A S C R A P B O O K O F S O L U T I O N S F O R T H E P H O T O G R A P H E R
Reviews of photography products that enhance the enjoyment of taking pictures. Published frequently but irregularly.
16 August 2013
We couldn't help it. Among the reader reports at MacInTouch, there was a request for a recommendation for an inkjet printer. We clicked. We read it. We sighed.
The inquiry listed four criteria, which we'll quote:
Doesn't burn through ink "unnecessarily" through daily automatic cleaning routines
Has a good mechanical build quality
Can handle a variety of paper stocks, including photo paper
Has a reasonable cost of ink replacement and has not been engineered to shut out third-party inks/cartridges
He's not going to be happy, we thought, but the only thing he can do is pick up any current all-in-one and live with it. While the jury is still out on our pick, we'd point him to the Canon Pixmas for their build quality, since he mentioned that.
But he's not going to be happy because his expectations aren't realistic. They represent misconceptions about inkjet printing.
Which is where we come in. He raises issues that any consumer would find compelling. And why manufacturers don't appear interested in addressing them is what reviewers like us are here to explain.
We've sat through some fascinating slide shows with HP explaining ink formulations, lectures with Epson on delivering ink to the sheet and interviewed chemists at Kodak on its proprietary inkjet technology. And we've spent years using (and testing) inkjets from all-in-one devices to models designed for fine art printing.
So let's look at the issues he raises.
It's true that inkjets will clean the nozzles in their print heads by flushing ink through them periodically. The less you use your printer, the more it has to flush.
It's simply printer hygiene.
If you use a power strip to power your printer on and off, you prevent the printer from performing its shutdown routine, which involved moving the print head to a service area where the nozzles are covered to prevent drying out.
If you use your printer weekly, you won't see much nozzle flushing. But each time you turn it on, it will perform a startup routine that flushes the nozzles.
We'd point out that this nozzle flushing saves you paper by flushing the dried up ink onto the unit's service pad instead of expensive photo paper. But the real benefit is that it keeps the print head healthy. Which is why when you run out of ink in one of the cartridges, printers won't print anything at all.
They're doing you a favor.
To keep costs down, manufacturers design these beasts with the least number of parts. Except for Epson. But the more functions a device has (scanner, fax, printer, CD printing), the more parts it has.
Today's inkjets (thanks to reliance on fewer parts) are very reliable, much more so than our old LaserJet which, though built like a tank, scares us each time it sends a sheet of paper through.
But even more significantly, the cost of replacement is less than the cost of repair. Inkjets are inexpensive. Buy two.
Any inkjet available today is capable of printing glossy and semi-glossy photo paper. Most today also handle CD/DVD printing (but look for discs that are waterproof).
What they can't handle is fine art media which is much thicker than even stiff photo paper. None of them can handle those sheets. If you want to print on fine art paper, get a nice 13x19-inch printer.
Sure, you can buy discount ink. It's cheaper. Why buy what the manufacturer makes you pay more for?
Actually there are several very good reasons.
Dye-based Ink. Unless you score an old Kodak EasyShare all-in-one, your inkjet is going to use dye-based inks. If you try to use those dye inks on "instant dry" porous paper, the image will fade like a tan after you come home from vacation. Dyes require a swellable gel coated sheet, normally a glossy photo paper, to encapsulate them and protect them.
This presents an interesting chemical issue. On the one hand, you want the ink to have a long shelf life in the cartridge (six months is the target). But you want it to be able to get through a very small nozzle (one or two picoliters). And you want it to include a vehicle that will both swell the paper and evaporate quickly (you have to wait 24 hours before you handle a dye print). The dye itself may be the least of your worries.
So that's a complicated chemical specification that tends to require over a dozen ingredients.
Ink/Paper Profiles. The printer manufacturer has developed both the paper and ink to meet those requirements. And provided an ICC profile in its software so your image conforms to the possibilities of its ink and paper combination.
And you want to substitute a cheaper ink.
You can use a third-party paper if the manufacturer supplies an ICC profile for that printer (and guess who's ink). If there's no such ICC profile, pass on it.
You can use a third-party ink if it turns out to be exactly the same chemical formulation as the printer manufacturer. You know, from the factory that makes it for the printer, just using their own label. Good luck confirming that, though.
All the ICC profiles for any paper (in this case, photo papers) assume the printer is loaded with the printer manufacturer's inks, which are consistent from batch to batch. So it would be foolish to think about putting anything else in the printer unless you like surprises on expensive paper.
Page Setup. And that assumes to begin with that you're telling the print driver what kind of paper it's printing on. How much ink the printer lays down depends on whether it's printing to plain paper (a lot) or photo paper (less).
Plain paper (or matte photo paper) soaks up a lot of ink so to get adequate coverage, the printer has to lay down a lot more ink that it would for a swellable sheet whose surface absorbs very little ink.
Warnings. Another thing to remember is that low ink warnings are just warnings. They aren't nefarious warnings. Printing with no ink in a cartridge can damage the print head, which can make many printers (those without replaceable heads) disposable.
But it's safe to keep printing despite the warning (often you just have to click OK to continue) until you see a problem as long as you replace the cartridge right after the ink runs out. You'll lose a sheet of paper but you won't damage the print head.
Permanence. Another (if rarely acknowledged) problem with third-party inks is permanence. Wilhelm Imaging Research has researched the problem and published its results. It's all bad news.
Comparing Epson inks to Office Depot inks on each company's paper, for example, Wilhelm found the Epson combo would survive 105 years under glass while the Office Depot combo would last just 0.8 years. And that was four times better than a Chinese brand combo.
Inkjet printing is expensive (which is why we funnel all our black and white printing to that old LaserJet). That's just a fact of life. If you want to print in glorious color (and it is pretty), you have pay the piper.
Don't use a power strip's on/off switch. Print something weekly (or so). Use the manufacturer's inks. Make sure you have an ICC profile for any photo paper you put through it. Set your printer driver accordingly. Keep printing when your printer complains a cartridge is "almost" out of ink.
And live happily every after.