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 user 2005-07-01 at 10:06:00 am Views: 72
  • #11768
    Return to Affordable Ink Jet Cartridges
    There was no shouting, but the throbbing vein on the side of the Canon product manager’s temple was all I needed to see to know that maybe, just maybe, I had crossed the line. He was busy telling me, in very measured tones, how dead wrong I was about affordable ink jet cartridges. This was a few years back, just after I wrote a column on affordable alternatives to the high-priced ink jet print-cartridge replacements that Epson, Canon, Lexmark, and HP want you to buy.
    The Canon rep buttonholed me at an industry trade show. Even though he was smiling, I could see that his teeth were clenched as he told me that I simply did not understand all the variables at play when you put a printer together with ink and paper. Cheap refills and paper could mean subpar results, he argued, and the only way consumers could guarantee consistency was by buying vendor-approved consumables. I held my ground and told him that though that may be the case, there’s no excuse (besides profit) for charging $50 for a three-color ink-jet-cartridge refill. The rep was laughing now, but in a maniacal way that seemed to indicate that I’d get mine someday, somehow.
    In the intervening years, I have not changed my mind, but I do believe I have a better understanding of the intrinsic and sometimes necessarily close relationship between a manufacturer’s printer and the consumables it provides. Some of my schooling happened almost by accident, and only thanks to the space and resources provided to me by our own PC Magazine Labs.

    We were prepping for one of our regular printer roundups and had collected some ink jet photo printers and a variety of consumables. I noticed that not only did we have paper and cartridges for the HP Photosmart 7260, but someone had picked up some “compatible” 4-by-6 photo paper and even color and black-and-white cartridge replacements from Staples. The Staples brand three-color and black ink cartridges are considerably cheaper than the HP brand: A color cartridge from HP costs well over $50, while the Staples remanufactured cartridge costs around $31. Similarly, the 100 sheets of Staples “premium photo paper” cost just $19, while HP’s comparable paper costs about $10 more.

    With all this in hand, I decided to test how the various supplies would interact with the printer and what impact they would have on my final output. I chose one of my own photos, a picture of my daughter in her Halloween costume (she was dressed as a little devil, complete with a red leotard and shirt, horns, scepter (also red) and a black cap). It was a good selection, I thought, for its deep reds, bright sunlight, fabric folds and shadows, green grass in the background, and blue and tan houses right behind her. This would be a good test of output quality. Without applying any adjustments to the image, I made four prints:

    • HP paper and HP ink
    • HP paper and Staples ink
    • Staples paper and HP ink
    • Staples ink and Staples paper

    I laid them all out on one of our test benches. Initially, the only differences I could discern were the weights of the paper and the slight differences in gloss (HP’s paper is considerably thicker than Staples’ and has a glossier finish). Upon closer inspection, though, I realized that the colors were different on all four of the prints.

    In the print with the HP paper and ink, the reds were rich and deep, with proper variations for the cloth folds and shaded areas. My daughter’s skin tone was pink and warm, without too much yellow bleed-over from the sunlight (which was high, but behind her). Her black cape was sharp and showed a range of color from full black to brighter, lighter sunlit areas. The grass was green without being garish, and details were well maintained throughout, including her somewhat frizzy blonde hair—I could easily make out individual strands.

    In the print with HP paper and Staples ink, the warmth of the picture had faded a bit, and her costume had a somewhat orange tinge. The sunlight appeared to have shifted partially to the front of her face, giving her a slightly yellowish complexion. There was no true black to be found in her black cape.

    The Staples paper and HP ink recaptured the sharpness and, to a certain extent, the rich tones of the HP paper and ink print, but it also had a yellowish cast that gave my daughter a somewhat jaundiced appearance. Her cape had regained some of its rich coloring, especially in the shadows and folds. But the lack of red or pink in her face also resulted in the loss of some detail.

    The print with the Staples paper and ink was, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the least appealing of all four prints. The yellow tinge I’d seen in other prints was now coupled with a slightly green overcast that washed over the entire print. The black cape looked almost dark gray, with brown overtones in highlighted areas, and the red costume was orange and grainy.

