Tech Talk: Cartridge cases

BACK in the 80s, computer types evangelised about the paperless office. One day, they said, all communication would be electronic.

Well, it is now – and yet we still seem to be knee-deep in paper. While this is bad for the planet, it’s very good indeed for the companies who make their money selling printers – and even more money flogging the ink cartridges to go inside them.

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Colour inkjet printers now cost as little as £30 for a decent basic model, yet you’ll pay nearly as much again every time you need to refill one – and you may be doing so more often than you need. The main manufacturers, Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark, have invested heavily in developing inks to make the print quality as good as it is (and in the case of Canon and Epson, it’s very good indeed) so it’s reasonable that they see a fair return. But are their cartridges really so much better than the cheaper ones in supermarkets and online? Well, no; on an average text printout the difference isn’t noticeable. What is noticeable is the number of pages you can print before the ink runs out, because third-party cartridges, despite their lower cost, sometimes contain twice as much ink.

Armed with this information, you might be tempted never to buy an “official” cartridge again – but the printer makers have ways of twisting your arm. In particular, some attach microchips to their own cartridges and programming the printers not to work if they don’t detect the right one. Yet incredibly, this sophisticated technology can (sometimes) be defeated simply by prising the microchip off an old cartridge and sticking it to a new one with a bit of double-sided tape.

Printer makers also like to let you know when the ink is running out so you can send more money their way – but such warnings are often premature. The cartridges can still be a quarter full when the software tells you they’re empty. If you can, uninstall it and keep printing. In any case, it’s good practice to install as few of the programs that came with your printer as possible; most are unnecessary and slow down your PC. Just occasionally, it does make sense to invest in an approved refill, especially if you print high-quality glossy photos or your printer has a non-permanent print head built into the cartridge. But for the rest of the time, print cheaply and be damned.