Buying Printers

Canon Pixma MG2450 on tesco.com

From Tesco’s Website in November 2016.

This is a very typical low-cost inkjet printer and it has quite a few features – you probably couldn’t actually buy a standalone scanner for the money, but this has one built in.

Canon’s “My Image Garden” and “Creative Park Premium” software come with it as well. If you can use Photoshop or GIMP we’d give them a miss but perhaps the scanner needs them?

Supermarkets can do a good job selling low cost printers. They won’t know much about it, although they can probably get the brochure up on the PC at the in-store information point. To be honest we don’t know much about this printer either. We won’t be trying to compete with Tesco. We’d agree with the review by “wy111” on Canon’s website:  “Great for the price”.

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Cartridges are going to be the catch. The black costs about £11 and colour £17. Luckily there is a multi-pack and it only costs £22.50 – more than a pound less than the printer! But then there’s £6.50 delivery. Supermarkets stock some cartridges; not a full range.

We think this model had been discontinued by the main distributors (because we couldn’t find a distributor listing it any more).

We won’t be selling spares. One unfortunate lady did ask, her cat sat on the tray and broke it! There isn’t a spare so far as we know; no service manual was found online and the site purporting to offer one looked as though it was peddling malware.

The PG-545 black (180 pages) is £11.67 and the PG-545XL (400pg) £15.53

The CL-546 colour (180 pages) is £17.01 and the CL-546XL (300pg) £18.20

PG-545/CL-546 multipack £22.50

So this could cost you 10p a page to run and will cost up to five times more if you print anything like the page shown in the output tray. A pound per page for an A4 colour picture.

If you are buying a printer for business, what you should buy is a solidly built mono laser printer. If you rely on printing you have no cheap option; there are no good printers for under £100 – and a decent business machine for heavy use will cost £300.

If you must have colour that advice stands – go laser. Good colour laser printers start around £250 and heavy use models can be a thousand pounds or more. Buy the tool for the job.

For some jobs inkjet is a necessity: mainly photographers; we’ll come to the list shortly.   We will admit inkjet is a possibility for office work. One of HP’s OfficeJet Pro pagewidth inkjet machines perhaps. We hear good reports from the field, not just HP, and they may save money on running costs. They aren’t cheap.

You probably won’t heed our advice though.   In all probability you are already thinking “what, spend over £300 on a printer when Tesco sell them for less than £30”.

Our reasoning is quite simple:

  • You will spend much more on ink than printers.
  • Inkjets go wrong a lot. Usually the printhead (but sometimes not).
  • They will go wrong when you didn’t expect it.
  • Most inkjets are not repairable and there are few spares.
  • … and changing printers is a pain in the ass. New cartridges, new Windows drivers from a disk full of crapware.

Your reasoning is probably simple too:

  • It costs less than £30  !

Our initial response is:

  • We aren’t going to give five minutes of thought or support to that …

… But then “the customer is always right” – so what follows is a rethink.

Rethinking Print

If you want an inkjet printer you don’t want to argue with us about laser printers – you want Amazon or a supermarket. It is the same with TV sets and music-players, tablets and notebook PCs.   Only the big players willing to buy in truckloads get any margin at all.

Needing a printer at all is a question – given that many of the supermarkets have a photo and printing section which will do the job for you. Universities invariably offer print services, prices vary. Internet café’s offer print as well.   In a case regarding ink cartridges Epson told the US courts that typical use was 2-3 pages per day. A similar figure was found by Fraunhoffer IZM researching imaging equipment use in the EU. Personal print is in decline and was never big business anyway. You probably share photos on your mobile phone or tablet.

Office print is in decline; paper consumption is about a fifth down over a decade. Most people haven’t achieved a paperless office yet; but print is likely to go on declining. What keeps print going is the clumsiness of the alternatives. Document capture isn’t too bad (a smartphone camera will do it) or storage (the smallest disk drives are vast compared to paper) – it’s mainly clumsy software. Storage systems are clumsy. Synchronising devices is messy; cloud storage sometimes questionable. Recall of where things are is erratic, OCR works most of the time but will mess up something critical like figures. But screens are on the rise, print in decline.

We were set up to sell spares and our current logistics and systems aren’t designed to sell printers at below £30. The nearest we come at the time of writing is the HP OfficeJet Pro 6230 ePrinter at £46.85 but then there is also £8 shipping and VAT which bring the total to £65.82. There is no such thing as free shipping, it costs about £8 to get a courier to move anything. There is such a thing as shipping outside peak times but our distributors don’t offer that. Businesses desperate for Web sales pay for shipping out of the margin on the order – but there isn’t much margin on cheap printers. Getting £8 margin on a sub-£50 printer is just about impossible.   We look at courier costs elsewhere.

