Shame on you, Epson

A familiar adage asserts that Gillette doesn’t make its money selling razors; rather, it’s the razor blades that generate the big bucks. You need only check the price of a package of razors (which can go for more than $5/blade) to confirm the wisdom of this observation.

This business model is not limited to razors. If you own an inkjet printer, you’ve assuredly seen the same principle in action  — via the cost of replacement ink. But the situation with these printers is actually worse. Much worse.

You can purchase a decent inkjet printer for less than $100. You may even get one for free (as part of a package deal when you buy a computer). Move up to the $200 range and you can get a truly outstanding inkjet. Take my Epson WF-4630 — please! Amazon currently lists it for $250 dollars, although I have seen it on sale for as little as $150. This is a massive 46 pound all-in-one printer. Capable of handling heavy-duty tasks in ”busy workgroups,” it’s built to last. It’s also built to drain your wallet.

A replacement package of the four (4) ink cartridges for this printer can set you back around $100! In other words, replacing the cartridges just two times will cost more than you likely paid for the printer (which included a set of ink cartridges)! And these cartridges don’t last that long. If you use the printer regularly, you can easily expect to need two or more replacements in a year. Looked at another way, if you are content with a low-cost printer, it can be a smarter move to buy a new printer every time it runs out of ink, rather than ever purchase replacement cartridges. Absurd.

As I said, this is a familiar lament. It’s a Faustian bargain we make when we buy one of these printers. We accept the absurd cost of the ink for the convenience of being able to print photos at home.

But here’s where it gets worse. Epson (and, to a similar extent, all inkjet printer manufacturers) design their hardware in a way that could easily force you to trash a perfectly good printer and buy another one, even if you would prefer not to.

I doubt that this is a deliberate strategy on Epson’s part. If so, it’s a risky one, as you may buy a different brand of printer next time around. More likely, it’s the inevitable fallout of gross indifference to its users.

For me, this realization began when I attempted to print out a greeting card a few weeks ago. The printout contained a series of yellow streaks where red should have been. According to the printer’s User’s Guide, the first step in dealing with this mishap is to perform a nozzle check. This prints out a pattern that will show if any of the ink cartridges is not functioning properly.

Sure enough, my check revealed a partial failure of the Magenta cartridge (by the way, forum postings suggest this printer has more problems with Magenta than other colors for some unknown reason; but that’s another story).

Having confirmed the cause of the failed printouts, Epson’s next recommendation is to do a head cleaning. If this works, it unclogs the affected nozzle(s). There’s no manual labor required. All you do is click an on-screen button. The printer takes over and does the rest. If one head cleaning doesn’t resolve the issue, Epson recommends repeating the procedure for up to a maximum of four times. You may then wait six hours and try yet another cleaning.

Epson alludes to the fact that a head cleaning will “consume some ink.” However, this hardly does justice to how much ink gets wasted by this process. In my case, I wound up trying three cleanings. By the end, all of the printer’s ink cartridges had gone from nearly full to nearly empty. In other words, this potential fix had now cost me $100! The kicker? It didn’t work. Not a bit. Printouts were just as bad as when I started. I was $100 in the hole and still had a failed printer. To continue with more cleanings, I would have had to buy and mostly use up a new set of cartridges — with no guarantee of success. I decided not to go further down this likely fruitless path.

This type of “uncleanable” clog can happen for a number of reasons, including not using use the printer often enough — thereby allowing dried ink to “solidify” in the printhead. Regardless, it had happened to me. What to do now?

At this point, the Epson User Guide ran out of advice. So I turned to the web for further assistance. I already knew that, if a printer’s automated head cleaning failed, a clogged printhead might be rescued by a manual cleaning. The question was how exactly to do this for my printer. The basic idea is to lift the printer cover, locate the printhead and use a cloth (dampened with cleaner fluid or perhaps some diluted isopropyl alcohol) to eliminate the clog. The problem is that exact procedures vary by printer brand and model. What works for one printer may be completely irrelevant for another model. Further, whatever the correct procedure is, it likely won’t be obvious or simple. That’s why you’ll want to refer to a YouTube video for guidance.

I found several such videos for various Epson printers — one even described a problem specifically with Magenta (just as I had). However, none turned out to be applicable to my WF-4630. Well, there was one video, optimistically titled “How to fix an Epson WF-4630 printer,” that I thought would be the sought-after answer. However, its suggested fix, while tempting, was just too extreme; watch the video (really!) and you’ll see what I mean.

Thinking back, I can recall when fixing clogged printheads wasn’t this difficult. There was a time when users could reliably access and clean a printhead with relative ease. Often, the head itself could be removed and replaced if needed. Very few, if any, current inkjet printers are like this. Certainly not my Epson.

Back to my present dilemma. Before giving up entirely, I contacted Epson technical support. They confirmed what my YouTube search had already indicated: it was virtually impossible for me to access the printhead on this model. The best the support rep could offer was that I contact my local Epson authorized service provider to get the printer repaired.

