Adventures in Printerland

By | Wednesday, February 22, 2006 at 7:32 pm

I have recently been experimenting with a lot of different options in inkjet printers.  I currently have three of them, all from different manufacturers–Lexmark, Epson, and Canon.  We’ve also had a lot of need to print a lot of scanned and digital photos, so as you can imagine the ink consumption has been large.  Below are my experiences with each printer.

INK

First of all, let’s discuss the ink issue.  This can be the most expensive part about having an inkjet, but it can be minimized quite a bit more than you might think.  Up until a few months ago I was dead set against refilling ink cartridges, but due to my recent financial difficulties I’ve had to re-think a lot of expenses, and ink was one of them.  A customer of mine pointed me to Printpal, a great printer ink source on the web.  They sell name-brand ink cartridges for a few dollars less that the lowest store prices, normally, which didn’t impress me much, but what sold me was their “generic” compatible cartridges–they are often 1/2 the price of the name-brand equivalents and they’re exactly same–or supposedly better than the manufacturer’s cartridges, as far as ink goes.

Using generic ink cartridges on all three of my inkjet printers I saved a lot of money, and the print quality was identical as far as I could tell, to the name-brand cartridges I had always bought before.  I’ll definitely never buy name-brand ink cartridges again, as long as these generics exist.  This is a good option for ink, if you want to save a lot of money over time, but ink costs can still add up, so I kept looking to save more.

Next, I picked up a couple of “Universal” (that’s the brand name) refill kits from Walmart.  This, as I mentioned, is something I swore I’d never do, but now I’m actually open to it if it can work, save me a lot of money, and not permanently damage my printers.  I first attempted to refill my Epson Stylus CX4600’s ink cartridges.  The reference book that comes with each refill kit lists hundreds of printers and cartridges and provides instructions for each detailing how to open them up and/or access their refill holes, and in some cases even MAKE your own refill holes for those cartridges that are well-sealed.  All of the necessary tools are provided, however, including a hole-making tool.

But what they don’t tell you before you buy them is that some printers–and my Epson CX4600 is one of those–have ink cartridges that include “Smart Chips”.  These chips actually count the number of “microdots” each cartridge and color has printed, and this is supposed to allow them to accurately determine the remaining ink in the cartridge.  So in this case, refilling these cartridges would do absolutely no good.  The smart chip would still tell the printer that the ink was empty, and you still wouldn’t be able to print with it.  For these types of printers, the same company, Universal, sells a smart chip “resetter” for an additional fee.  This allows you to reset that microdot counter so you can reuse your cartridges.

I didn’t feel like it was worth it to order the chip resetter for the extra fee, so I decided to skip trying to refill the Epson’s ink and I moved on to my Lexmark X5150.  I would have preferred to do it on the Epson, since it has four separate inks cartridges.  You can only refill one color at a time with the kit anyway (unless you buy multiple kits), since the syringe needs to be rinsed, cleaned and dried before being reused on another color, so separate inks would have been easier, but no such luck.  The Lexmark X5150 has one 3-color cartridge and one black cartridge.  But it doesn’t have a smart chip, so it’s good for an easy refill.  The top of the cartrdge was also fairly easy to remove, using the instructions provided in the refill kit’s book.  Using a pen-knife you simply pop off the top, which reveals the refill holes.  The book shows a diagram as well, detailing exactly which refill holes to use for each color.  This is where the separate cartridges would have come in handy.  But it’s easy enough to orient the cartridge properly with the photo in the book and use the appropriate hole to refill the necessary color.

The refill kits can become a bit messy, so if you use them I’d have a lot of napkins or disposable towels handy, and make sure your layers of them are very thick in your immediate work area.  A few drops of this ink can and will seep through a 5 or 6 napkin stack with ease, so pile it on, or use something that doesn’t absorb so well.  It can also stain your hands quite well, so be careful.  But in the end, unless you totally screw up this refill process, it works quite well.  I was surprised at first, but now it’s fairly routine, and I no longer get the least bit disturbed when my Lexmark runs out of a color.  I simply pull out the refill kit and go to work refilling.  It ends up saving me a LOT of money, so I think it’s well worth it.