    This was proof that the Canon rep was right all along, right? Yes and no. I could see the vast quality differences because I viewed the prints side by side. If they were shown individually to anyone else, they’d likely be judged as adequate or even good. Still, there was no escaping the conclusion that the best photo prints could, if my tests are to be believed, be achieved only by matching a manufacturer’s printer to its paper and ink.

    Now don’t go throwing out all that cheap paper and ink you purchased at Staples, PrintPal, and Carrot Ink. There are more lessons to be learned here, and some common sense that can help us achieve output happiness without breaking our piggy banks. But first, please excuse another little digression.
    Another Option
    In my quest to understand the world of aftermarket consumable options better, I made a visit to Target, where I purchased my first ink-cartridge refill kit. I’ve steered clear of such kits for a long time because I had heard about the difficulty and mess, but I finally gave in, figuring I could help us all learn something (and maybe save a buck or two along the way). The kits cost about $10 and can be used for three or more refills, a huge savings over the near-$25 price of the Epson-sanctioned black ink cartridge I usually had to buy.

    I purchased a black ink refill kit for my Epson 860 photo printer. There are a number of kits that cover a wide range of print cartridges and printers. When I opened up the kit and laid it out on my kitchen counter (with copious amounts of paper and Saran Wrap underneath to protect against messy leaks), it looked more like Dr. Frankenstein’s surgical kit than a consumable refill option. Inside I found a container of ink, a large syringe with disposable heads and needles, and a drill bit with a blue handle attached to it. The latter was used to drill a hole in my empty, black ink cartridge. That hole’s purpose is not for filling the cartridge, but to provide an air hole as I injected fresh ink into another hole (one usually covered by a manufacturer’s label). I carefully hand-drilled the hole, used the syringe to suck ink out of the container, and then inserted the needle through the manufacturer’s label into the “refill hole” in the cartridge. I injected ink until black liquid appeared in the air hole I had drilled. I then, as instructed, covered the hole I had made with regular scotch tape. The entire process took about 20 minutes (I was moving very slowly out of fear of spilling permanent black ink all over my kitchen.) Despite my care, I had gotten some ink on my fingertips, and it took a few days to fade away. I placed the refilled cartridge in my printer and was soon printing again. My black-and-white printouts and even color ones (where some black is used) all look fine.

    I also have a color refill kit waiting for when the $45 color cartridge runs out. I expect that process to go pretty well, too. Based on my new experience with third-party cartridges, however, I probably won’t be using the 860 to print out photos I plan on keeping, framing, and/or giving to friends and relatives.

    This is why the Canon rep and I are both right. I now truly believe that if you want the best photo output (prints you can depend on for color and image quality and which will have a better chance of surviving the elements—my Staples paper and ink print has, after three months in the open air, begun to fade), you have two choices: Buy paper and ink from the manufacturer, or use a professional service to print your images (Ziff Davis Internet editor-in-chief Jim Louderback has a excellent look on the kind of quality you’ll find with the most popular online services). But I’m right, too, because we all do more than just print out photos, and for most of our everyday print chores, the Staples, Carrot Ink, PrintPal, and Target consumables are good enough—and they will save us all a ton of money.

    This philosophy leaves you with a number of choices: Buy a photo-only printer that you’ll always stock with manufacturer-sanctioned consumables and keep another, cheaper ink jet stocked with third-party consumables for everyday printing chores (school papers, collages, Web page output, even your grade-schooler’s class project). Alternatively, you can have one printer, like the able HP Photosmart 7260, and swap in and out high-quality and low-end, third-party consumables. I know this can work, because I’ve done it. Two concerns, however, might be the mess of moving the cartridges and the possibility of damaging them as you take them in and out of the printer.

    I’m not backpedaling here. I do believe in affordable, third-party consumable alternatives, but not for every task. To my Canon rep of the pulsing temple vein, I can only say this: Two rights don’t make it wrong.