Tesco are good at the small-printer game. Most supermarkets are.   The buyers do a deal; truckloads are delivered to regional distribution. A truck delivers a cage of boxed printers along with the baked beans at rear of store, they wheel them onto the floor overnight and the customer takes them in a cart to checkout. Barcode scanner, cash or card, job done. No, there isn’t a USB cable in with the printer and that can be where the shop makes a profit!
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Most of our competitors in the spares game don’t try to sell printers. It’s a different business model.   Friends in the trade call this sort of printer “Argos Specials”.   Argos has the brands Alba and Bush specifically for stuff made to its own specification. This in not uncommon in electronics. The widely admired Tesco “Hudl” tablet was made for them by contract manufacturer Wistron.   Supermarkets could get their own printers made by Original Design Manufacturers such as Funai and Qisda. At the moment they don’t bother because there are complexities – you may have to ship printers then stock ink.So the supermarkets generally leave it to the brands. Printers are usually sold under one of a dozen “known brand” names.   Brother, Canon, Epson and HP dominate in inkjet printing.

The four inkjet brands are similar in the value-proposition they offer. Obviously they would be; the brands have been at one another’s throats (in friendly competition) for more than thirty years. There is nothing special about the MG2450; it’s a typical consumer inkjet. It probably wasn’t specially made to sell at such a low price but that fate would ultimately be expected, it is part of the product lifecycle.

Within each industry things have a lifecycle. There is discovery of a market niche, product development, product launch and pricepoint, computer shop price, discount to shift product, support, then replacement and disposal.

Canon’s MG2450 printer is a minor player in this sequence. Tesco were selling the MG2450 for £23.74 in November/December 2016. Others had been advertising it for £43 to £65. They must have had local stock though, because there were none left in mainstream distribution; by the time we looked it had been discontinued. Tesco presumably got them at a good discount.

Inkjets like this have a short product lifecycle; they are on the market for a year or two at most. Sometimes this reflects technical advance in printhead design but a lot of it is “model churn”.

As we explore below, inkjets weren’t originally any cheaper than dot matrix printers – the ThinkJet was introduced in 1984 with a price of $495. “Consumer market” cheap printers are an idea first made possible by mass production of inkjets for home use as digital photography and the Internet took off in the 1990s. With a big market, prices could come down a bit. But it isn’t mass production that explains cheap printers – it’s a change in the pricing model. What mainly happened was that prices shifted from the printer to the cartridge – so where the ThinkJet cartridge was $7.95 for a 500 page yield its successors tend to be significantly more expensive.   Printer prices fell – to under a tenth what they once were. Cartridge prices went up a bit.

The idea of consumer printers has spread to laser printers and engineers do complain about the decline in build standards. Laser printers are inherently more reliable than inkjets, but at the low end not very robustly made. There is competition to get the up-front cost of print down, not just between brands but between design teams within them. In HP for instance the Inkjet and Printing Solutions is in competition with LaserJet and Enterprise Solutions and Graphics Solutions. If you read John Minck, Jim Hall and Lee Flemming’s histories of HP, competition within as well as outside goes back some way.

Adopting the full “razor and blades” model would mean printers would be free, ink expensive. You will sometimes come across that.

  • Free Printer – Every so often we come across someone offering a free printer if you just buy one or two sets of their cartridges – they hope you’ll go on to buy more. Obviously the cartridges are refills. Years ago, Dell did try giving away printers
  • Copier rental is how offices originally got duplicating and small volume printing back in the 1960s. Xerox developed the market. The Xerox 914 copier launched in 1959 was a breakthrough – but it did need about one copier engineer per dozen or so machines to deal with all the problems.
  • Managed Print is copier rental updated for today. Copiers are just printers with a scanner on top. What essentially happens is you pay a copier type-contract and they use refill/compatible cartridges but an engineer comes to site to sort out any issues.
  • Monthly ink allowance. You pay extra for the printer; or take out a contract when you buy the printer and the brand sends you cartridges as needed (within the contract terms).

Cartridge Cost

There are half a dozen ways you can pay for print: money up front buying the printer is obvious.

If you buy a cheap printer you will spend ten or twenty times the purchase cost or more to buy cartridges to run it. That is exactly why the printer was cheap – to capture your cartridge business. Buy a more expensive printer and those costs won’t be so steep.   Incidentally, that goes for both inkjet and laser-printer; commercially there is little to choose between them (same brands, same razor-and-blade price trick).

Pricing policy isn’t very different. At a technical level, if you want reliability, the laser printer has all the advantages.

You may be thinking “I’ll buy clone cartridges and save money”.   Not for a new printer you won’t because the print brands change the design, ink formulation and the killer-chip all the time and it takes the cloners a while to catch up. And then, clone ink doesn’t always do a good job. More below.

