Many consumers feel they aren’t getting their money’s worth from their ink jet printer. So is the cartridge half full or half empty?

Most people prefer to go easy on the conspiracy theories, but many ink jet printer owners are getting paranoid. There is suspicion that manufacturers are encouraging users to replace ink cartridges long before all the ink inside has been used up. This represents a significant waste of resources and cash, since ink is not cheap to replace.

Ink may go unused, but tests done for Digit’s sister magazine PC World in the US show that most ink jet vendors – at least those who told us what numbers their customers should expect – did deliver on promised quantities of printed pages (page yields).

Nevertheless, some ink jet owners get the sense that they may not be getting all they paid for, and in some instances, consumers are going to court in the belief that printer companies are pressuring them into buying more ink than they really need.

The problem is aggravated if a printer stops functioning when a cartridge's ink level dips to a certain level (as is the case with some Epson and Hewlett-Packard printers), denying users the option of continuing to print after the driver software warns that it's time to replace the cartridge.

Printer companies say that they do this to benefit the customer, because trying to print with cartridges containing too little ink would risk damaging the printer and would produce unacceptably ugly prints.

"If people try to bleed their cartridge dry, then there is a high risk of customer dissatisfaction with printouts and a good chance of causing irreversible damage to the printer," says Pam Barnett, Epson's public relations manager.

Complaints that cartridge buyers are not getting their money's worth are less easily answered, however. Most ink jet printer-manufacturers simply won't say how much usable ink is in their cartridges.

Epson says that it prices cartridges based not on the volume of ink they hold but on how many printed pages they produce. Epson publishes this page yield information online, but some other companies don't say how many pages their cartridges will produce, or make this information difficult to find.

To investigate customers' complaints that printers prematurely force ink cartridge replacement, we enlisted the assistance of the Imaging Products Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which performs independent testing for aftermarket and name-brand ink cartridge manufacturers.

IPL tested five ink jets – one model from each of five major vendors – to determine the page yields of each printer and to see how much ink remained in the cartridge when the printer stopped printing. For each printer, IPL used up five cartridges per colour. US models were tested, but the printers available in Europe use the same technology, even if results are not directly comparable.

Testing yield

IPL tested a Canon i850 Color Bubble Jet Printer (called the i850 in the UK), a Dell A940 Printer, an Epson Stylus C84 (available in the UK), a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 6122, and a Lexmark Z65 Color Jetprinter. Tests bore out the perception that the Epson and Canon printers in particular stop printing while a fair amount of ink remains in the cartridge.

The Stylus C84 on average stopped printing with 20 per cent of the ink left in the cartridge, while the Canon i850 stopped printing with 10 per cent of the ink left. Canon says that it generally strives to leave 6 per cent of a cartridge's ink as a safety margin.

Epson doesn't disclose its target residual ink levels, nor will the company comment on why so high a proportion of the total ink is unused when printing stops. The other printers tested gave low-ink messages but never stopped functioning.

IPL's tests showed that, of the printers that provide yield figures, each produced slightly less black than the vendor had estimated – except the Canon, which over-delivered. On the other hand, the Canon, Epson, and HP printers' colour yields exceeded vendor promises. Lexmark, meanwhile, did not meet its colour yield estimates.

The Epson cartridges we tested have a chip that records the amount of ink used from the cartridge and then alerts the driver software when the ink level reaches a certain point. The software, in turn, prevents you from printing further until you replace the cartridge. Canon printers use an optical sensor to check on ink levels, and the company’s ink tanks don't have smart chips that can prevent printing, so you can continue using the printer even after you receive an out-of-ink warning.

The printheads of the Dell, HP, and Lexmark printers we tested were located on the cartridge, so running their cartridges dry can't harm an integral printer part.

The Epson's printheads are located on the printer, and the Canon's printheads sit on an assembly inside the printer. Vendors say continuing to print with either printer after a cartridge ran dry might introduce air bubbles into the printheads and cause costly damage. A limited number of HP ink jet printers (not tested here) use a smart chip technology similar to Epson's and force you to replace the cartridge when the printer decides it's out of usable ink.

In the dark

In some respects, vendors may have themselves to blame for consumer anger over ink costs. Expenditures on ink jet printer consumables – that is, ink and paper – can easily exceed the cost of the printer within the first year of ownership. But in reviewing how manufacturers present data like page yields per cartridge, we found that important data on consumables is sometimes inconsistent, hard to find, or missing completely.

HP printers do not include ink yield data in their product documentation, but the information is available at HP's Web site. Canon USA did not supply page yield data in the past, but in response to PC World's questions for this article, the company says that it is making the information available to customers on request through its presales or postsales support lines. Lexmark's policy is not to provide yield data to customers, but it soes share it with reviewers. Dell does not provide any yield information.

Dell and Lexmark say that they have chosen not to provide their customers with page yield information because, in the absence of industry-wide standards for testing page yields, such figures would be meaningless.

Ink lawsuits

The relationship between printer makers and some of their customers may be less than picture-perfect across the board, but it seems particularly acrimonious in the case of Epson, which is the target of four lawsuits. – three (in California, Texas, and New York) filed by a single New York law firm, and the other (also in California) filed by a different firm. All seek class-action status, and all accuse Epson of manipulating its printer hardware to notify customers that their ink jet cartridges need to be replaced while a substantial amount of ink remains.

The lawsuits reason that – just as a low-oil light on your car's dashboard doesn't shut down the vehicle's engine – Epson's out-of-ink message shouldn't prevent users from printing when the cartridge evidently still holds a considerable amount of ink.

In a written statement, Epson has asserted that the lawsuits it currently faces are "frivolous" and "without merit," and some industry observers evidently share that view.

"If Epson says that consumers will get 100 printed pages based on its specs, then a consumer will likely get that," says imaging expert Jim Forrest, of Lyra Research. "Yes, there may be some ink left over, but that is by design."

Canon, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark have been targets of consumer grousing over ink, both in the United States and elsewhere. Indignation in recent years has prompted UK and European Union regulators to urge Canon, Epson, HP, and Lexmark to tell consumers more clearly what their long-term printing costs are likely to be.

Standards needed

"Yes, as an industry, we could do a much better job of making page yield and printing costs more transparent," says Boris Elisman, vice president of marketing and sales for Hewlett-Packard. Elisman says efforts are underway to create standards for yield and total cost of ownership.

"Don't hold your breath for standards," says Tricia Judge, executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council, which represents third-party ink manufacturers and vendors. Judge says leading printer makers have been promising standards for the past five years.

Nabil Nasr, director of IPL's test centre, believes page yield data for printers should be as readily available as gas mileage information is for new cars. "Consumers are entitled to know," he says, adding that without this information buyers can't compare the costs of operating competing printers.

Until printer firms make apples-to-apples comparisons of ink yields possible, don't count on getting a lot of help in figuring out what you'll be paying for ink jet ink.