STINK OVER INK CARTRIDGES
STINK OVER INK CARTRIDGES
2006-09-04 at 11:18:00 am #16377
Stink over ink cartridges
Printer cartridges can be ridiculously expensive but there are cheaper alternatives.
You can almost feel Kevin Cobley’s blood pressure rising when he talks about the cost of inkjet printer cartridges. “I think the whole thing is a scam,” he says. “Someone needs to do something about it.”Cobley, a regular home printer user, gets riled enough to fire off regular emails and letters on the topic to politicians.He also refuses to buy “genuine” cartridges for his Canon printer, opting instead to refill his cartridges himself with a third-party ink and, he says, save hundreds of dollars a year.”The refills print photographs beautifully,” he says. “Any of the stories they [manufacturers] tell you about dodgy cartridges is a lot of tripe.”And Cobley, from Katoomba, is far from alone in his irritation. If there is one topic above all others guaranteed to provoke responses from readers of Icon’s weekly Troubleshooter column, it’s the whole issue of inkjet cartridges and alleged “dirty tricks” by printer manufacturers.At the heart of the disquiet is the printer industry’s tactic of selling printers relatively cheaply, then relying on subsequent sales of replacement cartridges to bolster the bottom line.It’s a business model perfected by razor manufacturers, who still tend to sell the shaving device at a knockdown price then hit you hard for replacement blades.A good example is Lexmark’s basic Z617 inkjet printer, which is an absolute steal at about $44. But when the time comes to buy a replacement colour ink cartridge, be prepared to part with up to $53. A generic replacement cartridge can be purchased for less than $40 and the savings are even greater if you choose to refill the cartridge yourself or take it to one of the many specialist refilling stores.The Lexmark example is at the extreme end of the scale, but it is still common for a full set of replacement cartridges to cost more than a quarter of the original price of the printer. For instance, a full set of cartridges for Epson’s $199 Epson Stylus Photo R250 costs $57.96, while a set of generic cartridges can be had for $35.80.All this creates a perception of poor value, in turn encouraging printer and ink manufacturers to spend a lot of time and money persuading users that genuine inks are, in fact, worth the expense.And the stakes are high. Last year, according to IT industry analyst IDC Australia, about 20 million inkjet cartridges were sold in Australia, worth about $600 million. Of that total, 77 per cent were “genuine” cartridges, about 13 per cent were compatibles and the remainder were counterfeits or so-called “parallel imports”.These figures do not take into account the likes of Kevin Cobley who chose to refill their own.Interestingly, compatibles claimed 17 per cent of the market the previous year. However, according to IDC analyst Katarzyna Czubak, the 2005 figure is probably a temporary decline and reflects the introduction of a new generation of printers and the time taken by third-party manufacturers to produce new compatible cartridges.”I would say that is a short-term shrinking of the compatible market,” Czubak says. “As [third-party manufacturers] come up with a solution for, say, Canon’s new cartridges, these shipments should spike. Also, we would have to wait for the printers to age a little because end users tend to try to get original supplies for their brand-new printers just in case.”Robin Kenyon is a veteran of this mini “arms race” between printer manufacturers and the third-party cartridge makers. Kenyon is managing director of Calidad, which claims to be Australia’s No. 1 seller of compatibles and refill kits.”It’s been like this for as long as I have known it,” he says. “We started doing ink products in 1990. Our first ribbon product was a golfball typewriter ribbon in 1975 and the same activities and discussions were as energetic in those days as they are today.”[Printer technology] is changing all the time – it’s a cat-and-mouse game. Ironically, that’s what those who are in it enjoy. It would really be rather dull if it were all the same and we would not have the kind of niche business that we have if everybody was able to mass-produce those cartridges.”As soon as a new printer is released onto the market, Kenyon and his team snap it up and start analysing what is different about it and the ink it is designed to use. Samples are sent back and forth between the researchers in Sydney and the factories in China until they are satisfied they have “cracked” the new printer.For the printer manufacturers’ part, they say there is only one reason for the constant changes in ink formulation and cartridge design – producing a better product for the consumer.”A tremendous amount of time and money goes into developing the printers we now have and we’re continuously improving in terms of quality, speed and more functions,” says a spokesman for Canon Australia, K. C. Lu. “At the end of the day we just want to provide a consistent quality and reliability to consumers.”And if that process makes life difficult for the third-party manufacturers along the way, hey, all’s fair in love and business.A recent problem for third-party manufactures has been the introduction of onboard chips on new printer cartridges, which tell users the cartridge is due to be replaced or that it has been incorrectly fitted.The chips are also very difficult for the third-party manufacturers to “crack” as they can