BOOT CAMP 190 (30/08/01)




Colour inkjet printing technology has now reached the point where it is possible to produce prints of near photographic quality; some of them are so good that only an expert with a magnifying glass could tell the difference. They're not expensive to buy either and there are some very capable models on the market for less than £100, but there's a catch, well, several actually but the most obvious one is running costs. This week we'll look at some of the ways you can get the most from these remarkable devices, without having to take out a second mortgage.


Manufacturers have developed increasingly elaborate ink delivery systems to achieve the high resolution and colour accuracy needed to do justice to a new generation of high performance multi-megapixel digital still cameras. Whereas in the olden days – two or three years ago – colour printing relied on mixing just three coloured inks – cyan, magenta and yellow – and sometimes black as well today's photrealistic printers use four, five or even six different coloured inks.


Inevitably it's not the ink that costs the money but the disposable cartridges and the fact that few millilitres of ink they contain often runs out at alarming speed. It brings to mind the old story about how Kodak never made a penny selling cameras, the real money was, and probably still is in the film and processing. The same can almost certainly be applied to colour inkjet printer 'consumables' and we have reached the absurd position where the cost of replenishing the ink tanks on some models of colour printer can be between a third and a half of the original purchase price!


Some manufacturers pile on the misery with combined multi-colour ink cartridges that have to be replaced, even if only one colour has run out and it's a little known fact that ink cartridges can be drained without printing a single page. Most models go into a cleaning and priming routine every time they are switched on and this uses up a small amount of ink. On some models the cartridge can be emptied in as few as 60 on/off cycles.


That brings us to top tip number one and that is to avoid switching inkjet printers on and off anymore than is necessary. On the other hand you shouldn't let your printer remain idle for more than a couple of weeks at a time, otherwise the print head or cartridge may dry out or clog. There are ways and means of unblocking cartridges – see this week's top tip – but if the cartridge has been drying out for some time it may not be recoverable. Get into the habit of printing a test page every ten days or so, and make sure that the printer isn't placed near a radiator, window or source of heat.


Inkjet printer owners can dramatically reduce running costs by using third-party 'compatible' cartridges, which can sell for a fraction of the cost of the original manufacturer's product. Another way to beat the odds is to use refill kits, which although often messy and complicated, allowed cartridges to be recycled several times before the print quality deteriorates. Naturally printer manufacturers discourage both practices and issue dire warnings that warranties will be rendered null and void, performance will suffer and printers may be damaged by non-approved cartridges and inks. In practice most users will experience few problems and in a worst-case scenario the only thing likely to be damaged by inferior ink is the print head or cartridge, both of which are throw-away/replaceable items.


Tip number two, investigate the cost of compatible cartridges. They are now widely available from leading PC dealers and stationery suppliers, most of them come from entirely respectable sources, some are even made in the same factories as the originals, sold under well known and respected brand names and are fully guaranteed. If you're still not happy about risking the manufacturer's displeasure then wait until the printer's warranty has expired…


Manufacturers have come up with a variety of cunning schemes to discourage the use of compatible cartridges and refill kits, including 'smart' printer management software that decides when the cartridge needs to be replaced, and most recently, 'chipped' cartridges or ink tanks, that tell the printer when they are empty. Management programs are notoriously conservative and some models routinely report a tank or cartridge as being empty when there is clearly plenty of ink left, which is both wasteful and expensive. Within a few weeks of any new printer appearing the Internet is alive with ruses, fixes and devices that counter every new strategy the manufacturers dream up.


Tip three, investigate any money saving fixes available for your printer, all you have to do is type 'refill xxxx printers' (where 'x' is the make and model number of your printer) into the find field of a search engine like Google ( and nine times out ten you will be rewarded with scores of hits from fellow owners and companies supplying low cost consumables.


Chipped cartridges caused a few problems at first but devices that can reset or reprogram the chips are now widely available, that allow the use of compatible cartridges. In most cases the chip from an empty cartridge is simply removed, and after being reset inserted into the new full cartridge. It only takes a few seconds and the cost savings can be very substantial, even after taking into account the cost of the programmer (typically £10 to £15). 


It is fair to point out that the quality of refill inks and compatible cartridges may not be as good as the original with the same light-fast/anti fade properties, but for routine jobs and printing text this probably doesn't matter.


Next week – memory cards





Replaceable ink container, sometimes one colour or black but occasionally three or four or more colours, which may or may not be integrated with the print head



Printing technology that produces high quality prints on specially coated paper that in some cases almost impossible to tell apart from normal photographic prints



Device that squirts microscopic droplets of ink onto the paper as the print head passes over the paper



If you have a partially filled cartridge that won't print, or the text/image is streaked or fading from top to bottom there's a good chance that the print head is partially or fully blocked by dried ink. If it won't respond to your printers cleaning routine here's something to try, you've got nothing to loose! Find a bowl or shallow container and fill it to a depth of a few centimetres with a 50/50 mixture of very hot water and bleach or ammonia. Immerse the print head – the part where ink comes out -- into the solution and leave it for a couple of minutes. If the dried ink dissolves you'll see it start to flow in the water. Dry it off carefully with a soft, lint-free cloth and try it out. 

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