Business-like, isn't he?



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    Ink matters and other modern printer puzzles

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver October 4-10, 2005; issue 832

    High Tech Office column

    Some 20 years ago, the first-generation laser printers like Apple's Laserwriter and HP's Laserjet appeared on the market costing a cool $10,000 or so.

    By the early 1990s, prices had dropped to a mere $2,000 or $3,000, while ink jet printers were offering "near-laser" print quality for $500 or so. By comparison, today, the ad flier for one local chain includes a Lexmark all-in-one inkjet printer/scanner/copier on sale for $79 and colour laser printers starting at $350.

    But with black and colour inkjet cartridges costing about $50 each, many consumers have concluded it may be cheaper to buy a new printer whenever the ink runs out.

    It isn't really: those bargain-priced ink-jet and laser printers typically come loaded with "starter" cartridges containing much less ink or toner. Still, it seems clear that printer manufacturers are following the model pioneered a century ago by King Gillette, who built a business empire by selling his razors at a loss then making profits by selling the blades.

    Various third-party companies offer lower-priced ink cartridges for popular models, while others sell kits with ink and syringes to allow users to refill empty cartridges. Many offices customarily buy laser printer toner cartridges from services that recycle empty cartridges, though a recent U.S.-court decision in a lawsuit filed by Lexmark may make it more difficult for customers to pass on empty cartridges to third-party services.

    Generic ink and paper can save users money and might produce acceptable results. Name-brand manufacturers suggest, however, that users need to be aware of what they're getting. They argue that the printer manufacturers extensively research paper and ink, ensuring that they match their products' capabilities. The results, they suggest, are better colour fidelity and fade-resistance.

    HP director of consumer marketing Michael McAvoy was recently in town showing off his company's new and improved inkjet printheads. This technology, according to HP, offers far more precise alignment of the microscopic print nozzles, allowing for more accurate placement of the tiny drops of printer ink, resulting in faster, higher-quality printed output. HP is using its new technology in its $300 Photosmart 8250 inkjet printer, the $400 to $500 Photosmart 3000 series All-in-One models, Officejet Pro K550 office printers and the $350 compact Photosmart 475 GoGo Photo Printer. Each promises 4x6 inch photos in as little as 14 seconds, at a cost of about $0.30 a print using HP-branded photo paper and ink cartridges.

    McAvoy notes that using HP photo paper, these printers can automatically sense the paper size and adjust output to match.

    PC Magazine columnist Lance Ulanoff recently printed a series of photos on various combinations of name-brand and generic ink cartridges and photo papers. He noticed that the same photo looked different depending on what supplies he used. Matching the printer with its manufacturer's ink and paper gave the best colour and the sharpest print, while using both generic ink and paper gave the worst results.

    However, he also pointed out that even the all-generic printouts were still pretty good.

    His conclusion: for many everyday printing tasks, lower-cost third-party inks and papers are probably good enough.

    But for those times when you demand the best-quality output, the printer manufacturers claims are correct: be prepared to spend a bit extra to match your printer consumables to your hardware.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan