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Review: Epson’s New Inkjet Printers Eliminate Cartridges, Save You $500 a Year

David Pogue
Tech Critic

You want to complain about the price of gasoline or milk or Champagne? Forget it. The most expensive liquid you buy is inkjet ink. HP’s 60XL cartridge, for example, contains half an ounce of black ink and costs $32. That’s about $8,200 a gallon.

No surprise there. Everyone knows how the inkjet industry works. It’s the razors/razor-blade model: You buy the printer for cheap — say, $70 — and then they gouge you with obscenely inflated ink prices.

How do printer executives look at themselves in the mirror?!

That’s not the only inkjet outrage. Over the years, the inkjet companies have steadily decreased the amount of ink you get in each cartridge. They want you to keep coming back to the well to buy more cartridges. More and more and more. 

It actually gets worse yet. Consumer Reports figured out that as much as half the ink on your cartridge never winds up on the page: It gets squirted out to unclog the print heads or gets soaked up by sponges.

To the printer companies, we’re a bunch of sheep with Visa cards.

So: Inkjet cartridges are expensive, inconvenient, an environmental idiocy, and — above all — they’re just evil. They represent the worst kind of business model: consumer manipulation. It works out great for the printer companies — to the tune of $36 billion a year, according to Infotrends.

But what choice do we have?

If you’re willing to invalidate your printer’s warranty and risk occasional duds, you can save some money by buying generic ink. The debate rages online over whether those unauthorized cartridges are or are not inferior to the brand-name ones.

But Epson, the number two inkjet-printer company (after HP), has what may be the best idea of all: Take the razors/blades business model out back and shoot it.

The EcoTank Idea

“We will agree with the criticism that we’re not giving inkjet users a choice,” an Epson product manager told me. 

So the company has now decided to chomp the hand that feeds it by offering a radical new business model.

Its new EcoTank printers don’t require any tiny, expensive cartridges. Instead, they come with entire bottles of ink, which you use to fill entire tanks of ink. We’re talking a huge amount of ink in each bottle — on average, two years’ worth, Epson says.

The printer itself costs more than the cheapo models — because this time, Epson isn’t selling it at a loss that it hopes to make up in cartridge sales. This time, you’re buying the printer instead of signing a promissory note to pay Epson forever for its expensive ink. 

You’re saying, “Sell me the printer for what it really costs, and sell me the ink for what it really costs.”

If you’re willing to make that deal, you’ll save a ton of money in the long run.

The happy math

All five of Epson’s new printers are “all-in-one” machines — that is, they’re also color copiers and scanners. All five are wireless.

The starter model, the ET-2500, costs $380. It comes with enough ink for 6,500 color pages.

On a comparable $70 inkjet printer, you’d need about 20 sets of $40 ink cartridges to print that much. So the economics look like this:

Cost for 6,500 color pages:

  • EcoTank printer + ink: $380
  • Standard printer + cartridges: $870

If you take the printer’s price out of the equation and look only at the ink, the savings get even better. A replacement set of EcoTank bottles goes for $52. (You can buy them individually for $13 each.) That’s another 6,500 pages.

Ink cost for 6,500 color pages:

  • Epson bottles: $52
  • Cartridges: $800

If you buy the office model I tested, the ET-4550, the savings are even more compelling. This printer costs $500, but it’s a much higher-end machine. It comes with a 2.2-inch screen, a keypad, two-sided printing, an Ethernet jack, faxing, and two sets of ink bottles, good for a total of 8,500 color pages or 11,000 printed in black ink. 

So:

Cost for 8,500 color pages

  • Epson 4550 + ink: $500
  • Standard printer + cartridges: $2,070

Epson says, with some satisfaction, that no other company will be coming out with tank-based printers any time soon. That’s because Epson inkjets use micropiezo print heads that stay in the printer forever. HP and Canon use thermal print heads instead. Because the latter heat up to insane temperatures for printing, they degrade over time. So printer vendors build those print heads into the cartridges. You throw them away with every cartridge.

The printer itself

Each of these Epson printers costs about $300 more than the equivalent in the razor/blade universe. So, for example, the $500 ET-4550 office printer isn’t as fast or full-featured as a bleed-you-dry-on-cartridges printer in the same price range. (For example, though it can print double-sided, it can’t scan double-sided. And the paper tray holds only 150 sheets.)

The 4550 isn’t barn-rippingly speedy, either. A full-page glossy photo took my test unit 3 minutes to print. A page of business graphics took 12 seconds. A black-and-white page, 6 seconds.

Those printouts do look great. Black-and-white pages look like laser prints; glossy photos look spectacular.

These printers are Wi-Fi compatible, and the more expensive models offer AirPrint, too, meaning you can print to them directly from an iPhone or iPad. Scanning and copying is easy and quick. These printers are unusually small for what they do. And the tanks are translucent, so you can eyeball how much more ink you have to use.

The complete EcoTank lineup ranges from $380 for the home model to $1,200 for the towering, heavy-duty, high-volume WF-R4640 business printer. (It comes with even bigger bottles that fill even bigger tanks — 20,000 color pages’ worth — and is designed to compete with color laser printers.)

I see three downsides to this whole EcoTank business. 

First, once every couple of years, you’ll have to fill up the tanks with new bottles. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s not as easy as snapping in a new cartridge. (The instructions suggest that you wear rubber gloves and put paper underneath in case you spill, but I managed to do the job without spilling a drop. Maybe I’m just gifted.)

Second, You can’t really turn an EcoTank printer on its side, because the ink might spill.

Third: During printing, a scrolling message on the 4550’s screen says, over and over, “Check your ink levels regularly.” 

Come on, Epson. Plenty of printers can monitor their own ink levels. Besides: Doggone it, isn’t the whole reason I bought into this whole EcoTank thing to eliminate that kind of anxiety?

The American challenge

The EcoTank printers are new to America, but Epson says they’ve sold well in Europe. I suspect one reason for the delay is that Epson was facing a psychological challenge here: Americans are terrible at making short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.

There’s lots of research, for example, on how little we save for retirement, how poorly we eat for long-term health, and how unwilling we are to change our behavior to save the planet.

If you’re rational, you’ll see immediately that paying Epson $380 for a “$70” home printer is actually a terrific deal — because you’ll save at least $500 the first year, and $750 every two years thereafter.

I suspect many people, though, will stand there in the Best Buy, looking only at those price tags — $380 versus $70 — and make the foolish short-term decision. (Epson realizes this, too. That’s why its cartridge printers will remain on the market.)

But that’s really too bad. Epson should be rewarded for sticking its corporate neck out and offering an alternative to the hateful, usurious, insulting inkjet-cartridge scam.  

If you are able to let your brain overrule your short-term American heart, you’ll realize some other benefits to the EcoTank concept, too. For example, you may never again have one of those “Dang it!” moments of running out of ink halfway through a project on deadline. It’s the same feeling of liberation you get when you move from a minutes-per-month cellphone plan to an unlimited one.

Nor will you ever throw away perfectly good $8,200-a-gallon ink cartridge because one color has run out. And you’ll spare the landfill dozens of little plastic cartridges a year.

With this bold initiative, Epson is offering to change the game — for our benefit. Let’s hope Americans are willing to play.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments below.