King Camp Gillette died in 1932. The firm he started began in 1901. If you are like most folks, you've never heard of this self-made entrepreneur, but if you own a computer, then a business practice he pioneered is costing you.
Gillette (that's an early pack of his blades below which you can buy from www.ruby- lane.com s site) started a company which virtually gave away the handles for safety razors (that's right, Gillette Razors, still alive and well today as a unit of Cincinnati's Procter & Gamble) while he made his money on cheap, but easily-dulled blades — blades which only lasted a day or three under harsh shaving conditions and thus needed to be bought and bought and bought for that free handle to be of any use.
It's the same game computer users are playing now when we get a cheap or even "free" printer when we buy that Mac or pc. Why? Because like Gillette the big printer manufacturing firms (think HP, Canon and Epson for just three "biggies" though there are others) know that if you use their printer, you also will need their ink...and they are playing a myriad of games to make sure you use it — often at a cost that's higher per ounce than French Champagne! Read that again, because it's sadly true.
There are a variety of ploys and come-ons to get you (and I) to pay that inflated price, too. One is filling those "starter" cartridges which come with your printer "free" with so little ink that you'll only get 20 or 30 copies before you'll have to hustle out to the office supply for more "genuine" (fill in name of brand here) ink.
Another game being played is selling the same cartridges the firms did five, 10 or 15 years ago, but with 50% or less of the amount of ink they used to contain. The Guardian, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the UK, recently did an ink expose and found HP cartridges with 50% or less of their "old" ink amounts and one Epson color cartridge which went from 16 ml of ink in the 2002 to one the same size, but a different model number, which held just 3.5 ml of ink in 2008. The firms claim new techniques mean we need less ink for the same images. The consumer watchdogs beg to differ.
Need more proof King Gillette is alive and well?
Well step up and buy an XL cartridge. What's that? Well in too many cases one with more ink than in a "regular" one, but roughly the same size and shape to fit that printer. What's funny is now many (not all) of the XL cartridges contain (wait for it) the same amount of ink regular ones originally did.
Then there's this: Just about the time we consumers started wising up to the rising cost of ink, along came ink refill kits and companies like downtown Indianapolis' Cartridge World, where manager Brent Evans (at right) went over some of the other "games" being played — games we consumers generally can't win.
First and foremost is the addition a few years back of "chips" embedded in cartridges. This might seem pretty benign, and in truth they are used to let the computer know the printer is out of ink. Still pretty innocuous, right? Yes, until the consumer discovers that once the chip detects the cartridge is empty, it cannot be refilled by him or a firm like Cartridge World because if it is, the chip will continue to send the "empty" message until it's replaced by the manufacturer so the printer will refuse to work! The only way manufacturers would like you to find around this would be to go to the local office supply and buy a brand new "original" cartridge with a new embedded chip at whatever price they want to charge us.
Fortunately, Evans told us, places like Cartridge World and other refillers can decode those chips and reprogram or replace them so cartridges can be refilled cheaper, but it doesn't happen overnight.
"Generally, it takes us six to nine months to work out the codes, since every set of printers has new cartridges — each with new codes. We need to decipher those to make them work again," he said, adding that he'd only recently received store brand refills of one popular cartridge he's been getting a lot of calls for. "The printer came out last year, but it's taken us this long to figure out the codes to make refills work," he added.
There are other tricks we consumers are having foisted off on us as well. Probably worst (The Guardian research mentioned this and Evans confirmed it for us as being the case in the U.S. as well as Britain), is the tri-color cartridge. This, on the surface, seems a great idea. Instead of multiple cartridges to print each color and black, a single one holds all of the different inks. The consumer appeal is obvious — not as much work to change, easy to obtain and replacing three with one — all seem like grand ideas. The problems though are that in that small cartridge there's only space for a very limited amount of each color ink and (here's the kicker) once one color is gone, the whole thing quits working. That means paying for a replacement and the throwing away of a lot of perfectly good and costly ink which could have been used. Gotcha!
Evans also said the tri-color cartridges employ "another trick the manufacturers have because even if you only print black, some of the colored inks are used to make it look right so even if you only use it for black and white documents, you will soon find yourself out of color inks you never thought you were using." Gotcha again!
There's also the issue of how many "impressions" you can expect from a cartridge. While many makers of printers will give an "estimated life," the local refiller noted "if you read the fine print that's for 1/3 coverage."
What that means is that roughly 33% of each page will be printed in what the makers term "average use." If you print color photos from the family's trip or recipes which have pictures or anything else which covers a good deal of the page with ink, that estimated number of pages the cartridge will print could be decreased by 50% or more. It's one thing to print reports and stock tables, but something entirely different to do color business cards or holiday letters, though few consumers know it and companies don't much like us to ask, either.
Finally there are two other options to get around the high cost of ink, and not only does Evans caution against them, but this writer does as well after having tried both.
One is refilling your own cartridges. Stores from discounters to office supply houses offer do-it-yourself kits which supposedly contain enough ink to fill anywhere from four to 20 cartridges, but the experiences we have had with them have been disasters — from leaked ink to printer damage.
And the final option is, we have found, little better: ordering cheap cartridges on the internet. Unless you know the supplier and are sure they do it right, this also can spell costly disaster. The time we tried it landed our HP laser printer in the repair shop plus it took months to get the leaked magenta toner powder out of our office carpet and clothing — not to mention whatever residual health damage we did bv breathing it meantime.
At least we were lucky — the website where we bought the defective toner made good and we ended up (after a months-long battle involving our credit card company) getting a full refund, but it was hardly worth it given the cost of printer repairs and mess.
So what to do?
First, go into those "free" or cheap printers with your eyes open. Remember King Gillette.
Second, if you print a lot invest in a laser printer which will get many more prints per cartridge than ink jets do, meaning the cost per page will be far, far less. Thirdly, do as so many e-mails nowadays advice — ONLY print things you need in hard copy. Otherwise, save it to a PDF on your computer and archive the document that way. It's fast and free.
And finally, if you already are stuck with an ink jet printer get Evans at Cartridge World or one of his ilk to refill cartridges for you. Cost will be 25-50% less than buying new and they are trained to do it right. We never knew it before, but over-filling a cartridge may sound like a good idea, but in truth not knowing what you are doing and putting in loo much toner or ink will cause as great of an expensive mess as putting in too little.
This is a case where the experts really are worth consulting but I do recommend you drive past the office supply and leave the overpriced "original manufacturers'" cartridges on the shelf. Besides, wouldn't you rather have champagne? I would!