I was skeptical that this would lead anywhere useful. I was right. The service tech said that, while he could do the repair, he didn’t recommend it — because the cost of parts and labor would exceed the cost of a new printer. He told me I was better off junking my printer and getting a new one!

So, while I can continue to use my Epson as a fax machine, a scanner or a black-and-white printer, it can no longer print color. If I want color, the only solution is to follow the tech’s advice — toss the printer and buy a new one.

Shame on you, Epson! And shame on all other inkjet printer manufacturers that are almost, but perhaps not quite, as awful.

Your business practices are egregious. The high cost of replacement ink is bad enough. Wasting huge amounts of ink on failed head cleanings only adds insult to injury. Must you also design your printers so that the one component that is most likely to fail (the printhead) is so inaccessible that, when it does fail, the only solution is to trash the printer? Especially when a simple manual cleaning might have saved 46 pounds of functioning hardware from winding up in a landfill? As I said, shameful!

[Note: Yes, inkjet printers can be viewed as part of a larger trend —  home appliances and digital devices that are now considered disposable rather than repairable. When one breaks, you trash it rather than fix it. It’s the most cost-effective solution, even if it’s terrible for the environment. A key difference here is that my Epson printer likely just needed some minimal maintenance; it wasn’t really broken.]

As for me, I’m done. I will never buy another inkjet printer. If I want to print photos, I’ll use Shutterfly or Costco or some similar service. For printing color documents, I’ll take them to Staples. Maybe I’ll buy a color laser printer at some point. Whatever. What I won’t do is get scammed by inkjet printer manufacturers ever again.

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9 Responses to Shame on you, Epson

  1. Kirk says:

    I bought one inkjet printer ages ago. The cartridges dried out. After that, I sent out anything I needed to print in color. I wouldn’t consider a color laser printer, because the toner is expensive.

  2. Curt says:

    Two comments:
    1. Think twice about color laser printers. They are available for as low as $200 but they require four toner cartridges that are in the range of $100 each. The printers ship with low capacity ones. Replacing the whole printer is far cheaper than replacing toner cartridges.
    2. Epson, I believe, has developed a line of inkjet printers that use refillable TANKS of ink instead of cartridges. The printers cost more, of course, but the tank idea sounds great.

  3. Tom says:

    @Curt From the Amazon reviews of the low-end but still expensive Eco-tank printers, knowledgeable reviewers claim it’s a cheaply made $50 printer so you’re paying $$$ up front for the privilege of paying for cheap ink later. And, unless you do a lot of printing, the claimed 2-year supply of ink will expire before you use it up. Plus, there’s still the clogged head issue.

    When inkjet printers work, they are truly astonishing in what they can produce. But the manufacturers are going for a world record in designed-in planned obsolescence.

  4. Dori Smith says:

    Tom and I switched over to color laser printers years ago. Yes, the printers and consumables are considerably more expensive — but, the consumables need to be replaced much less often. The last time we researched it, the cost per page for laser printers was much lower than that of ink jets. I very much doubt I’ll ever buy an ink jet again.

  5. Ron Evry says:

    From all reports I’ve read, the low end Epson Eco-Tank printer is a fifty dollar machine with a $350 ink tank. The $499 model, which I bought a few months ago, has great features, a full featured touch screen, and works flawlessly with my airport network, Macs and I-Devices. I highly recommend it.

  6. Tom says:

    @DoriSmith I’ve heard the opposite. That inkjets are cheaper per page but that could be marketing hype. I haven’t researched if there’s an impartial study comparing the costs.

    @RonEvry Thanks for the comment. I’ll consider the higher-end model, but I do so little printing I’m afraid I’d never get my money’s worth. My HP printer won’t recognize an HP black ink cartridge and, given the high price and non-returnability of an opened cartridge, I’m reluctant to buy another one in case the printer is at fault rather than the cartridge So I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m using backup printing mode now where it uses the color cartridge to generate mediocre black, and hoping an obvious upgrade path presents itself when that cartridge runs out.

  7. C. Jenkins says:

    I had an OfficeJet 8100 that I was really quite happy with–until the day I needed a black and white printout in a hurry, but it refused to print anything at all because the yellow cartridge was low. I gave it away, and I’ll never buy another HP product again.

  8. Craig Patton says:

    I don’t know about the current crop, but the design of the C5280 HP inkjet I’ve been using for ages places the “print heads” in the ink cartridge. Replacing the cartridge replaces the print head. Additionally, I use re-manufactured ink cartridges from a local supplier. They cost about a quarter of what a new one does and work quite well. The printer sees re-man cartridges as “used” and cannot then display their ink levels, but I’ve never found the printer’s ink level display to be all that accurate anyway. I keep a spare for each cartridge on hand and print until one runs dry then replace it.

  9. germ says:

    I came to the conclusion of never buying an inkjet printer about….oh….16 years ago or so–and never regretted.

    My Brother Color Laser Printer lasted many years of service with one set of toner cartridges. Yes, those cost over $100 to replace, but at least they last many years and don’t clog.

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