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HP says its new subscription plan will make you hate your printer less. But will it?

HP knows that printers make people crazy. Its answer is a subscription plan that includes hardware, software, and support. Just be sure to read the fine print.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
smashing a printer with a hammer
simonkr/Getty Images

You hate your printer. Of course you do. Everyone hates their printer, especially if it's an inkjet. 

They're unreliable, they jam and they run out of ink at the worst possible time, and let's not even get started on what those ink cartridges cost. It's such a universal truth that the tech press and even stuffy mainstream outlets like the New York Times regularly publish rants with "why printers suck" in the title. (Seriously, just Google that phrase.)

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A few months ago, HP decided to turn that marketing problem into an opportunity with a campaign by the AKQA agency that ran across Northern Europe, proclaiming that its printers are "made to be less hated."


  HP boasts (humbly) that its printing solutions are "Made to be less hated"

AKQA "Made to be less hated" portfolio

You won't love your printer, but you can hate it less, the company promises, because of its new HP All-In Plan, which offers you a printer, all the ink you need, and a support contract, for one low, low monthly fee.

As millions of people who own HP inkjet printers know only too well, the company has built its vast printer empire on the razors-and-blades business model. [1] HP has offered an Instant Ink subscription plan for more than a decade, but this new offering throws in the hardware too.

Is it a good deal? If you're in the market for a new printer, you might be tempted to try the "risk-free" 30-day trial. My advice: Read the fine print carefully. After the trial period ends, you are on the hook for that monthly charge for two full years, with a hefty termination fee if you change your mind and try to cancel early.

How does HP's All-In Plan subscription work?

HP's pitch goes like this: "You give us one low monthly payment and we'll ship you a printer to use. If the printer starts acting up, we'll troubleshoot the problem over the phone, and if we can't fix it we'll ship you a replacement to arrive the next day. We'll supply all the ink, and even send you more ink, for no extra charge, when your printer tells us it's running low. Because you're just renting the printer, we're going to insist that it remain connected to the internet at all times so we can keep track of how many pages you're printing. Oh, and we're also going to make sure you don't go cheating on us with cheap knockoff cartridges."

If you're OK with all that, here's how you sign up for the HP All-In Plan.

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Step 1: Go to the HP All-In Plan site and click Get Started.

Step 2: Pick one of the three available printer models: a basic home inkjet that can print double-sided documents and also does one-page-at-a-time scanning; a slightly more sophisticated version of that base model that has a separate tray for photo paper; or a Pro all-in-one device that includes a document feeder and adds faxing (outbound only) to its repertoire.


The All-In bases its monthly cost on the printer and monthly page allowance you choose 

Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNET

Step 3: Choose how many pages you want in your subscription each month, from a low of 20 to a high of 700. (Any unused pages roll over to the next month, and you can bank rollover pages for up to three times your monthly allotment.)

Step 4: If the monthly fee looks acceptable, click Continue and accept the slightly alarming Automatic Firmware Update warning. That block of text informs you that you must allow automatic updates to the printer, which "uses dynamic security measures to block cartridges using a non-HP chip or circuitry." Think you can shut off the Wi-Fi, swap in a third-party "compatible" cartridge, and print your 200-page manuscript without HP knowing? Think again. You're being watched very closely.

Step 5: HP ships you a printer and enough ink to get you going. Your job: Install the printer and connect it to the internet. If your printer runs low on ink, more will magically arrive in your mailbox in a day or two. HP begins billing you as soon as the 30-day trial ends.

You supply the paper.

Will this subscription save you money?

Normally, the way to evaluate any subscription plan is with some simple math. Does that monthly payment cost more or less than you would pay if you just bought the same products outright? Is there anything the subscription offers that you can't get on your own?

I tried doing that math with the HP All-In Plan and got one of the biggest headaches I can remember in years.

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The cost per page for one of these plans ranges from a little over 5 cents to as much as 70 cents. That might sound like a lot, but if the alternative involves going to the UPS Store and standing in line, it might seem like a bargain. And of course it is convenient to have a scanner handy for those times you need to email a copy of a signed document to some business.

But is that cost higher or lower than the alternative of buying your own printer and your own ink? That scenario is much harder to model, which makes the math especially migraine-inducing.