If you buy a cheap inkjet it will work well at first with brand-name cartridges. The service station components are clean and the cartridge properly made.   After a year or so people risk a clone cartridge. Then you can have the fun of fiddling round and trashing pages that sort-of printed, but not well enough.

If business is anywhere in your thoughts we would never recommend relying on one printer; have a fall-back plan.   Relying on an inkjet is just Russian Roulette – you don’t know when a nozzle will go off – but it will.

(UK Business Statistics figures from House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no. 06152, 23 Nov 2016)

The number of small businesses has risen rapidly in Britain and the US. It’s partly the big companies switching to project based working; lifetime careers aren’t on offer. Things like inkjets are developed by a project team, and made in contract manufacturing plants.   A shift from manufacturing to services like art, design, systems and software is underway.

In the UK there are about 5.5 million businesses, up from 3.4 million in the year 2000. The rate of increase has been about 2-3 % or 100,000 per year. Only a quarter employ anyone but the owner, but nevertheless there are nearly 16 million jobs in small businesses with fewer than 250 employees.

In the US there are 28 million small businesses accounting for 54% of sales, 55% of jobs and occupying between 30 and 50% of all commercial space. Since 1990 big business chopped 4 million jobs, but small business created 8 million.

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Small businesses are usually short of capital and not eager to spend it on a printer. They are often short of space as well, working from a bedroom, garage or shed. A cheap little printer looks like the perfect solution.

Running costs are a problem – and the source of a lot of confusion. Inkjets usually cost more to run but the reason is not that liquid ink is expensive. The reason is simply that if the manufacturer makes no money on the printer they must intend to make it on the ink!   More below.

Deadlines are the other problem. Inkjets aren’t reliable, and they are very unreliable if they are sometimes used and then other times left to one side for a week or two. The printheads dry out. Some inkjets will periodically re-wet their printheads if they are left plugged in.

You can’t really keep a spare inkjet – unless it’s brand new in the box. Use it then put it to one side and the inks dry out.

One of us took his 13 year old Kyocera mono laser printer out of the loft when his colour inkjet failed. It had been there for five years. The first couple of pages weren’t too good, then the wiper blade cleaned the drum and it started printing well. The Kyocera needed a new developer after a year and that was expensive. He has replaced it with an HP M402 mono laser printer.

Should you buy an inkjet printer?

  • Yes, if you are a photographer whose output is framed pictures that other people buy to celebrate their life’s events. (Dye-sub and LED/chemical photography can be better than inkjet but such machines are rare.) Inkjets designed for photography usually have more than four inks. Photographic inkjets have 5 – 12 inks to get greyscale and colour gamut.
  • Yes if you are a factory or printworks wanting large items like banners or unusual items like boxes and furniture printing and will have someone knowledgeable to deal with printer issues. Factory printers are nothing like home printers.
  • Yes if you are an engineer, architect or landscape gardener who will be producing diagrams more than 11 inches wide. A lot of people in those jobs are sufficiently used to their printers they can change belts and trailing cables. HP DesignJets are properly made inkjet printers.
  • Yes if you are a poverty-stricken student who must buy cheaply and will print fairly often but rarely more than a couple of pages.
  • Possibly yes, if you run a large office and will be getting one of HP’s pagewide OfficeJet Pro machines.

So there are good reasons for inkjets.   If you are not one of those groups of people steer clear of inkjets; they are trouble.

“People who want to print at home” are not mentioned above. We don’t think inkjets are a good choice and opt for a mono laser printer ourselves. We do know that almost all inkjet printers are sold to people who want to print at home, pictures for themselves and documents for their small business. (There are over 5 million small businesses in Britain). If you rely on home inkjets for business print you will spend a lot on ink, have all the fuss and trouble of getting a new printer every two or three years and sometimes be unable to meet deadlines.

This is partly because inkjet technology is naturally a bit troublesome. Partly it is because inkjets can be made very cheaply and that makes them more troublesome. Also the print brands obsess about marketing features rather than just making a good printer.   We suspect the main problem is that the brands don’t want to make lasting inkjet printers; they prefer small inkjet printers to last two or three years at most. We will come to why shortly.

Digital Images

Digital cameras have improved in leaps and bounds since the first 640×480 pixel models appeared around 1994. The camera sensor is a chip not unlike a memory with an array of transistors sensitive to light. When it takes a frame the cameras scans through them and digitises several million pixels of red, green and blue, usually to 8 bits each giving a 24 bit computer “word”. Most mobile phones have a 2 megapixel HD camera and there are lots of cameras with 10 to 30 megapixels – far more than you can actually show on an HDTV screen.

Computer screens are pretty good at displaying digital pictures. A typical HDTV screen has 2 million pixels. The screen takes a 24 bit word and turns it to a 24 bit, 16 million level, analogue illumination. If the camera supplies more pixels than the screen can handle the computer usually discards or averages them to fit in the space.

