycling used cartridges. (If you rarely print, though, it’s probably cheaper to purchase standard or XL cartridges when you need to.)

The service relies on HP’s “smart cartridges,” which look like ordinary ink cartridges (it actually takes HP three to five years to develop one cartridge) but have a special chip that lets HP know (provided your printer’s connected to the Internet) when it’s time to send out replacements. The smart cartridges have improved over past versions: They now allow for faster print speeds and are more accurate in determining when they are empty. HP also says its tri-color tanks are more efficient.

HP says enrollment has been high, calling it “one of the fastest growing Web-based paid services.” Their proof? It reached a half million users in 20 months, compared to 21 for Spotify and 30 for Netflix.

The company wants to grow that number, of course, so it’s making signups easier by making enrollment part of the initial printer setup process (previously, printers were considered “Instant Ink capable,” but enrollment was slightly more involved). It’s also giving users who buy the new printers three months free. (Not all HP printers are eligible.)

As for the new printers they include the Envy 4520 ($99, September), Envy 5540 ($129, September), OfficeJet 4650 ($99, September), OfficeJet 3830 ($79, September), OfficeJet 5741 ($199, September at Staples), and OfficeJet 5743 ($299, October at Staples). For the business-centric OfficeJet 5741 and 5743, HP is introducing yearly plans.

The Envy printers are home models with mobile connectivity for printing from smartphones and tablets, and are designed for printing documents, photos, and crafts. The OfficeJet are home, office, or small business machines — these printers are also Web and mobile ready, but have office features like fax, automatic document feeders, and two-sided printing. More details are available on HP’s printer website, but we will have reviews shortly.

From a business perspective, printer makers know that if they make buying replacement inks more convenient, users might print more and not worry about running out of ink; it therefore helps their case if the solutions they offer also make it cheaper for the end user. Like HP, Epson is also trying to make ink cheaper and easier to replace with its new EcoTank printers, but Epson is using a different strategy: charging more for printers upfront, but using affordable, refillable ink tanks that last up to two years.

HP’s approach is a bit more elegant and it doesn’t have to design new hardware, but it requires a monthly payment plan and some users may find having their printing activities monitored in some capacity to be unnerving. For most users, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case: According to HP, Instant Ink has a 97-percent retention rate.

“It says quite a bit about retention when they aren’t locked in and still want to be on it,” says Thom Brown, HP’s business manager and “Inkologist.”