Printer Ink: How Do You Define 'Empty'?

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"I'm out of ink. Feed me." That was what my Brother 640CW multifunction printer demanded recently. I checked and there was still enough fluid in its cartridge for goodness knows how many more pages.

I examined all three allegedly empty cartridges--cyan, yellow, and magenta. From the top to bottom, they measured 1 1/8 inches. There was still roughly 1/4 inch of fluid at the bottom of each one. That's about a fifth of the cartridge's capacity, so my loss in ink was roughly $2.25 per cartridge. That's not exactly big bucks, but enough to make me feel like I was being scammed. (Oh, right, what printing manufacturer would do that, eh?)

I was fuming.

Brother Says: Oh, That's Normal

I used my pull and fired a note off to Brother's PR person. My question was simple: Is there a mechanical reason to leave fluid in the cartridge?

Brother's rep had a logical answer, of course. Here it is, verbatim--make sure to slip on a pair of hip boots so you don't get splattered with anything.

"First, we would like to assure you that Brother stands behind our product and the information disclosure that we provide to the consumer. It is always our policy to provide such information to consumers to help them understand both the product and the conditions under which the product operates.

"To address your specific question regarding ink volume, the rated yield for each cartridge follows the industry standard of that period which was based on 5% page coverage. So regardless of what small ink volume you may see remaining in an ink cartridge when it needs to be replaced, we guarantee that the ink volume that was provided and 'used' meets this industry standard calculation. Any additional ink volume left in a cartridge at that time was not put into the rated yield calculation that is guaranteed by Brother.

"Importantly, there is a technical and performance reason for why the small amount of ink is remaining in a cartridge that is identified as 'empty.' As mentioned in the User Manual, 'even though the machine informs you that an ink cartridge is empty, there will be a small amount of ink remaining in the ink cartridge. It is necessary to keep some ink in the ink cartridge to prevent air from drying out and damaging the print head assembly.' By doing so, the machine is protected and consistent print quality is ensured to satisfy the consumer. In effect, remaining ink should not be viewed as waste, but as Brother's affirmative action to provide ongoing high quality output and performance of the machine."

Horsepucky, says I. Granted, the printer may need a small amount of ink to keep the printer heads from drying out, but the volume left in the cartridge isn't what I'd call small. And I'm not interested in the industry standard of 5 percent coverage. What I know is that even with minimal printing, the Brother needs a new cartridge way too often--and I want every last drop of ink.

Inkjet Cartridges? It's a Hot Topic

I'm not the only one incensed about the ink issue. Here's what a few of my blog readers had to say:

"It's environmentally unfriendly. The more frequently we're required to change our ink cartridges unnecessarily, the more landfill waste. Granted many people recycle their used cartridges, but just as many throw them in the garbage."

"Change the name in your rant from Brother to Canon and it's exactly the same story. My brand new Canon was telling me the color cartridge was dangerously low for months before I actually got a printout with some missing color."

"I've been in the supplies industry for 30+ years and 7 years ago developed my own Web site ( to sell aftermarket and compatible replacement alternatives.... Why? Because inkjet and toner cartridges were appallingly high priced. If that weren't enough, the printer manufacturers are now using new technology to get you to buy more than you need.... Now some of the printer manufacturers are using chips on their cartridges to prevent aftermarket suppliers from being able to remanufacture their cartridges!"

"Just have to add my 2 cents to this, in addition to my raging fury with HP for installing mini-ink cartridges in new printers that will print a test page and then force you to buy full-sized ink cartridges right out of the gate. The HP Officejet Pro K850... forces me to change practically full cartridges because it says they have 'expired.' This machine takes 4 'high-yield' tanks of ink at about $80 to replace."
--Mary E.

For more of the same, read "Inkjet Printer Ink: Reader Rants and Hacks" and browse the reader comments on "Study: Over Half of Inkjet Printer Ink is Thrown Away."

Save Yourself Some Cash

Want to thumb your nose at the big printer companies? Before you run out and buy third-party cartridges, read "Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?" But not to worry, there are reputable companies out there--read "Where and How to Buy Cheap Ink" for some recommendations on buying third-party ink and saving money on big-name supplies.

After much due diligence, I found two spots with decent prices and good service. The first is Abacus where I bought a bunch of Brother cartridges. If you use the secret URL, you'll get a better price. I also use LDProducts to buy my Epson cartridges. They gave me a code for a 5-percent discount code good through December 2008: INKRET77.

We've got more money-saving tips in a video aptly titled "How to Save Money on Printing," and I covered the topic last year in "Save Money on Inkjet Printer Ink."

This Week's Roundup of Time Wasters

Steve Bass for president! Despite it all, I'm going to do it. Head for News3Online and watch The Steve Bass Phenomenon for details.

Board Dots is easy (ha!). Just fill in each of the blocks by drawing a path horizontally and vertically through each square. I did splendidly with level one. After that I decided to go back to writing because that's much easier. [Thanks, Jerame]

It's a long video, as long as some of the Dodger games I've been to. But if you follow baseball, you're going to love this.

In last week's Time Wasters I mentioned a site with great photos. That must have hit the sweet spot because I got tons of correspondence about it. So here's another two I suspect you'll enjoy. First, photojournalist Mary Shwalm's work. (I love "Zebra Tipping" and "The Brave Goose.") The other is Judith Wolfe, also a photojournalist, who pops up a new photo collage each week. Here are two favs: NYC Panorama and Coney Island.

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of "PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer," available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

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