Print techniques struggle a bit with photographs. There is more than enough space, an 8×11 page at 1200 dpi has 126 million dot positions on it – superficially more than enough to do justice to a 30 megapixel image.

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Piezoelectric printheads use a crystal that bends when a current is applied, and by varying the current droplets of different sizes can be made. The size variation isn’t across a huge range though. Printers can work faster with fewer nozzles if the droplet size can be varied, because they can use large drops to get page cover and small ones to get fine edges and better colours.

Thermal printheads can’t easily vary drop size, but they can have two sets of nozzles- one size for 2 picolitres and another for 5pl to get both fine detail and fast cover.

Ink can’t easily vary in intensity (unlike watercolour paint). An inkjet printer can have 5, 7 or even 12 inks and printheads. Having two or three shades of grey will give good looking black and white photos which most ordinary inkjets struggle with. More colour inks gives a wider gamut. More inks aren’t necessarily more expensive to run because the page cover stays much the same.

Twelve inks and two droplet sizes only partly compensate for the lack of intensity control. If the printer can’t print shades what it can do is print a mist of very fine dots at 1200, 2400 or 4800 dots per inch so that the area on the paper looks like a shade from a distance. This is done using pseudo-random dot positions called dither patterns”.

Inkjet printing is not usually all that fast. Working out dot positioning is usually done by the print-brand’s driver in the user’s computer.

How InkJets Work

An inkjet printer works by nozzles delivering streams of ink droplets. In principle the droplets can be any size and reliable industrial machines tend to have large nozzles giving fairly large dots perhaps of about a nanolitre in size from a nozzle just a bit smaller than a full stop. The industrial printers also have complex service-stations that keep them working.

Most inkjet printers work by scanning the printhead(s) back and forth across the page on a carriage. The media transport rollers pull the page through, the carriage scans it, and at the right moment the nozzles in the printheads aim ink droplets at it.   Ink dries when fluid is absorbed into the paper fibre, then moments later it evaporates and gives a lasting print.   Ink absorption can be a problem, so some jobs like photographs may need special paper.

That’s how it’s all meant to work, anyway.

Picolitre Drops

Making individual ink droplets much smaller than the eye can see and positioning the dots accurately, potentially gives inkjet photographic print qualities most other technologies can’t easily match.

Individual nozzles can fire picolitre sized droplets as small as 12 micrometers across. It takes something like a hundred or more of these drops to coat the paper and make a full stop.

Individual nozzles can fire tens of thousands of times per second. However since there can be well over a billion droplets on a page one nozzle would take hours to build up an image – especially with photographs where the page is completely covered.

Using micromanufacturing techniques it is possible to put thousands of nozzles in a printhead and allow inkjets to work quite quickly. The more nozzles, the more quickly it can work. Risk of a nozzle failing due to a blockage will rise with large numbers of them. However there is a compensation with fine nozzles, the odd failure might not be noticeable, or one can take over where another dropped out.

There are two broad types of inkjet printhead technology at present:
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  • Piezoelectric printheads used by Brother, Epson and most of the industrial printhead makers. The nozzle contains a crystal that changes shape when an electric field is applied. Favoured crystals are an odd material called PZT (lead-zirconium titanate). Manufacturing a head that has a nozzle-wall made of unusual crystals is complicated and quite expensive. On the other hand piezo printheads will last for a long time in principle and can usually achieve some control over dot sizes (it’s called dot-modulation).
  • Thermal printheads used by Canon and HP. A wall of each nozzle contains a resistor film that heats up momentarily and vaporises the neighbouring ink fluid, ejecting a droplet. Canon used to use the rather nicely descriptive brand “bubblejet”. Thermal printheads don’t last forever though, the resistor is perpetually swinging between 20 and over 200 centigrade and in the end thermal stress will cause failure. Thermal printheads are not inherently very expensive to make and operate and were originally intended to be disposable. Something with thousands of nozzles will need electronic control circuits built in and becomes rather costly to throw away prematurely.

One or other technology might be expected to “win” but that hasn’t happened.   Epson had aimed at high quality with their SQ series printers launched in 1984 and in the early ’90s they achieved higher density and accurate dot placement with micro-piezo and the “H-MACH” head. Canon and HP were able to keep up though. Canon tends to be known for photographic printers (small dots) and HP for office printers (faster print) – but there never has been a clear winner.

Colour is Compelling

Inkjet printers are colour – with just a couple of exceptions. That is because it costs an inkjet manufacturer very little extra to make a colour printer but you (dear customer) will buy more ink.

Printing costs and page-cover tend to shoot up when you have colour. There are technical and psychological reasons.

Technical reason 1 is that red is magenta overprinted with yellow – two inks to make one colour. Likewise blue is magenta overprinted cyan (unlikely as that may seem). On a mono laser printer all it can do is print grey – and that uses a quarter of the ink red would need.