One additional note while I’m talking about the refill kits–The colors themselves, while within their transparent bottles, look like they should–Magenta looks pink, Cyan looks blue and black looks black–but yellow is the exception to the rule, and it confused me a bit.  Yellow looks pink in the bottle, very close the the magenta.  And a few drops on a napkin look orange.  But when used in an ink cartridge it is definitely yellow, so this is apparently normal.

PRINTERS

Let’s start with the worst one:  The Epson Stylus CX4600.  FIrst of all, I got this printer for free from a customer who just didn’t like it.  It was brand new too.  My customer had another CX4600 that was defective, and it was returned and exchanged for another identical one, but in the end they just didn’t like this model, so they gave it to me.  It worked great at first, probably for about a month.  The scanner is excellent, and very quiet when scanning.  The scan quality as well as the print quality was very good, and the multi-card reader also worked great.  This printer seemed great, as I said–for about a month.

First I ran into the smart chip issue, so that’s one minus.  That wasn’t so bad though, just more of an inconvenience.  I bought a few spare generic cartridges from PrintPal for about $6.95 each, just to have them onhand.  But next, a color stopping working.  The ink warning showed it still half full, and I took it out and shook it and could feel and hear that there was still a lot of ink left in it, so I assumed clogged nozzles.  This seemed odd though, since everything looked clean and clear, and it even splashed out ink when I tapped it on a napkin.  The CX4600’s nozzles are internal though, and not on the cartridge, so they could still be clogged.  I ran several cleanings with no luck.  Not a drop of that color (cyan) would come out at all.  I googled this printer model and problem and found several other people with the same issue.  Apparently it’s common for a pump in this model to fail, causing this problem.  Great, no more cyan.  I have a paperweight as far as printing goes.

I didn’t give up just yet though.  I kept trying to print, time and time again, to no avail.  In fact, after a few more days of trying, another color died, again with ink still left in it and a smart chip that was now as dumb as a door knob.  Two down, two to go.  Within a few days the last two colors died as well, and I can now print awesome pages of our most-recent snow storm with ease–solid white pages are all I ever get.  And just for the heck of it I even threw in 4 brand new cartridges.  Again, just white pages.  This printer is now only good for scanning and media card reading and nothing else.

The next printer I’ll discuss is the Lexmark X5150.  I’ve had just the opposite experience with this one.  It has performed flawlessly for quite some time.  It is also–like the Epson was–an all-in-one Printer/Copier/Scanner.  Plus, I’ve been refilling the ink cartridges on this one with ease, and it’s been going great.  This printer has just worked wonders for me, and I once felt that the one 3-color cartridge was a bad thing, but since I can now refill individual colors on it this is no longer an issue.  Plus, this printer’s cartridges have the nozzles built into the cartridges.  So if they should dry out you can pop the cartridge out and clean off the nozzles, or if they are completely dried closed you can just buy a new cartridge instead of an entirely new printer.  This “nozzles-on-the-cartridge” type of ink system costs more when buying cartridges, but when you consider the savings you get through PrintPal or by simply refilling them compared to ending up with a total paperweight when your printer-internal nozzles completely dry up, it’s well worth it.  That’s about it for the Lexmark–it’s by far my favorite inkjet model yet.

The last printer I have is the Canon S300.  This is one of those “throw-in” printers that come with an entire computer system.  Separately they sell for about $49.  Just a basic inkjet (or in this case I think they call it a bubble jet), with nothing special.  But it’s still printing, so as a printer it certainly beats my Epson CX4600!  It has also sat for about 6 months in my basement, but was recently put back into action on my stepson’s computer, and it has “come back” very nicely.  Several clogged nozzles at first, but a set of new cartridges and printing about 20 multi-colored pages restored it’s printing ability to as good as it was when I first got it.  Not bad for a bottom-of-the-line printer.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So in the end, here are my recommendations if you’re in the market for a new printer:

Make sure the ink cartridges include the nozzles, and not just big ink holes.
If possible, get a printer with separate, individual inks–if they still have the nozzles on the cartridges.
Be careful of the printer model you get. Find a model you like and google it for problems before buying.
Get what you need–if you don’t need an all-in-one you can probably get a really nice print-only model.
Refilling works, and does save you a lot of money, but it can be messy.  If you’re careful though, it’s not bad.
Seriously consider PrintPal or another supplier that sells generic cartridges.  They work well, and it’s just not worth it to pay full price just for a brand name.