report to the printer whether a replacement cartridge is genuine or whether it has been refilled. The latest generation of Canon cartridges is proving particularly difficult for the compatible manufacturers to crack.”The question I have is whether this chip technology is helping the average punter,” says David Campbell, chairman of the Australasian Cartridge Remanufacturers Association.”My feeling is that the answer is no. As far as the average punter goes, there is probably no great benefit. They are protecting their patch but I question whether the introduction of chips is achieving all it’s supposed to do.”There’s no doubt the technology behind the modern inkjet printer is truly gobsmacking. Lu says some of Canon’s newest printers eject ink droplets as small as one picolitre, or one trillionth of a litre, at a rate of up to 150 million droplets a second.”It’s really high-tech stuff,” he adds.Lu is very measured when asked whether Canon customers shouldn’t use third-party cartridges and inks in their printers.”Canon’s policy is to let customers choose,” he says. “If they want to use third-party ink, they can do that but our focus is to educate customers in terms of the benefits of using genuine ink.Internal Canon research shows about 80 per cent of its customers use Canon inks, proving “Australian consumers need that reliability and consistent quality”, Lu says.Getting a good handle on the issue of print quality is far from easy, if not impossible. Claims and counterclaims fly thick and fast from the well-resourced marketing arms of companies such as Epson, Canon and HP, while the compatible manufacturers are not shy of making sometimes extravagant claims about their own products.And, to a large extent, quality is in the eye of the beholder – an eye to which small, incremental improvements in quality may not be apparent. Put another way, the quality of output demanded by a professional photographer is a long way from what is acceptable to a 14-year-old printing a school project.However, quality becomes irrelevant if, by using compatible cartridges, you risk damaging your precious printer and voiding the warranty in the process. All the printer manufacturers point out that there is a risk with third-party cartridges.For instance, Epson’s standard warranty says “if you use non-Genuine Consumables, software, replacement parts or accessories, you may damage your Product and may void your warranty”.A casual reading may give the impression that simply using a compatible cartridge will void your warranty. However, the legal situation is clear – it may void your warranty if there is a problem. But the printer manufacturers must first prove the ink or cartridge is the culprit before they can escape their obligations. Customers have their obligations as well – for example, they can void their warranty if they drop the printer.Campbell says there are very few failures among cartridges supplied by ACRA members; he admits there can be quality problems with some overseas manufactured products. But he adds: “We also get a percentage of failures among the original manufacturers’ products.”The legalities are clear but the rest of the genuine versus non-genuine debate is far from clear. In fact, it is impossible to give a conclusive answer on which works better.If, like Kevin Cobley, by playing with different paper and inks you’ve found a set-up that produces prints you are happy with and that also saves you a packet, then stick with what you’ve got. If, however, using non-genuine consumables bothers you or you believe genuine cartridges get a better result, it may be worth shelling out the extra dough.Ultimately you need to trust your own eyes and not be too swayed by the marketing hype from either side.How efficient are they?Printer manufacturers hate telling you how much ink there is in their cartridges.For instance, we asked Canon, Epson and HP to choose a printer worth about $200, then give details of the cartridge capacity, cost etc.It took a lot of cajoling before Canon and HP would reveal the amount of ink in their cartridges and Epson refused point-blank to divulge the information.All three said their reluctance was because they didn’t want to confuse customers – they much prefer to talk about the number of average pages you could expect to get out of a particular cartridge.In some ways, this is not unreasonable, yet the yield per page calculation is far easier to manipulate due to the many variables on which it is based, such as page coverage.How else would you explain the fact the manufacturers themselves fiercely dispute each other’s figures?For instance, Canon ripped into HP in June over the latter’s “fuel efficient printing” campaign, reportedly calling it “pure gimmick” and alleging it was based on tests done on obsolete products.Meanwhile, Epson continues to claim on its site that its printers are the cheapest to use on a page yield basis – and then in the small print it says, “In the absence of ISO standards, Epson encourages users to consider independent third party data and to use manufacturers’ data primarily as a comparison between printers.”Is there any wonder users are confused – and the manufacturers perhaps prefer it like that? NG InfofilL”Compatibles” come in several forms. Cartridges can be refilled with compatible ink either at home or over the counter at a specialist refilling store. Then there are “remanufactured” cartridges – original cartridges that have been reused and refilled. Finally there are the true compatibles that are made from scratch.