Technical reason 2 is that colour laser printers have substantially more complex innards – a carousel mechanism or four complete mechanisms inline. With inkjets the complexity is just extra printheads. With more to go wrong, things go wrong more often.

The psychological reason is that you will use more colour to get the effect – but you probably don’t need it.

Colour is Compulsory

Inkjet printheads are not inherently all that expensive, the original devices were a dozen resistors underneath a metal plate. Physically they are quite small. To make a colour printer the manufacturer of an inkjet just makes provision to have four or more of them on the carriage.   There are several ways to achieve the same thing. One is to have four printheads and cartridges side by side, or have one printhead with a lot of nozzles arranged in rows each fed by a different ink. Let’s put it this way; the customer pays for the extra cartridges. The extra cost of colour to the printer manufacturer is mainly a bit of extra plastic in the cartridge and electronics.

Colour printers normally use at least four inks: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) – rather than the Red, Green and Blue (RGB) used for TV and computer screens.   CMYK inks mix to produce red, green, blue or any other hue and the CMYK process gives brighter colours and a greater tonal range or “gamut”.

Black is needed partly because cyan, magenta and yellow mix to produce something that looks brown – and it would take all three inks to do that. Providing a simple black to print text improves the look of the page and lowers the running cost. Many pagemakeups have a lot of text and brown text looks weird.

Inkjets can actually achieve a wider gamut by having a light magenta and light cyan as well; there is usually no need to duplicate the yellow. Some inkjets have red, green and blue, some have a photographic black and/or some grey inks as well.

An inkjet printer built like this gives colour prints that rival or exceed what can be done with photographic chemicals. Speeds used to be quite slow, but recent printers have nozzle counts in the tens of thousands so a print can be through the machine in as little as a second.

Alternatives to Inkjet

Dot matrix can be made to work in colour using a ribbon with four stripes of ink and a ribbon lift mechanism to position each by the printhead.   There were problems; it was slow, the pins were too fat making big dots and so the pictures looked like bad newsprint. Other problems were:

  • wasted ink – if you only printed black and red then the cyan strip never got used
  • ribbon-lift mechanisms typically weren’t very reliable and ribbon jams were frequent

An alternative possibility is thermal transfer and dye sublimation, but whilst that can be satisfactory if it is only used for photographs, it wastes a lot of its ribbon if it is used for text. There was a flurry of interest in portable thermal photography printers sold at “prosumer” prices in the late 1990s. Most people used them a few times, then got fed up with the price of new cartridges.

Laser printers and colour copiers needed four complete toner/developer drum mechanisms which made them big, heavy and phenomenally expensive at the time – A budget of £15,000 would get you a good colour copier.   This began to change in 1999 when Minolta introduced a colour laser printer using a carousel mechanism and got the cost of the printer to that critical £999 point.   Colour lasers start at £100 now, although they have much the same issues of build quality and running cost as inkjets.

Inkjet Problems

Inkjets are a flexible technology and could be almost universal. In principle, inkjets could supplant most other technology.   The four print brands that make consumer inkjets would like that.

The problem with inkjets is a poor reputation for reliability. There is a little nest of reasons for that…

  • People want great photos from their cheap inkjet.
  • But great photos need fine nozzles and fine nozzles block!
  • And in a cheap printer you aren’t going to get a complex service station to preserve the printheads.

When HP introduced the “ThinkJet” in 1984 it was a portable, quiet substitute for dot-matrix printers. It had a battery compartment for people who wanted to print on the move. It had a 12 nozzle printhead to give a bit of an edge over 9-pin dot matrix. The printhead didn’t have a service station as such; if the nozzles blocked the ink was in a rubber thimble behind the head and you pushed a bit of ink through from the rubber thimble with the tip of a biro. Tamp it on a tissue (ideally lint free) and it was away again! 500 pages for $7.95.

The basic problem is that a nozzle fine enough to print a small dot and otherwise sustain capillary action will also be prone to drying out if there is no flow for some time. Inks and dyes leave a residue (almost always) – that is what makes the marks on the page. If the nozzle does dry out the residue in it probably won’t just dissolve when it is re-wetted. Dry ink can be difficult to shift. The smaller the nozzle the greater the problem.

Although we live with technology all the time only a few people are interested in the works. People quite often can’t tell us whether their printer is an inkjet or a laser printer and we can hear their surprise at the question.

Things have very different levels of social cachet as well. A 30 megapixel camera with 8K capability and a big zoom lens is something someone might actually envy.   Likewise the tablets and phones with high resolution “retina” screens. People love a brandname on things as well – as Apple have proven.

Printers aren’t like that. HP like to sub-brand consumer gadgets with the word “Envy” but no-one covets another’s printer. Printers are – just – printers.

