September 6, 2007

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Ink wars
A long time ago, in a Best Office Circuit USA far, far away...
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

I saw an interesting ad the other day. At its center was a printer/scanner combo by Kodak, but the ad copy didn’t say much about it. Rather, it focused on the ink — specifically, on how cheap the ink is.

That’s a pretty new tactic in the consumer printer industry. Typically, manufacturers have tried to lure shoppers in with fancy products and ease of use. In recent years, as digital cameras have exploded in popularity, the corner drug store has been chopped out of the photo printing equation with more and more people printing at home. That’s led to them buying a whole lot of ink.

In theory, that’s great for the printer makers. With anything from 10 to 50 milliliters of ink in every cartridge, replacements were enormously profitable. Unfortunately for them, innumerable knockoffs emerged, offering ink cartridges compatible with just about every printer on the market. Manufacturers countered with proprietary chips on each cartridge that were hard to reverse-engineer, with misinformation campaigns telling consumers their warranties would be completely voided if they used third-party cartridges and with ad blitzes playing up the amazing technology behind their own special inks.

We all bought none of it, of course.

It all came back to price. If we could get a knockoff cartridge or refill our old cartridges for less money, we’d do that, even if the quality wasn’t always as good.

Now, here comes Kodak with a line of three printers that are aimed straight at that knockoff ink market. The Easyshare 5100 is your standard color printer for 8.5” x 11” documents as well as a flatbed scanner and USB ports for printing directly from devices. It advertises being able to print 4” x 6” photos in as little as 28 seconds. The 5300 adds memory card slots and a 3” LCD screen, while the 5500 tacks on a fax machine and automatic document feeder as well. They list for $150, $200 and $300, respectively, while black ink costs $10 and a five-color ink cartridge costs $15.

Is that really cheaper than competitors? The ink, yes. The printers themselves, not so much.

HP offers nearly identical printer/scanner combos for similar prices, but they have so many models that similar features can be had for a lot less. The Photosmart C4280, for example, gives you card slots and a smaller 1.5” LCD for $90. A single black cartridge is $15 and their three-color cartridge is $18; buy both together and you pay an even $30. You can also upgrade to fancier, pricier inks for better photo prints.

The story’s pretty much the same over at other companies. The $100 Canon Pixma MP470 has a 1.8” LCD and card slots, but admits to a slower print speed: about 46 seconds per 4” x 6” photo. Black ink starts at $16, color at $20. The Epson Stylus CX6000 again sets you back $100 for card slots and, this time, a 2” LCD. It goes right up against Kodak’s 5300 with 28-second photo prints, but ink’ll cost you: $17 for black and $12 for each of three color cartridges. Now, separate cartridges can be good if you print lots of magenta (red) and not much cyan (blue), but your photos probably balance out in the end.

I’d love to go all Consumer Reports on you and give you detailed test information on your options, but truly, a test doing your choices justice could fill a special annual issue. The short version is this: if you absolutely need quality, go with brand-name ink to be sure. If you print every e-mail you get and every Web page you visit, go for the cheap ink. And recycle all that paper.