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Author Topic: January 2010: El Cheapo Printers  (Read 19574 times)
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« on: January 05, 2010, 12:22:01 AM »

January 2010: El Cheapo Printers


Background

In today's economy, there is no shortage of inkjet printers that sell for under $100.  Just among the "big three" of Canon, Epson, and HP, there are 10 current models under $100 in the photo printing category alone!  How much under $100?  At least half of those printers can be found for between $39 and $59 if you search for online sales.  That's cheaper than just buying the full set of ink refills for the same printer!  How can manufacturers do this, and what are you really getting for these low prices.  Can these printers really compare with the mid-high end photo printers costing $299 to $599?

 

The Good

It sounds "fishy" that companies could offer printers that cost little more than the ink that is included in the box.  How can they do this?  The answer lies in profit margins.  Making a smaller profit on a printer starts to make sense when you know that the printer will bring rewards later from consumers buying more ink.  Ink traditionally has a high profit margin in the business.  If the same companies that sell gasoline also sold cars, you'd probably be able to get cars for free too!  They know they'll recover the cost of the car over the years you own it by selling you the gas; gas which they would then price with a hefty profit margin.  So in a marketing sense, it makes sense to under-cut the market a little on printer price when possible to "flood" the market with consumable-hungry hardware.

This is not to say that cheap printers use more ink.  The generally don't use more ink, but the ink does tend to cost more (covered in "The Bad" section below).  In a pinch and on a budget though, these el cheapo printers can mean the difference between being able to replace a more expensive model to get up and running quicker, or having nothing.  On the good side, these printers usually offer enough quality to create passable photos.  Unfortunately, the good points basically end there.

 

The Bad

So you got a $99 printer on sale for $49 and you think you have money in the bank because that's about the same price as it costs to just replace the ink in that printer; ink that comes packaged in the box.  After some printing, however, you'll find yourself replacing that ink a lot sooner than you will on better models.  Pretty soon you'll be dipping into that bank when you find that the printer can only print maybe a couple dozen 4x6 prints before it needs a new color cartridge!  While such frequent ink replacement is annoying, it isn't quite as bad as it sounds.  Most cheap printers have just one color print cartridge that holds the three primary printing colors: yellow, magenta, and cyan.  You can replace all three colors for about twice the price of a single cartridge of individual color on a high end photo printer.  The problem here is that depending on what you print, your cyan ink may run out while 75% of your magenta and yellow still remain.  So the cartridge has to be replaced when any one of the three colors goes empty.  A high end printer may hold five individual color cartridges that contain 12 ml of ink each.  The cost may be around $15 for that 12 ml of ink and being able to replace individual cartridges means you won't be throwing away unused ink.  By comparison, it may cost $26 to buy a three color cartridge for the el cheapo printer.  The catch is this: that $26 ink cartridge holds the same 12 ml of ink, split 4 ml per color!  The cost is close to twice as much and you'll have to replace all three whenever any one of the colors run out.  So that's a "gotcha" with many cheap printers.  The cost of ink will be more compared to high end printers.

 

The Ugly

When it comes to print quality, printers under $100 have trouble delivering.  While they can produce passable photos, the colors will be muted compared to high end printers.  One reason for this is the ink.  Most high end printers use at least five colors for a broader color range.  All use the standard yellow, magenta, and cyan found in the el cheapo printers but they add colors like "photo magenta" and "photo cyan" at a minimum.  Some even include green, red, or blue inks.  Printing with a cheap printer that uses only the three inks (yellow, magenta, and cyan) involves compromises.

Many times, the cheaper printers do not do well on the cheaper papers, forcing you to use the more expensive papers to counter some of the effects of the narrow color gamut.  Creating accurate color profiles for cheap printers is a challenge as well.  Often the cheap printers produce such a narrow gamut that compromises are visible to the eye.  For example, they may not be able to produce good saturated reds.  To compensate, you must either reduce overall saturation of colors, producing duller prints, or you must shift the hue of reds, making them more magenta in order to achieve the saturation levels needed.  If you try to adjust your prints, you may find yourself fighting a battle between color accuracy versus saturation and never gaining any ground.  Of course, there's more to printing than just the ink.  The venerable Epson 1270 has been producing good prints from just three colors (plus black) for ten years.  While it cannot produce the range of colors of today's comparably priced printers, it made up for some of the limited color range by having industry leading driver software, higher quality print heads, and better stepping motors, all of which allow the printer to do the most with the ink.  Cheaper printers cannot place ink dots as accurately, nor do the manufacturers spend a lot of time optimizing the hardware or software to make the most of the ink they do use.

Simply put, photos from cheap printers may look like photos, but they won't be as vibrant or as accurate as the photos produced by high end printers with more ink, higher resolution, and better stepping motors that can produce smoother prints.  In this sense, you get what you pay for.  Be prepared, however, to pay the piper when your ink costs are higher overall than a more expensive model.

 

Summary

The old saying "you get what you pay for" doesn't always apply, but it's a good rule of thumb for most electronics on the market.  El cheapo printers may not cost much more than the ink included in the box, but be prepared to pay higher overall operational costs.  The cheaper models offer lower print quality, significantly duller colors, and may require the use of more expensive manufacturer-brand paper to get "passable" photos.  In general, cheap printers may offer a temporary fix or a way to fill a need when more expensive options are not possible, but they should be avoided by the serious photographer or anyone who is enthusiastic about their photos.  The hardware and inks are simply too limiting to allow them to compete in the same arena as high end printers costing 2x to 3x as much.

 

Mike Chaney

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« Reply #1 on: February 25, 2010, 04:11:33 PM »

The only exception I see is the C88+ that has been around "forever."  I qualify that only if you intend to use it for other than intended use.

It has been a mainstay for mainy professional "black only" printers using full black inksets.  The quality is actually incredible in that domain.
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