Lots of people will tell you that printers are all the same. They tell us that, and get all cross when we say “no, they are not”.   Jaguar drivers think it is obvious why they didn’t buy the Fiat Panda. Apple owners are quite snobbish about Microsoft. But apparently it isn’t obvious to anyone why they shouldn’t have bought the crappy little inkjet for something business-critical (judgemental, aren’t we?).

Photography is the Problem

The finer the nozzle the greater the problem. But you need very fine nozzles to get good photographs.

In the mid 1990s the main motivation for inkjet printers shifted from quiet print or portable printing to photography. Colour digital cameras appeared on the market and proved very popular. The dot-matrix and laser printers of the time could not produce a good looking photo.

Ink nozzles clog. The nozzles clog if you don’t use the printer and they dry out – so don’t go on holiday. If you have the printer too close to a heater or air conditioner that causes trouble too.   Inkjets obviously hate a dusty environment but many of them don’t actually have a cover on the paper tray to keep dust out. Nozzles are only too likely to clog if you use cheap “clone” inks rather than manufacturers originals. Don’t mix brand and clone inks – either may clog. Nozzles will clog if you have a “paper strike” on the printhead.   Nozzles will eventually clog when parts of the service station wear out.   And when nozzles clog it tends to be quite sudden and unexpected. Then comes the last attempt to repair it where it goes from bad to worse, from one head streaking to complete failure.

Average user reaction is to Google some forums and try a few things: normal clean cycle then deep clean cycle. Then phone a helpline or an engineer and find they won’t come out for inkjets (or want over £100 call-out).   Then we waste some hours running the cleaning cycles again, trying other cartridges, cleaning the connector pads and staring at the thing in frustration …

… and then go straight out and buy another inkjet !

Why is this happening?

Inkjet printers have several things going for them. They can:

  • Print really nice photographic quality pictures, most other technologies can’t do quite so well.
  • Be made small or even cute and people find that attractive.
  • Be packed with features – a scanner, copier, fax, WiFi and smartphone connection, picture sharing and a nice print preview control panel.
  • Have easily revised contemporary designs, almost everything is moulded plastic snapped together and software controlled.
  • Be mass produced and made cheaply by contract manufacturers like Celestica, Foxconn, Flex, Funai or Solectron; they are basically medium sized plastic toys …
  • … or they can be made reliable.   But they rarely are.

Ink either makes a mark or it doesn’t; there are no half measures.

This is a problem for newspapers, magazines and all colour print and the solution they adopt is the “halftone”, it’s usually most visible in news print. Look closely at a newspaper picture and it is made from dots; there are no dots in the white areas and they grow in grey areas until they merge to become solid in black areas. (It’s even clearer on posters if you get close up). This was originally done optically, using glass graticules when they made the printing plates. Now it tends to be done digitally on a machine with a resolution of about 3000 dpi.

Computer printers can’t readily do the “halftone” trick. The pins on the dot-matrix can’t change shape and if they strike lightly they don’t transfer any ink. The laser in a laser printer could modulate its light but that has complexities.

What computer printers do to get photographic print is to use very small dots in arrangements called dither patterns. At a distance the eye doesn’t see individual fine dots but shades of colour instead. Mixing the inks the printer can produce six colours and black, mixing the dots it can produce any colour.

Microscopic Nozzles

The core problem with an inkjet is also its merit – all those microfine printhead nozzles. To produce the picolitre sized droplets needed to get really fine photographic print you need a nozzle about 12 micrometers across. Human hair ranges from 16 to 160 micrometers, so even the finest could not squeeze into a printhead. (A micrometer is a thousandth of a millimetre and is at about the limit of what can be seen with an optical microscope.

Unfortunately there are a lot of micron scale objects about. Dust, smoke, diesel particles and even algae, yeast, bacteria and slime-mold can squeeze their way into inkjet nozzles and will do so given half a chance. Congealed material in dyes or pigments is obviously a favourite. Furthermore they don’t all have to come down the pipes from the cartridges. It is possible for the printheads to pick up dust and dirt

  • By electrostatic attraction – many small particles have an electrical charge.
  • In a backflow around nozzles as they refill – ink ejected onto the surface gets sucked back in.
  • or from the service station components, the wipe blade for instance.

… And as it all ages it gets dirtier and stickier.

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One favourite printhead killer is a paper crash. Paper doesn’t feed smoothly for some reason and hits the printhead. Paper is made from a mat of micron scale fibres held together largely by hydrogen bonds and then filled with chalk or kaolin coat to look smooth and white. Those fibres and the chalk coat could be purpose made to block nozzles. Printers often start misbehaving after a paper jam.

