It’s fair to say that, aside from the 3D variety, printer technology has hit something of a plateau in terms of print quality, speed and features. Most printers you can buy these days will offer colour inks, wireless connection, and can easily handle printing photographs. With this in mind two of the largest manufacturers in this area have decided to put the focus back on the ink rather than the printer itself, coming up with a couple innovative and distinct approaches. In this feature we’ll compare HP’s new Instant Ink service against Epson’s Ecotank system to see which one offers the best value and performance for your money.

What is HP Instant Ink?

HP recently introduced a subscription service called Instant Ink. For a monthly fee you can print a set number of pages, some of which can be carried over into the next month if you don’t use them. The basic package cost £1.99 for 50 pages, but there are two other tiers which will set you back £3.49 (100 pages) and £7.99 (300 pages). All have allowances for extra pages if you hit your limit, but you’ll pay £1 for a set amount linked to your plan, with the lowest being 15 additional prints on the basic package.

The cartridges themselves don’t have only 50 pages worth of ink in them, so it’s not a case of replacing one every month. Instead the printer is connected to HP online and monitors your usage so that you only print the amount you’ve signed up for. Then, when the printer sees you’re nearing the end of your cartridge it will let HP know, and new ones will automatically be sent out to arrive before you run dry. For this to work you’ll need one of the wide range of Instant-Ink enabled printers that HP sells. These include the very affordable HP Envy 5530 (£59), Envy 5540, reviewed, up to the slightly more expensive HP Officejet Pro 8610 (£179).

HP Envy 5530

What is Epson EcoTank?

In contrast to HP’s model of topping up as you go along, Epson has instead designed the EcoTank system which, according to the company, holds enough ink for two years of printing. The EcoTank range of printers have a module on the side (as opposed to contained internally) that contains four reservoirs which are filled with different coloured ink. When these eventually run out you can replace each colour separately for £7.99 per 70ml bottle. Obviously the advantage of this is that if you run out of, say, blue, then you don’t have to replace the whole colour cartridge. There are currently seven EcoTank printers, starting with the Epson L355 (£219.99), the mid-range L555, reviewed, and topping out with the ET-1400 (£499.99) which specialises in A3 printing. 

Epson Ecotank L355

HP Instant Ink vs Epson EcoTank

Setting up the printers

In our testing we used the two cheapest variants available at the time - the HP Envy 5530 (£59) and the Epson L355 (£219.99) each of which came with ink. Getting the HP up and running involved plugging in the cartridges, connecting the printer to the internet, then signing up to the Instant Ink service. It was all relatively pain free and we were happy to find that the Envy 5530 has its own email address, meaning documents and photos can be sent directly to the device from a phone, tablet, or Chromebook.

The Epson was a little more involved, with the four bottles of ink needing to be poured into the reservoirs. Even with great care, and using kitchen towels to hold everything, we still managed to get ink on our fingers, which took several washes to remove. Once the ink was in the tank the L355 then spent around twenty minutes drawing it into the various pipes that supply the print heads. It was a bit confusing, with no display to let you know what was happening, but the process finished soon enough and we were ready to go. At least you would only be going through this every couple of years, so it wasn’t too bad.

 Epson EcoTank Ink

Print quality

Both printers turned out respectable results in our tests, proving themselves perfectly good home devices. The HP Instant Ink results had sharp, clear text on documents, bolstered by a new waterproofing feature that bonds the ink to the paper in a clever fashion. The upshot of this was that if someone accidentally spilled water onto a page, the print remained virtually untouched. After leaving the document to dry for around twenty minutes we found an almost pristine copy, with only the crinkling of the paper itself revealing anything had happened. Trying the same thing with the Epson ink gave more traditional swelling and darkening of the text. It was still readable, but much more noticeable.

With photographs there was a distinctly different flavour in both camps. Epson’s output favoured a darker treatment of colours, and the contrast seemed higher than the HP offerings. This gave images a more grainy, at times pale, tone but felt sharp in detail. HP seems to subscribe to the popular heavily saturated approach that Apple and Samsung use on their smartphone cameras. Images popped with vibrant hues, which looked good but not entirely accurate, and in some instances just a little too enthusiastic. On both platforms we noticed pale bands in the prints at times, possibly where a nozzle head isn’t delivering ink correctly to the page. It wasn’t often, but it was there. The Epson also had the strange tendency to deposit slight ink marks at the bottom of text documents from time to time, which we put down to an error with the unit itself.

Running costs

Epson and HP have set out two interesting ways of paying for your printing needs. All up front with Epson; pay as you go with HP. So which one works out the best value is dependent entirely on the way you print.

With figures suggesting that the average home printer usually has to produce around 55 pages a month, the 50 offered by HP seems fair, especially for such a small amount of money. So if you fall into the category of casual user, maybe with children who print off items for homework, and the occasional need for reports of letters, then the basic package could well suit your needs. The real crown in HP’s hat though is that those 50 pages can be anything at all. If you want to knock out 40 A4 glossy colour photographs, they count just the same as a single text page. Conversely those last pages of documents that only have a line or so at the top of the page actually become more costly under this scheme. As we said, it’s all down to how you use it.

HP Instant Ink Prices

If you bought the HP Envy 5530 for £59 (which comes with 2 months free Instant Ink) and paid the basic package of £1.99 for 50 pages per month, your total cost over two years would be just shy of £103 for 1200 pages, or £0.09 per page. If that wasn’t enough, the 100 page plan (£3.49 p/m) would work out at around £136 for 2400 pages, or £0.06 per page. 

With the Epson approach you front load the cost, so that it’s £219.99 for two years of printing. This doesn’t mean that it’s more expensive than the HP route though, as Epson claims the supplied 70ml bottles of ink can print 4000 black text documents and 6500 colour ones, making a general cost of £0.02 per page. Replenishing the bottles costs £7.99 per colour, which works out at a total of £31.96 every two years dependent on your useage. One thing to bear in mind though is that ink degrades over time, and the Epson system does seem to require more maintenance. In our test period we did have to clean the Epson print heads six times to keep it running properly. This is an automated process, but still needs to be considered.

HP Instant Ink vs Epson EcoTank: Conclusion

There are obviously pros and cons to both of these systems. The Epson has a higher entry point of cost and is a lot more fiddly to set up, but once you’re done you don’t have to worry about it for a long time. Results were good, if not exceptional, but we’re not entirely convinced that the low-end printers are going to last in the long run. Thankfully there are higher specced models to choose from if you’re willing to invest.

For ease of use, low entry cost, and the freedom to print photos with a little more alacrity, the HP Instant Ink comes out on top for us. We like the idea of knowing what we can print, and not having to rush out when the printer starts to run dry. In some ways it’s a little more expensive, especially if you mostly print plain text documents, but the costs are manageable and you can of course always cancel the subscription at any time and put non-HP cartridges in the printer instead.