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Expensive ink cartridges for computer printers signal they're empty when not

November 10, 2008
My printer lies to me. Yours probably does, too. Lying is a way of life for them. I'm speaking, of course, about toner and ink cartridges, and how my printer always wants me to replace them before they're truly empty. It's theft, that's what it is. I'm with my old grandpa on this one. In his retirement, he supplemented his income by sharpening saws and knives for people in the neighborhood. He always counseled saw customers to use long strokes because, as he put it, "You paid for the whole blade, and you should get use out of the whole blade."

I paid for all of my ink and toner, and by gum I want all of it going onto paper, not into the recycle bin. Yet, that's where a lot of it goes.

There are two reasons for this. The first sounds positively reasonable, and is officially endorsed by most printer makers. All cartridges today have some kind of sensor that permits the printer to anticipate when the cartridge will run dry, or signal the printer when the cartridge really is kaput. This isn't just engineering for marketing purposes. Bubble-jet printers use heated print heads, and if the cartridge runs completely dry, the print head could melt like a metallic chocolate drop. However, these sensors are often inaccurate, foreseeing exhaustion long before it actually happens.

The second reason is more cynical, and hence more speculative. Printer manufacturers make almost all their money on cartridges, not printers. By arranging to leave a bit in the cartridge that you can't put to use without a huge amount of effort, they sell more cartridges to you over time. This is not a reason given by the manufacturers, but it comes up in every conversation on the subject. Printers are incredibly cheap today, but cartridges aren't. While writing this column I found a new monochrome laser printer online with a sale price of $60. The regular price was about $110. The cartridge lists for $80.

Whatever the reason, you're often left peering through the toner cartridge's translucent plastic, or shaking the ink cartridge listening to those last inaccessible drops. There are any number of theories on the Web about how to get that last bit of expensive stuff out of there. For example, some printers just stop printing until you change the supposedly empty cartridge. These might be fooled by just keeping the door open long enough and shaking the toner cartridge before putting it back. Some cartridges can have their sensors fooled; one supposedly can be hoodwinked by putting black tape over the cartridge sensor. Some users have reported getting months more service out of these blinded cartridges. Some printers are said to come back to life by just shutting them off for 10 or 15 minutes.

Many printers have settings that can be changed so the printer will ignore usage notification. Hewlett-Packard has one such. If one hacker's instructions are correct, there are five steps to turn it off. The default is turned on, of course.

Ink cartridges appear to be harder to spoof, probably because the cartridges often carry a small chip that monitors and analyzes ink usage. Ink cartridges are also much more contentious. There were lawsuits filed against Epson in 2003, for example, for leaving too much ink in the cartridge. Epson denied it and explained that there had to be a safety reserve to avoid damage to the print head. But the company settled, anyway. There have been several suggestions put forward on the Web for making ink cartridges work a little longer, but they're effective only for particular cartridges. Nothing seems to convince all ink cartridges to labor on. It may be true that a cartridge needs a safety reserve, but it's still annoying to hear ink sloshing around when you toss it.

The annoyance wouldn't be so high if ink weren't so incredibly costly, ounce for ounce several times more than toner. Toner cartridges cost more, but they print many more pages, up to 3,000 or so, compared to ink's roughly 200-500. It can cost four times as much to print a black-and-white page using ink compared with using toner. It can cost even more printing color.

Manufacturers will give you tips on how to extend ink life, such as using a draft setting when you can, using the printer regularly to avoid having the print head dry up, printing only text instead of both text and graphics, and using print preview mode to confirm that you're going to get what you want. But none of them will ensure that minimal ink will be thrown away. One way to reduce the agony is to buy cheaper third-party cartridges, but the original manufacturers are trying to scotch that, too, especially in the ink market.

My grandfather would be furious. And I'm not too pleased, either.
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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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