Another of the big killers for printheads seems to be airblocks; ink isn’t actually making it from cartridge to tip so when the resistor heats there is nothing to cool it. Airlocks might come down the pipes from the cartridge. Airlocks can come out of the ink itself. Fluids like ink can hold quite a lot of dissolved gas. The gas will come out of solution when things warm up or are vibrated. Ink is supposed to be de-aerated before injection into the cartridge but you have no guarantees about clone ink.

Piezo printheads are particularly prone to airblocks. The problem is that the piezo crystal only changes shape by a few percent and not sufficiently to completely eject an airlock. Epson try to make sure no air gets into the head by always leaving some ink in the cartridge. Users annoyed at the “waste of expensive ink” run the printer so that the cartridge is exhausted, air gets into the printhead and proves impossible to shift. The ink actually isn’t expensive, you just pay a lot for the cartridge. Replacement printheads are very expensive.

Countering all this are three things: ink purity and delivery and when those don’t work comes the service station.

Clones, Compatibles, Remanufacture and Refill.

The print brand strategy of making money on cartridges has a potential flaw: cartridges aren’t very complicated and other people can make them. Or they could if the brands didn’t surround the product with patents and copyrights – and just for good measure put a killer-chip on the cartridge.

Clone ink makers vary from the good to the bad. Market pressures tend to make it bad.

Print brands know how they made the printhead and the qualities needed in the ink.   No print brand is going to tell cloners how to make compatible ink – it’s like getting the recipe for Coca Cola. So the clone brands and re-fillers have to guess and the formula is potentially complicated.   Unfortunately there is no reliable way to tell good and bad apart because the bad will always say they are good. (The key academic paper on this is George Akerlof’s “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”)

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Actually there are some signs; longevity is one. For example, Cartridge World have been in the compatibles game a long time and made substantial investments and adapted to the market as it changes. So they won’t (deliberately) sell you a bad cartridge; but they aren’t very cheap.

Negatives are things like claiming “0.5% returns”. That is quite hard for the printer brands themselves to achieve. We don’t believe re-fillers and compatible makers can achieve it! Deceit seems likely in such a claim.

Clone ink vendors probably don’t aim to be in business long. The brands have patents and copyrights on their cartridges and will employ the best legal counsel to get competitors out of the business. Clone ink vendors expect to evaporate – along with their promises.

Cartridges

Print cartridges were invented to make computer printers convenient and practical for households and office staff. Back in the 1960s and ’70s toner came in big bottles and if you do a lot of printing it still can. Bulk ink can be messy; it is meant to colour things and works on hands, clothes and carpets nearly as well as on paper. The cartridge makes it easier to change ink and printhead – or toner and drum in a laser printer.

Cartridges became the main profit centre for the print brands. People are sensitive to the price of big-ticket items like printers; less sensitive to things like cartridges and paper.   A really low price on a printer can be made up by a rather high price on cartridges. Print brands charge a lot for ink; it is generally thought that they make over 80% profit on cartridges. more than is justified by care in production. The brands do give quality considerable attention. HP, Canon, Brother and Epson are long lasting businesses with a reputation. (The first three date back to the 1930s and Epson to 1942. )

People think they are familiar with ink – most printing uses it.

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Ink is a colourant in a vector. The black colourant is usually a carbon-black pigment. Colour is more complicated; it can be a dye, pigment or a “lake”pigment (a dye made into a pigment) the Colour Index International lists over 27,000 colourant substances. The liquid “vector” is mainly water, usually with some glycol to make the liquid run into the body of the paper more easily and isopropyl alcohol because its rapid evaporation helps fix ink to paper quickly. Ink also contains binder, dispersant, surfactant, humectant, a pH corrector to give the right acidity and some biocides to kill wildlife such as yeast and slime mould that will colonise ink if they can.   Quite a chemical cocktail.

On the evidence, we know that some clone ink manufacturers take no care at all. One of our inkjets died when a clone yellow ink cartridge proved to have an internal design quite unlike the HP original and incapable of working properly. The printer got an air-lock at first; efforts to remove it with a syringe failed, after that it was all downhill. It was replaced by a mono laser printer. We do sell refill cartridges; we try to stick to products that won’t be much trouble.

People on forums regularly discuss this, that and the other clone ink maker saying they’ve always had good cartridges and great service. The problem is, even the brands get a bad batch (we know, we have to deal with the returns). But with the compatibles they change what they do on a sixpence. One minute they are refilling because “it’s good for the environment” but next they are importing compatibles from China. (Slightly worse than brand originals, looking at it environmentally). Forums are all anecdote and no statistics. Experiences differ.

One bad cartridge can spell doom for an inkjet printhead. You won’t get compensation from the cartridge vendor because you won’t be able to prove your case – things can happen at random. If the printer is under warranty you may or may not get it fixed; printers record cartridge use, and the brand’s engineers can check. The law says you can use any cartridge, but if the cartridge damages the printer it doesn’t guarantee you a repair. The four inkjet “brands” (HP, Canon, Epson and Brother) have help-desk staff inured to complaint by long custom. Their corporate lawyers are mainly targeted at fighting clone ink makers, but will guide them on consumer rights as well.

