That is the question. From our friends at Wall Street Journal.
It was after midnight, and I was facing a ticking-clock real estate transaction. All I had to do was print 15 pages of black-and-white contract, sign it and fax it back. Only halfway through, my printer ran out of ink—magenta ink! Thus began a chain reaction culminating in my nearly throwing the printer out the window. I ended up at Kinko’s.
We all have a printer story. They run out of ink at the worst possible time, or worse, nag us about running low on ink when there’s plenty left. So how much would you pay for a printer that doesn’t run out?
Epson, the maker of my nightmare printer, has finally put an end to the horror of ink cartridges, at least for people willing to throw cash at the problem up front. The five new EcoTank series printers look like normal models, only they have containers on their sides that hold gobs and gobs of ink. How much? Years’ worth. Enough that your children—or at least mine—could go on a two-hour coloring-page-printing bender and you wouldn’t even notice.
Printer technology has been pretty static for years. Epson and competitors Hewlett-Packard, Canon and Brother make frame-worthy photos and spit out page after page of text at a decent clip. It’s now standard for them to connect to Wi-Fi networks.
Most people buy printers by price: $100 is the magic number for anybody but a photo enthusiast, and printer makers like it that way. They lose money on the hardware and make it up on ink.
We don’t love paying through the nose for the ink, and the arrangement means that at the first sign of printer trouble, many of us just dump the thing and buy a new one. But we’ve continued this way for years.
Now, though, ink alternatives throw ink-onomics off balance. Major retailers such as Amazon and Wal-Mart now sell off-brand inks dirt cheap. Printer makers say this ink can cause printing problems and bring down the quality of printouts, but the price differences are staggering.
A basic Epson model, the Expression XP-420 all-in-one scanner/printer, lists for $100 sells for as little as $60. Its standard cartridge in replacement, however, costs around $40. Epson’s XL cartridges give you a little break—nearly three times the ink for around $80 a set.
But when searching for XP-420 ink on Amazon, most results are for off-brand competitors selling XL cartridges for a third of Epson’s price, and sometimes even less.
As a parent who doesn’t want to padlock the printer, I turned to off-brand ink. And while I have had one of their cartridges fail, the economics still favors the knock-offs.
Epson’s new move is a sly one. Rather than compete on price, the printer maker is dropping the cartridge issue entirely. When you buy an EcoTank printer—for instance, the ET-2550, which closely resembles Epson’s XP-420—you fill up its four-chambered reservoir with ink from plastic containers included with the printer. There’s a satisfying feeling of dumping all of that ink into the tubs. You then let the printer prime itself and your ink worries are over.
Fast forward two very print-productive years. You and your family have churned out more than 35 black-and-white and 60 color pages every week. Finally, you need more ink. Epson will sell you a whole set of replacement canisters for $52. That same amount of Epson ink, in XL cartridges, would cost more than 10 times as much.
The old model is out the window. Epson’s not trying to make money on ink this time around, because it’s charging you up front for the printer. The ET-2550 costs $400; its big brother, the ET-4550, which has a fax, a sheet feeder and Ethernet, costs $500.
I asked John Lang, president and CEO of Epson America, why his company was the only one that could do this. After all, it seems like an obvious strategy.
The answer, he said, has to do with hardware: Epson’s advantage is its permanent mechanical print heads, as opposed to the disposable thermal ones used by its chief competitors. Because Epson’s print heads are always connected to the printer, ink can be piped to them from anywhere—a cartridge or a tank on the side of the printer. More important, because they’re mechanical and not thermal, they can operate for yearswithout requiring replacement and are less likely to clog.
Epson’s biggest competitor, Hewlett-Packard, has a different answer to the ink problem: subscriptions. Ranging from $3 to $10 a month, you can get automatic shipments of ink cartridges based on the pages you print. You pay more if you go over your limit, and can “roll over” ink if you don’t use it all. But it favors printers with very predictable use. H-P’s ink subscription may make sense for small-business owners, but even then, Epson’s alternative is worth calculating out. To me, the thought of an ink subscription is sickening. It’s worth paying a lump sum to avoid a continuing relationship with my printer maker.
Testing these printers has been reassuringly anticlimactic. The ET-2550 and ET-4550 all-in-one scanner/printers behaved normally, and the print output looked almost exactly like what came out of the nearest comparative model, Epson’s XP-420. There’s a slight difference in the ink—the XP-420 uses a pigment-based ink, which means it is waterproof when it dries, while most of the EcoTank printers use dye ink, which makes for nice photos, but may run if wet.
Photographers looking for precision photo printers should shop up Epson’s line a bit, to the Artisan or Stylus series. People who just want black-and-white pages should consider a laser printer. EcoTank printers are meant to be all-purpose workhorses.
Epson’s ink gambit doesn’t make all printer annoyances go away. Paper is the other part of the equation. There are still the occasional sheet-feeding issues, where two pages get pulled in instead of one. Which is to say, it’s still a printer. That’s why Epson offers a two-year warranty on the hardware: If anything goes wrong during that time, Epson will swap it out for a new one. After that, you’re on your own.
That made me a little sad. After all, we live in an age when it’s de rigueur to trash our electronics when they conk out. Buying a printer for $400 rather than $100 should mean planning to keep it longer, and maybe—just maybe—paying to repair it rather than throwing it out. Epson says it has no system for printer repairs in the U.S., but that if people keep their printers longer, perhaps third-party providers will seize the opportunity.
There is another, earth-conscious aspect to this: No more plastic cartridges ending up in the landfill. You’re supposed to bring your cartridges in when buying new ones, but most of us (myself included) just toss them in the garbage. With 20 times the ink that comes in a set of cartridges, the ET-2550 EcoTank printer automatically saves you from about 80 little pieces of plastic. If Epson starts selling these printers by the millions, the planet may be spared whole mountains of spent ink cartridges.
But for most people, it’s more about the checking account. Here’s the math: If you play by Epson’s rules, a $100 printer using Epson ink could cost you as much as $800 over two years, so the EcoTank model is just half that. But paying full price for ink cartridges is a broken concept. If you only buy off-brand ink for your $100 printer, your total cost, even after two years, is less than $200.
The decision boils down to this: Will you pay less and deal with the annoyance of changing ink cartridges and the potential bootleg ink failures? Or would you pay a few hundred dollars more up front for a printer that eliminates ink hassles entirely? (At least for a while.)