All the Right Moves:
Tips for Choosing the Perfect Inkjet Printer

By Jacqueline Emigh

Second in a Series

Although inkjet printers hold greater promise than ever for boosting productivity, all inkjet printers are not created equal, and neither are their ink cartridges.


While prices of inkjet printers continue to fall to affordable levels, vendors keep improving on print quality and performance. Yet the productivity gains you reach can vary greatly across different models. Vendors' approaches to print cartridge technology are key ingredients in the overall equation.

When inkjet technology first hit the market, a printer could cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 to $400. These days, new printers in the same general category can be purchased for less than $100 in retail stores, and often for less on websites such as Prices can drop even further on discontinued models. Meanwhile, resolution on these budgets models is rising. Typically, resolution is now touted at least 4800 x 1200 dots per inch (dpi) for color and 1200 x 1200 dpi for black and white.

So at a time when the state of the economy remains uncertain, and prices seem to be inching up on practically everything else, a carefully chosen inkjet printer can bring a lot of new functionality to your office at work or at home without entailing a huge investment.

And while pricing on monochrome laser printers has also slid dramatically, the same isn’t necessarily true for color laser printers. If you already have a monochrome laser on hand, a color inkjet printer can make a cost effective addition.

In fact, some models of color inkjet printers are specifically geared to photo printing, sparing the cost of outside photo labs. Some of these high end, higher-resolution photo printers can accommodate not just standard 8.5 x 11 inch printer paper, but also specialized media such as small photo-sized stock.

Other color inkjet printers, geared to higher volume printing in business settings, add functionality such as faster speeds, more extensive networking connectivity and extra paper tray capacity.

Widely available across all these categories are color inkjet all-in-ones (AIOs), also known as multifunctional printers. AIOs integrate functionality like the ability to copy, scan and fax, in either full color or black and white. Keep in mind, of course, that copying and faxing can also consume ink.

Beating 'hidden costs'

Users have discovered that some inkjet printers – often those with the smallest price tags in their class - can carry hidden costs when it comes to consumables.

Rocky Briscoe, a film-maker in New York City, said he is very satisfied with the speed and print quality of the Epson printer that he shares with his wife Yvonne, a fashion designer, in their home office. “But the cartridges are absolutely too expensive,” he acknowledged in an interview.

In their product reviews on websites, other users voice similar satisfaction with the overall performance of various inkjet printers, particularly in relation to price. These sentiments vary, however, according to brand, model, and the expectations of individual users.

Some users complain about sub-$100 printers that never even power on, or that are distractingly noisy right from the start. Even worse, some customers talk about problems such as clanking sounds, paper jams, or even “crooked printing” starting to crop up several months after purchase, when it can be too late for a product return.

Almost universally, though, the websites are replete with concerns over cartridge costs. On the Epinions site, for example, one user talked about the rude shock he got when it came time to buy his first set of replacement cartridges for his inkjet printer. The total tally for the replacements turned out to be way more than the initial price of the printer.

"Great printer for the price!" wrote another user, named Kona Bear, about the HP Deskjet D1660, on the site. As "cons," though, Kona Bear listed, "Ink cartridge still a bit pricey, but less than other HP printers."

Vendors make technological leaps

Some printer vendors, however, are addressing the high costs of cartridges through innovative cartridge technology designs. On certain printers, the print head is placed within the printer itself, rather than inside the cartridge.

On the down side, there might be some risk that this so-called “fixed print head” can present a single source of failure if the print head gets clogged or breaks. Also, pricing at the outset can be somewhat steeper – at around $100 or more -- for printers designed in this way.

However, traditional "disposable print heads" – or print heads built into cartridges – introduce extra costs that are passed along to users each time they buy new cartridges. Since users typically replace cartridges multiple times while owning a printer, printers with fixed print heads are widely regarded as much more cost effective in the long run.

In another advancement, to help users keep on top of cartridge ink levels, vendors now include special chips with their printers, supporting an alert system that issues warnings when ink begins to run low.

Meanwhile, some vendors are displaying ingenuity with newer inks that are water-insoluble and less likely to fade over time.

Third-party workarounds

Some customers are experimenting with workarounds not prescribed by printer vendors, including third-party ink cartridges and relatively inexpensive ink refill kits and ink refill services.

Users report mixed experiences with refills. Although some refilled cartridges print out just fine, others leak or produce poor print quality. Also, you should be aware that some printers are built to temporarily stop working if a refilled cartridge is inserted.

For their part, third-party cartridges are invariably priced lower than vendors' own offerings. While some provide good compatibility with the printers, others are incompatible, either physically or electronically. Also, some third-party cartridges advertised as "new" are actually just refills of old used cartridges.

It's generally advisable to stick with the vendors' own ink cartridges, unless you’re sure for a fact that the third-party consumables come from a trustworthy source. Otherwise, you could be taking too much of a chance. Third-party cartridges are known to have caused real physical damage to some printers.

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