Service Station

An inkjet service station caps the printheads when they are not in use, cleans them at startup and attempts to recover them when they block. A service station can vary from nothing at all to elaborate.

The job of the service station is to deal with minor problems. At the elaborate end of the spectrum there are cartridge cups on a lift, with a purge pump underneath to pull ink through. A wiper blade moves back and forth to displace any debris. The cartridge spits ink from all nozzles into a spittoon. On really elaborate models there might be a droplet detector which could be optical but more simply might be something on the lines of a microphone or a coulter-counter. HP’s pagewide technology uses a web of lint-free cloth to wipe the heads then advance to a clean section – clever but quite costly to implement.

The elaborate service station in a Designjet T2300 is replaceable. The spare has a price near £200 (In November 2016) and requires some covers off and a little bit of wiring changing over.

The service station in consumer inkjets is much less elaborate. Most of the basic parts are there – cups, wiper and spittoon – but cheaply implemented and probably driven from the carriage motor by a couple of planetary cogs. It all tends to be a bit jerry-built.

We have rarely seen any replaceable parts for the service station in ordinary consumer inkjets – you can’t even get wiper blades which are a critical part that will wear out.

Printer brochures often make a big fuss about new inks and printheads. In recent information about inkjets we rarely see anything about the service station. The service station is critical to the printer’s ability to get a long life from a printhead.

Ink or Toner; Which is Cheapest?

Probably ink, but for odd reasons.

When you print, what is actually delivered to the page is colourant. As we mention elsewhere in this article, there are over 27,000 possibilities and more emerging every year. The days of grinding lapis lazuli to get blue are over; it’s all organic chemistry. The amount of colourant in ink or toner is usually quite small – a couple of percent at most, often much less. The rest is

  • Ink: water, isopropyl, glycol, binder, dispersant, surfactant, pH corrector, humectant, biocide – and colourant.
  • Toner: polyester or styrene-acrylic body in near spherical shapes, polyalkylene wax as a fuser release agent, charge control agents, some also contain iron-oxide to give the toner a magnetic component used in the developer.

Both are moderately complicated to manufacture, toner probably more so because of capital investment in the plant and handling difficulties with a dry but very fine powder that shouldn’t be crushed.

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However black toner in quantity costs something like $5 to 15 per kilogram – depending on the precise qualities. A kilo is enough for 20,000 pages. Litre tins of ink bought for offset litho printing is toward the lower end of the same price range.

Toner is probably more expensive because particle size is about 5 microns and that is more or less the thickness that will be on the page. Where the ink droplet started off around 10-12 microns most of it evaporated, leaving the colourant and a few trace elements behind. So there is more material on the page with toner – and more sludge in the paper recycling plant.

Ink applied in picolitre drops will make a thinner coat than toner, although the material used may not be all that expensive. How much advantage this gives is questionable since the price of ingredients is fairly trivial in the make-up of a cartridge.

Laser printer toner does tend to be more robust – it will survive dampness and even wet without running. Most inkjet material won’t do that – although some of the UV-setting latex and resin types will. They aren’t so cheap, of course.

Summing Up

Consumers and small business buy inkjet printers mainly to save money.

Cheap printers don’t save money. Print brands always make money on cartridges and the cartridges for cheap printers are much more expensive per page than those for expensive printers. The range is from 0.5p per page or less for mono copiers and big printers to 10p per page and more for cheap inkjets.

Inkjet printers used with their special absorbent paper do produce good looking photos. Unfortunately they never do that cheaply or reliably.

If you really want reliable business printing then sacrifice the colour and get a mono laser printer. That is why all the inkjet makers still offer them – big business laughs at them when they suggest using inkjets instead.

Sales brochures, advertising flyers and business presentations do benefit from colour. A colour laser printer will give “magazine quality” photographs – not quite as good as an inkjet, but most people won’t notice. Laser printers will function quite normally with ordinary low cost office copy paper.

The cost of cartridges has little or nothing to do with what they cost to produce. Cartridges are just an alternative way of paying for a printer.

Neither ink nor toner is “expensive” as such – The toner in a typical £35 2,500 page printer cartridge weighs about 100 grammes and is worth – perhaps £2. Clone cartridge cores with the rest of the works cost a bit more. The box the cartridge comes in may cost more than the toner! It is generally reckoned that the printer brands are making over 80% profit on selling a cartridge.

The unreliability is bound up with being cheap. It is possible to make fairly reliable inkjets as the HP Designjet series and their competitors from Canon and Epson prove. But they do cost several thousand pounds; not £30!