HP Ends 'Free Ink for Life' Subscription Plan

Octavio Blanco
·7 min read

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HP is ending its 3-year-old policy of giving Instant Ink subscribers the first 15 pages free every month, a benefit that was previously advertised as "free for life."

As of Friday, the company is charging 99 cents for the first 15 pages printed on HP printers (anything above that amount incurs additional charges). Though the charge is relatively small, it ends a promotion that was used to entice consumers to buy HP printers and the ink subscription plan.

“What a joke,” wrote Reddit user ConsuelaSaysNoNo on a discussion forum dedicated to printer issues. “I bought this printer because of the free printing feature.”

She later told Consumer Reports: “You can definitely put me down as pissed off."

When asked by Consumer Reports to explain the shift from the “free for life” terms, HP spokesperson Jaclyn Montalvo said:

“HP regularly reviews pricing and makes adjustments based on a variety of factors. Our updated Instant Ink subscription pricing plans include ending the free printing plan option while allowing for more roll-over flexibility, options, and benefits.”

Under HP's subscription service, consumers pay for the number of pages printed every month, not for ink cartridges. HP monitors the printer's output through an internet connection and sends new ink cartridges whenever the ink runs low.

To participate in the free plan, you had to put a credit card on file with HP and agree to receive promotional emails. HP would also send ads directly to your printer after every five pages printed. (These ads wouldn’t count against your 15-page quota.)

So long as you stayed within your monthly 15-page limit, you could ostensibly never pay a fee. If you needed to print more than 15 pages, of course you could do that. For an additional block of 10 pages, HP would charge a dollar to the credit card on file.

For three years, the plan seemed like a good way to avoid feeling ripped off by high ink prices.

In Consumer Reports' annual printers survey, the expense of ink or toner replacement is a frequently cited pain point—affecting the owners of 1 in 5 printers.

Instant Ink has been a global success for HP, says Adrienne Spear, a printer supplies analyst at the market research firm Gap Intelligence. The program boasts more than 8 million subscribers spanning the U.S. and at least 17 countries—a big jump from the 6 million customers the company had recorded in January, she says.

“They’ve significantly increased worldwide subscriptions to Instant Ink during the COVID pandemic,” Spear adds, “by really leaning into the message that you don’t have to run out and wait in line wearing a mask.”

Subscribers took to social media to express their annoyance at the revised deal terms.

“I actually don't think it's a good deal anymore,” wrote one user.

HP isn't the only printer-maker to offer ink subscription plans, but it is among the most aggressive in marketing them, according to the analysts.

  • Brother and Canon also offer subscription services. Theirs rely on remote monitoring software that recognizes when ink levels are low and delivers cartridges as needed.

  • Epson recently launched a service called ReadyPrint. It also remotely monitors ink levels and delivers cartridges when they’re low. Users must also sign up for a two-year commitment, essentially agreeing to lease a printer that has to be returned when the subscription ends.

Retailers offer subscriptions, too.

  • Amazon and Staples have plans that use remote ink monitoring software to detect when levels are low and deliver new cartridges before the ink runs out. The services are available only for select printer brands.

  • Office Depot has a subscription program, too, but instead of relying on monitoring software, it uses a preferred ink delivery schedule created by users.

How the New HP Plan Works

Previously, Instant Ink was available only for inkjet-style printers. Now laser printer toner has been added to the program, with monthly tiers ranging from 50 pages for $1.99 to 1,500 pages for $25.99.

Other changes include:

  • If you print fewer pages than your monthly allotment, those unused pages get automatically rolled over to the next month, similar to how unused cell phone minutes work. Previously, you could roll over only two months' worth of unused pages. Now that's been expanded to three months.

  • Users who buy a new printer with a subscription will get six months of free ink or toner, an additional year of hardware warranty coverage (for a two-year total), and access to an app that offers some remote-operation capabilities.

  • You can subscribe to the program if you already own a printer, but benefits may vary.

  • Some monthly printing tiers are more expensive, but the 50-page tier will continue to cost $2.99.

As before, you must put a credit or debit card number and email address on file with HP, and keep your printer connected to the internet at all times.

If you go over your monthly allotment, you’re charged $1 for 10 to 15 more inkjet printer pages or 10 to 50 laser printer pages (depending on your tier level).

You can cancel your subscription at any time, but the Instant Ink cartridges in your printer will no longer work once the billing cycle ends. You have to purchase new HP ink cartridges instead (third-party ink cartridges are off-limits) and return the used Instant Ink cartridges to HP.

Is That a Good Deal?

Ink provided through the subscription program is 50 percent cheaper than it would be in stores, says Spear, and customers can now roll over three times the number of pages in the plan.

“But customers who are already signed up might feel like they're having to pay more for the same service they were getting,” she says.

And that raises a larger question about your rights as a consumer, says Cory Doctorow, a journalist and digital-rights advocate for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

When you agree to 15 free printed pages a month for life, it’s more than reasonable to expect that you won’t have to suddenly start paying for them three years later.

“It is a trick to get you hooked on a product and a business model that can then be changed without notice in the future, with no recourse to you,” Doctorow says.

“The question is not, ‘does this serve some people well,’ but rather, ‘do you get the self-determination to draw that conclusion on your own? Can you change your mind about whether it suits you because your life circumstances have changed?’”

The Printer Ink Tug-of-War

That has long been the crux of consumer frustration with the high cost of ink replacement.

Manufacturers have for years been selling low-priced printers with the goal of recouping costs and raising profits through ink sales. Consumers responded by turning to cheap third-party replacement ink.

To combat this, HP crafts terms and conditions contracts that lock consumers into using only proprietary ink. In fact, according to the terms of the Instant Ink subscription, members agree to be locked out of using non-HP cartridges even if they cancel the plan.

So if you benefited from the program in college but no longer need to print as many pages, you may halt your subscription. But you cannot revert to using third-party ink cartridges in your printer. You have to buy a new printer instead.

And even then, an HP printer can stop accepting third-party ink. HP uses Digital Rights Management technology to recognize and reject the cartridges. And it regularly releases firmware updates—dubbed dynamic security—to ferret out such products.

Montalvo, the HP spokesperson, says the company’s product packaging and online descriptions have clearly identified all dynamic security-enabled printers manufactured since December 2016.

For those printers, the security updates are automatic, which means users generally have no idea that they’ve happened, until a third-party cartridge causes the device to stop operating.

And that creates an adversarial relationship between the consumer and the manufacturer, Doctorow says.

“Computers should be designed to take orders from the people who own them and not from the manufacturers,” he adds. “When the manufacturers’ desires and the owners desires conflict, the owner should win. That should just be an ironclad design principle of all computerized devices, from smart speakers to cars, to smart light bulbs, to laptops, to phones, and to printers.”