Printer ink cartridges now even more of a rip-off

Printer and publisher William Caxton showing a sample of a printed book to King Edward IV

Need more reasons to go paperless? Take a look at what printer makers do with ink.

Printer ink has always been expensive, but as The Guardian reveals the price per millilitre  rocketed recently with printer makers serving ever smaller portions of ink in their cartridges.

The Guardian says a decade ago Epson printer ink cartridges contained 16ml. Today’s have just 3.5ml. HP sold a 42ml cartridge in the UK for £20. Now a 5ml cartridge costs  £13. For details see Printer ink cartridges: why you’re paying more but getting a lot less.

Printer makers sell inkjets and lasers at cost or a small loss aiming to make money from ink sales. Most printers come with small amounts of ink, so it doesn’t take customers long to get to their first cartridge purchase. From then on, the printer makers are in profit.

Customers fight back against rip-off branded cartridges by buying third-party ink. There are replacement cartridges and kits that allow you to top-up the ink in a cartridge.

Printer makers used to argue third-party ink would damage printers. That’s perverse: it takes five or six refills to damage a print head. Given the low cost of printer hardware and the huge savings from third-party ink, customers come out ahead if they regularly upgrade printers – and there’s the bonus of newer technology.

Printer makers are on firmer ground when they say third-party ink gives low-quality results. We get through a lot of ink in our business – paperless publishing works up to a point, but we still need to print frequent proofs. In my experience third-party ink is fine for documents, but lousy for printing photos.

Kindle Paperwhite pushes ads, still best e-ink Kindle to own

Amazon’s “Ad-supported” approach would quickly wear thin with me. Mind you paying US$20 to remove advertising seems reasonable – a 15% premium over the free version.

It brings up an interesting point. If the lifetime value of ads on a reading device is worth just US$20 to Amazon, which is in the business of flogging stuff online, it says a lot about the what’s going on in the world of advertising supported online newspapers and magazines.

The great ebook price swindle only scratches the surface

A year ago Dan Gilmor complained about greedy US publishers forcing ebook prices to climb by between 30 and 50%.

In the US electronic books are now priced at the same, sometimes higher, than the hardback version of the same book. As Gilmore points out, this is a terrible deal because unlike physical books, you can’t resell, trade or give away your finished ebook.

The same dumb thinking is at work in the music and movie industries where digital media costs as much as physical media.

I’ve made this argument before, I’ll make it again. Printers use raw materials and machines to make physical books, CDs or DVDs. They package and ship them to warehouses before shipping again to stores.

Factories, packaging companies, shipping firms, wholesalers and retailers all clip the ticket. These are input costs and they’re not cheap, they can account for over half the retail cost.

While we can understand publishers wanting to recoup some of the cost-cutting benefit from digital media, they can’t expect to have it all. Doing so has three direct consequences:

  • Consumers see high prices as a rip-off. This has the knock-on effect of undermining otherwise valid moral arguments against copyright piracy.
  • It slows migration from the old low margin physical model to the new higher margin model. Why would consumers choose what is still an inferior experience when the cost of hardware plus higher cost of media makes it more expensive?
  • Reduced sales mean set-up costs of a book, CD or DVD are spread over fewer purchases. Surely this is a time when publishers need to seed the market.

At the start of 2013 we’re at a point where the decline in printed book sales has stabilized while the hitherto triple-digit growth in ebook sales has fallen to a still impressive 34%. And sales of ebook readers plunged 36% in 2012.

So where do we go from here? Will publishers cut ebook prices sharing some of the extra margin with their customers or will they paint themselves into a corner?

Livescribe Sky passes real world test

Preiously I reviewed the Livescribe Sky SmartPen at home, how does it fare in action? To find out I took it to Telecom’s Windows Phone 8 press conference.

Livescribe Pulse SmartPen has been my main note taking device for the last two years. I use it at press events, seminars, summits and conferences over the years. The Pulse is an essential part of my toolkit.

My technique is to take limited, staccato notes, usually one per idea. I mark key passages and juicy quotes while recording audio.

Monday’s press conference presented a challenge. The event involved seven speakers along with two or three short videos in a presentation lasting about 40 minutes.

The room was about the size of a tennis court, with a low ceiling. It opened on to a noisy atrium – the doors to the atrium were opened for some of the time and, unusually given the size of the crowd, the speakers didn’t use microphones and amplification.

Not great conditions, an ideal testing laboratory

All of this meant the recording conditions were not great. The Pulse would have handled it, but what about the newer pen?

One surprise was you can’t use the new pen with the earlier pen’s headset. That’s a pity because the headset has microphones built into each earplug, which can do a better job of capturing sound in a noisy room. Luckily it wasn’t necessary.

It did well. The Sky pen captured everything. While there were a few missed or unclear words, I could easily hear all the important parts in my 39 minute recording. Just as before I could tap the written words on the notebook page and the audio would jump to that point.

The pen was comfortable to use the whole time. Note taking was straightforward. I left the event feeling confident, but the real proof would come later when it was time to play things back.

SmartPen Lessons

As my earlier review mentions, the new desktop software for using the audio is not as good as the earlier stand-alone application. Rather than struggle to make sense of the new software, I played the audio back directly from the pen.

The pen has a built-in speaker. It is not loud and anyway it would disturb others working here so I hunted out a headset that was compatible with the new pen. Everything was fine, it took a few minutes to write-up my notes. The new pen works just as well as the older model.

