Irate Over Ink

Testers: Brian Hilton (left), Nabil Nasr (center), and Steve Ralg of RIT's Imaging Products Laboratory, who test ink jet cartridge yields.
Photograph: Garry Geer
Computer technician Alan Frandsen isn't a conspiracy theorist, but he says his ink jet printer is making him paranoid. Frandsen is convinced that his Epson Stylus Color 480SX printer warns him to replace the unit's expensive ink jet cartridges from Epson long before he's used up all the ink inside.

"When the ink costs more than the printer, you notice these things," Frandsen says. Over the past two years he has chucked dozens of cartridges containing leftover ink that he believes was wasted.

The ink may have gone unused, but tests done for PC World show that most ink jet vendors--at least those who told us what numbers their customers should expect--did deliver on promised quantities of printed pages (page yields).

Nevertheless, the sense that they may not be getting all they paid for is very real for some ink jet owners.

With the price of replacement ink cartridges running as high as $50 an ounce--on a par with fine imported Russian caviar--Frandsen and other unhappy ink jet customers are crying foul. And in some instances, consumers are going to court in the belief that printer companies are pressuring them into buying more ink than they really need.

This perception is aggravated if a printer stops functioning when a cartridge's ink level dips to a certain level (as is the case with some Epson and Hewlett-Packard printers), denying users the option of continuing to print after the driver software warns that it's time to replace the cartridge.

Printer companies say that they do this to benefit the customer, because trying to print with cartridges containing too little ink would risk damaging the printer and would produce unacceptably ugly prints.

"If people try to bleed their cartridge dry, then there is a high risk of customer dissatisfaction with printouts and a good chance of causing irreversible damage to the printer," says Pam Barnett, Epson's public relations manager.

Complaints that cartridge buyers are not getting their money's worth are less easily answered, however. Most ink jet printer companies simply won't say how much usable ink is in their cartridges.

Epson says that it prices cartridges based not on the volume of ink they hold but on how many printed pages they produce. Epson publishes this page yield information online, but some other companies don't tell how many pages their cartridges will produce, or make this information difficult to find.

To investigate customers' complaints that printers prematurely force ink cartridge replacement, we enlisted the assistance of the Imaging Products Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which performs independent testing for aftermarket and name-brand ink cartridge manufacturers.

IPL tested five ink jets--one model from each of five major vendors--to determine the page yields of each printer and to see how much ink remained in the cartridge at the moment the printer stopped printing. For each printer, IPL used up five cartridges per color.

Testing Yield

IPL's tests of a Canon i850 Color Bubble Jet Printer, a Dell A940 Printer, an Epson Stylus C84, a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 6122, and a Lexmark Z65 Color Jetprinter bore out the perception that the Epson and Canon printers in particular stop printing while a fair amount of ink remains in the cartridge: The Stylus C84 on average stopped printing with 20 percent of the ink left in the cartridge, while the Canon i850 stopped printing with 10 percent of the ink left. Canon says that it generally strives to leave 6 percent of a cartridge's ink as a safety margin. Epson doesn't disclose its target residual ink levels, nor will the company comment on why so high a proportion of the total ink is unused when printing stops. The other printers we tested gave low-ink messages but never stopped functioning (see the test report for details).

IPL's tests showed that of the printers that provide yield figures, each produced slightly less black than the vendor had estimated--except the Canon, which overdelivered. On the other hand, the Canon, Epson, and HP printers' color yields exceeded vendor promises; Lexmark, meanwhile, did not meet its color yield estimates.

The Epson cartridges we tested have a chip that records the amount of ink used from the cartridge and then alerts the driver software when the ink level reaches a certain point. The software, in turn, prevents you from printing further until you replace the cartridge. Canon printers use an optical sensor to check on ink levels; Canon's ink tanks don't have smart chips that can prevent printing, so you can continue using the printer even after you receive an out-of-ink warning.

The printheads of the Dell, HP, and Lexmark printers we tested were located on the cartridge, so running their cartridges dry can't harm an integral printer part.

The Epson's printheads are located on the printer, and the Canon's printheads sit on an assembly inside the printer; vendors say continuing to print with either printer after a cartridge ran dry might introduce air bubbles into the printheads and cause costly damage. A limited number of HP ink jet printers (not tested here) use a smart chip technology similar to Epson's and force you to replace the cartridge when the printer decides it's out of usable ink.

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