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    The old inkjet printer shell game

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver August 28-September 3, 2007; issue 931

    High Tech Office column; 

    A century ago, King Gillette sold his safety razors cheaply, making the bulk of his profit on the blades. Ink jet printer manufacturers use the same business model. As a result, many users believe that it’s cheaper to simply buy a new printer than to replace the ink cartridges when they run out.

    Not true: low-priced printers tend to come with “starter” ink cartridges, which run out quickly. Moreover, low-end printers often can use only low-capacity ink cartridges and, over the lifetime of the printer, end up costing more per page than mid-range models.

    Then there’s an ongoing debate between proponents of models that use a single colour ink cartridge versus fans of models with separate cartridges for each colour.

    Recently, a study commissioned by printer manufacturer Epson concluded that multi-coloured cartridges end up wasting about half of their ink. According to the company’s press release: “On average, the multi-ink systems used less than 60% of the ink before the cartridge had to be replaced. This compares to an average of 82% for the individual ink systems tested.” The study, conducted by independent testing lab TUV Rhineland, printed a mix of photos and text-heavy business documents using printers from a range of manufacturers.

    Not surprisingly, Epson’s inkjet models use separate cartridges for each colour.

    Kodak, which is offering a series of printers using all-in-one colour cartridges, countered with its own study.
    Researchers at QualityLogic looked at a dozen printer models from a different angle: how many pages could be printed before the printer ran out of ink.

    The company took that data to get cost per page to print plain black text, pages of coloured text, and colour photos for each tested model. Cost per page ranged from US$0.02 to US$0.13 per monochrome page and from US$0.10 to US$0.50 per 4x6” photo.

    In Kodak’s study, the company’s Easyshare 5300 printer (using a single colour cartridge) offered the least expensive cost per page. It was cheaper than all the models with separate ink cartridges. Several Epson models had the highest cost per page.

    I’ve never been too impressed by claims that users save money buying each separate colour individually.
    In my experience, when one colour runs out, the other colours also run out pretty quickly.
    Still, there was another issue highlighted in Epson’s study. When printers stopped printing, claiming they were out of ink, the researchers weighed the cartridges. They found that cartridges reported as empty had, on average, about 20% of their ink left. Even the best printer in this regard, Epson’s R360 had 9% of its ink remaining when the printer claimed to be empty.

    (Many laser printer owners know that when their printer says it’s out of toner they can remove the cartridge, give it a good shake and print quite a few more pages. There’s no similar work-around for inkjet cartridges.)

    And modern inkjet cartridges have built-in smarts that may work against consumers. Some models, for instance, keep track of time and stop working when they think they’re too old, regardless of how much ink is remaining.

    The moral: don’t stock up if you get a good price. And some include an out-of-ink sensor in the cartridge, rather than in the printer. That works against people looking to save money by refilling the cartridge; even refilled, the sensor may still report that it’s empty.

    Last year, a U.S. class action lawsuit charged that Epson’s cartridges reported being empty despite substantial amounts of ink remaining. While denying wrongdoing, the company settled out of court.

    Cost per page is not the only reason to buy a printer. Print quality, ease of use and reliability should also be considered.

    Still, because millilitre for millilitre inkjet printer ink is more expensive than perfume, concern is justified.•

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