The cost of the printer itself is easy enough to plug into a spreadsheet. For my calculations, I decided to choose the midrange HP Envy Inspire 7252e printer, which sells for $129 at Walmart. It comes with 3 free months of ink.

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As for the cost of ink? Well, no one can accurately predict how many pages you'll get out of a standard HP ink cartridge. On its spec sheets, HP says "up to 120 black pages, 100 color pages" for its regular HP67 two-pack of one black and one color cartridge ($33.80 at Walmart) and "up to 240 pages" for the HP 67XL package ($50.99 at Walmart). But there's a disclaimer: "Actual yield varies considerably based on content of printed pages and other factors."

In an unintentionally hilarious lapse, HP's disclaimer promises you can get more details by visiting its "learn about supplies" page, but the link is dead and produces an error message instead.

To print 100 pages per month, you'll probably need to buy a fresh two-pack of cartridges every three months, which means you're going to spend roughly $240.00 over the first two years. That's about $10 per month, on average, for ink. If you assume that the printer will last four years, then the cost of the hardware works out to about $2.68 a month. Add those two numbers (ink and hardware) and the total of $12.68 is remarkably close to the $12.99 per month you'll pay for the same number of pages on the All-In plan.

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But money isn't the only factor to consider. As HP's agency argued in its ad campaign, "HP's Print Solutions caters to the most common printer frustrations. You not only save time and money, but also your sanity."

Is it a good deal?

As part of my research for this article, I scrolled through hundreds of reviews of HP inkjet printers on Amazon. Although plenty of people love the brand, the models I looked at have an alarmingly high proportion of 1-star reviews. Printers can be hard to set up, connecting them to a network can be a challenge, ink is expensive, and the embedded chips (hardware DRM) that check for genuine HP cartridges can cause their own problems.

The All-In Plan is HP's way of trying to overcome all those objections. "Your hardware is giving you fits? We'll help you get set up and we'll troubleshoot tech problems with you over the phone. If we can't fix the hardware, we'll send you a new printer. And don't worry about the cost of ink. We'll keep you supplied for a fixed price even if you use a lot."

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If you like your HP printer and you are confident you'll use it for at least two years, that's not a bad deal. You might pay a tiny premium over the buy-your-own-printer option, but HP is betting the absence of hassles will be worth it.

That peace of mind comes at a cost. The printer HP ships you when you start your subscription is not really your printer; it will be phoning home regularly, and you might have serious concerns with the terms of service, especially the fuzzy references to "remote monitoring, telemetry data, analytics, and information from Cookies." HP's servers aren't privy to the contents of documents you print over your local network, but it's still wise to cast a skeptical eye on the entire data collection process.

If that bothers you, then you might want to look at another printer brand, because that hardware DRM is baked into the hardware even if you own it.

And pay attention to that early cancellation fee. Once the 30-day trial is over, you have to pay the monthly fee for two years; if you cancel early there's an additional fee of $60 to $270.

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The big question, though, is whether you need an inkjet printer at all? For printing letters, boarding passes, recipes, and school reports, a simple, no-frills laser printer might be a better option, with or without scan/copy features. Like the Brother laser printer I bought for $79 almost five years ago. The latest model, the Brother HL-L2405W, still costs less than $100 new at Amazon. [2]

It's fast, it can print two-sided pages, and it continues to run like a Formula One champion while using only modest amounts of toner. I print roughly 50 pages a month, and I pay around $45 for a new toner cartridge every two years. That works out to well under $3.00 a month over a six-year lifespan, compared to $10.99 per month for the equivalent HP All-In Plan subscription.

The one thing you can't do with a low-cost monochrome laser printer is print pictures or full-color brochures and slide decks. If you really need those features and aren't content with printing via your local drugstore, you'll just have to decide which option you hate less.

[1] If you're interested in the history of the razors-and-blades business model, especially the part involving King Gillette and his eponymous safety razor empire, I recommend this paper by Professor Randal C. Picker of the University of Chicago School of Law: "The Razors-and-Blades Myth(s)" [archived copy]

[2] Nilay Patel over at The Verge has written the definitive review of this marvelous piece of engineering. "Just buy this Brother laser printer everyone has, it's fine." Indeed, it is.

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