3 min read

The home printer market is broken

When much of the world went into lockdown companies and schools sent employees and students home to work and study.

That triggered a surge in sales of laptops, large screen monitors, headphones and printers.

The first three items on that shopping list will make you more productive.

Laptops mean you can work on the kitchen table and clear the space away when it is time for dinner.

You need a desk and elbow room for a large screen monitor, but being able to work with side-by-side windows will help you do more in less time.

Headphones or ear buds let you take part in video conferences and other audio communications even if your home workspace is noisy.

You may not be able to avoid a printer

Printers are more of a security blanket that a serious aid to productivity. Yet for many people they are not optional.

Even if you don’t feel the urge to squirt ink onto dead trees in order to express yourself, others will insist on printed documents.

There is another way printers are not like other home office technology: They need feeding with ink cartridges.

And there is something very wrong with the way that market works.

One recent twist is modern home office printers can stop you printing if you don’t pay protection money.

Sorry, did I say “protection money”, I meant to say “pay over the odds for ultra expensive branded ink cartridges when there are perfectly adequate third-party options”.

It’s for your own good… yeah right

For years printer makers have warned users about the dangers of using third-party ink cartridges.

Campaigns had less to do with user education than with maintaining high profit margins.

When you buy the official ink from your printers’ manufacturer you can expect to pay two or three times as much as the cost of third-party ink.

It isn’t cheap.

Ink cartridges work out at around NZ$5000 per litre.

While that might be a dozen or so cents per printed page, if you print lots of pages it adds up fast.

Corrosive ink

A common scare campaign that started 20 years ago claims that third-party ink will ruin your printer’s print heads.

The implication was that third-party inks contain sulphuric acid or worse.

At one point a major printer company claimed that its print heads would be unusable after two cycles of third-party ink1.

My testing has showed the claim wasn’t true. Even after five cycles the printer works fine.

Cheaper option

Even if the claim was true, at the time of the campaign, a consumer would be financially better off buying a new printer, using the included starter cartridges, buying two cycles of third-party ink then throwing the printer away and starting again.

Life could not be less sustainable.

That’s because in the crazy world of ink cartridge economics, printer makers used to lose money selling the hardware.

They knew they’d make it all up later on the ink cartridge sales. It’s the famous ‘razor blade’ business model.

The subsidy

Printers were subsidised to the point where a new printer cost less than a set of cartridges.

It was at around this time printer makers stopped putting full-size starter cartridge packs in their consumer printer models.

Until then, a savvy consumer could come out ahead by buying a new printer every time the ink ran out.

It meant waiting for a retail promotion to buy the hardware at a discount, but if you timed it right you’d be better off. There were always retail promotions although it might mean shifting to another printer brand.

This wasn’t good for landfills or the planet, but, hey, economics.

These day printer makers charge more up front.

They say this will save you money in the long run.

Well… in the long run we’re all dead.

And anyway, they haven’t dropped the price of subsequent refills.

Third-party ink pitfalls

Another, let’s be generous and say, “user education” programme, from the industry tells us you get inferior results using third-party inks.

This can be true if you use an inkjet to print photographs. The best results need the official manufacturer ink cartridges and, if you think it worth the cost and effort, special expensive printer paper.

My own testing shows that is true for Canon and Epson printers. I haven’t tested HP but I suspect I’d find the same.

It’s a fair enough claim.

But if you restrict colour ink use to highlighting text, drawing graphs, Venn diagrams and pie-charts, then accurate colour fidelity is an indulgence.

In other words, none of the printer maker arguments stand up to sensible scrutiny.

  1. The obvious response to this would be to find another printer brand capable of making more durable hardware. ↩︎