Printer manufacturers need to prove value

Printer cartridges have long been something of a mystery for IT consumers—mostly because of the sheer cost of them.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 5, 2003

Printer cartridges have long been something of a mystery for IT consumers—mostly because of the sheer cost of them.

When the cost of a brand name cartridge can be as much as half that of the printer itself, convincing the buyers of the value of a branded cartridge isn’t easy. When you consider that unauthorised cartridges and refill kits are available at a fraction of the price of authorised cartridges, it is not surprising that a lot of end users regard the consumables market as decidedly unfair.

The argument from the manufacturers is usually the same—our cartridges are much higher quality, they produce a much better print job, they last longer, using an authorised cartridge will damage your machine and so on. The quality issue is neither here nor there—if you get what you pay for, then it is up to the consumer to risk using an unauthorised cartridge or refill, and if they get a bad print job, well, they paid their money and made their choice.

When the manufacturers then go and put chips in their hardware that prevent the use of unauthorised cartridges, you have to ask whether the consumer if getting anything like a fair deal, or whether there is more than a bit of protectionism going on in the consumables market.

On top of the usual problems around authorised and unauthorised cartridges, the UK consumer magazine Which? has also discovered some interesting things about printer cartridges (Which? is the magazine of the Consumer Association, a UK charity that carries out consumer tests on everything from cars to holidays, acting in the interests of the buyer). The Which? report showed that most of the printer cartridges it tested give a premature warning about when ink cartridges are going to run out—meaning over-cautious users that change cartridge as soon as they get a warning are not getting their money’s worth from their already expensive consumables.

Worse still, some manufacturers include a processor that disables the cartridge once the ink is supposedly running low—yet Which? researchers found that when they overrided the chip, they could carry on printing.

In fact, they found that they could print up to 38% more pages after the chip had disabled the cartridge before they saw any decline in print quality. The least number of extra pages was 17%—in other words the consumer was wasting at least one sixth of the ink they have paid for.

It is this sort of thing that give the printer manufacturers a bad name. Of course they have invested in the technology, and they need to recoup their R&D costs, and they also have to deal with any warranty problems that might result from using a sub-standard cartridge, but the difference in price is still considerable.

When cartridge manufacturers use technology to restrict the users choice, and to make them pay unnecessarily, then they can’t be too surprised when consumers decide to pay their money and make their choice to go with cheap cartridges and refills.

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