I already mentioned that I didn’t attempt using the software to get my work done. When I checked later the file was stored in Evernote, it’ll be there if I need it in future. That’s good. I also didn’t test the Wi-Fi because although the Telecom’s building is equipped, the set-up procedure is fiddly, I was too busy talking to people to worry about organising it any anyway, it wasn’t necessary. I’ll give it a proper work out when I next go to a seminar.

My earlier review gave the pen a tentative thumbs up. I’m much happier now to say the Sky a worthy successor to the Livescribe Pulse. This is one tool I want to keep.

Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi SmartPen a powerful tool

While Livescribe didn’t design the Livescribe Sky for journalists, there are times when it feels that way.

The pen is a powerful tool for anyone who needs to take notes. Sadly the latest Livescribe Sky version needs work before it will live up to its predecessor’s reputation. 

Livescribe SkyLivescribe’s Sky WiFi Smartpen lets you write ink note on special notepaper while recording what is being said. The notes upload directly to the internet when you can read them back and step through the recorded audio in sync with the written words.

Sky is an updated take on the original Livescribe Pulse SmartPen reviewed here two years ago. At the time I described the pen as a paperless journalist’s dream. It would be fair to say it changed the way I work. More about that later.

You still use pens?

Pens and paper are unfashionable in an age of smartphones, tablets and laptops. In many situation they are still the best way to take quick notes. Journalists often have to stand around for impromptu press briefings, speak to people on the hop in the back of cabs, in bars or cafes. Whipping a laptop out isn’t always practical.

And, here’s the big point, laptops, smartphones or traditional voice recorders create a barrier between the journalist and the interviewee. They switch into formal communications mode. A pen and pad rarely triggers the same reaction. I’m not out to trick people, but I find they relax and talk like humans when I use a pen in an interview.

Where Livescribe scores

Livescribe’s pen and paper approach has another advantage. My shorthand was always atrocious – work pressure meant I never finished the training course as a junior journalist. At first I made the mistake of taking shorthand notes with the pen. Now I don’t bother.

Once you get used to the technology, you realise you no longer have to capture every spoken word with ink. Instead, you can just write brief notes, markers if you like, indicating which bits of audio are worth winding back to. This simplifies the task enormously, so I can concentrate on what’s being said, think up fresh questions and so on.

Big pen

Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

Physically the LiveScribe Sky is the size and weight of a large fountain pen. There’s a small ball-point at the sharp end, the other end has sockets for a USB cable and a headphone jack. Along the flattened shaft there’s a microphone, speaker, a OLED display and an on-off button. Once switched on, you use it just like an everyday pen.

Well, not an everyday pen. It needs special paper – which comes in a variety of notebooks and notepads. They’re more expensive than standard paper, but you don’t use as much. I estimate I spend about NZ$15 a year on the paper. If you’re pushed you can print your own paper.

Easy to use, not idiot proof

Using Livescribe is simply enough. You switch it on, tap the button at the bottom of the page to start recording then start writing. The pen remembers which audio is recorded at the same time as which piece of text, so you’ll need to make reasonable notes. I focus on speaker names and key words.

Over the years I must have recorded 50 or so sessions with my earlier pen, two failed. In both cases I forgot to hit the start recording button. The pen’s display tells you when it is recording, so I now make a point of checking this two or three times just to make sure.

What does Wi-Fi bring?

Less and more than I hoped. The good thing about Wi-Fi is you don’t need to struggle to find the pen cradle – which was the case with older SmartPens. On the other hand those earlier Livescribe pens would run for days at a time without needing a recharge. I used it to record an intense three-day conference and still only used about a third of the battery charge.

Wi-Fi can chew through batteries at an alarming rate. Testing at home indicates it should be good for about a day’s work between charges. Which means you may need to carry the USB charging cable and top up power. The USB cable also comes to your rescue if you don’t have a good Wi-Fi connection. Overall, I’d say Wi-Fi takes as much as it gives. Your needs may be different.

One of my favourite uses for the Livescribe pen is covering press conferences and seminars. If you’re in a venue with Wi-Fi you can sync locally and have the files sitting ready for you when you get to a computer. The Sky is great for travelling light and I’ve even had it working with my iPad.

Software changes

Previously you needed a separate desktop application. The latest version works with Evernote, an otherwise excellent cloud application that I need to get around to writing about. Sadly this is a step backwards for Livescribe. It feels like beta software.

One great feature of the earlier software was a handwriting recognition add-on app called MyScript, which could turn my written notes into text. My writing is awful Evernote claims to do handwriting recognition, in practice it scored a big fat zero dealing with my scrawl – MyScript fared better.

Finding stuff is harder in Evernote. Text and audio integration is less complete and clumsy. I had difficulty playing sound files on my PC – luckily you can play them back directly from the pen. Frankly, if Livescribe stuck with its own software this would be a glowing review, it isn’t. Make no mistake, the Livescribe Sky is impressive, the software feels under-cooked.

Livescribe Sky verdict

Despite misgivings about the software, the Livescribe Sky remains a powerful tool. It does things tablets can’t. It is essential if you’re a journalist, student or someone who needs to take lots of notes while working. Wi-Fi is a nice feature, but  not essential. The software badly needs updating.

With Livescribe Sky prices starting at NZ$274, this isn’t an impulse buy although I can’t function at maximum efficiency without one. If you like the idea, consider the earlier Livescribe Echo at NZ$190 – it doesn’t have WiFi, but uses the older software which is more reliable and consistent.