Giving Up on Inkjet Printers

Pop quiz: What’s far and away the oldest piece of computer-related hardware I own that is still in active use? Give up? It’s my Hewlett-Packard (HP) LaserJet 4000N printer. Purchased in 1998 (that’s 13 years ago!), it is so old that (as I recently discovered) HP stopped manufacturing toner cartridges for the printer back in 2009.

The joy of laser printers

The termination of HP-supplied toner cartridges for the 4000N doesn’t foreshadow the end-of-the-line for my trusty printer. I can still get a replacement from third-partiesfor less than $30! Which is what I plan to do — assuming my current cartridge ever runs out of toner. At the rate I print, a single cartridge lasts me at least 3 years. In the meanwhile, my 4000N continues to rapidly spit out crisp and clear documents whenever I click Print — with little risk of the output smudging or fading over time.

A bit more background: The HP 4000N is nothing like the somewhat flimsy low-cost personal laser printers that are available today for as little as $99. Rather, it is an office-capable workhorse that cost me around $1400. Its direct descendants are HP’s P4010 line of laser printers. I could get a new HP LaserJet P4014dn that is faster, more capable and less costly (retailing for $799) than my 4000N. But I won’t. I remain content with my 4000N for now. 

True, these laser printers are black-and-white only. I have considered upgrading to a color laser printer, but I have been hesitant to do so. First, over 90% of what I print is black-and-white. I’m not sure I want the added cost of maintaining a printer that requires costly multiple color toner cartridges, when I will almost never need them. Second, my understanding is that color laser printers still cannot match the quality of inkjet printers for printing glossy paper photographs (which is my primary color output).

The trouble with inkjet printers

I also own an inkjet printer. Actually, during the same stretch of time that covers my lone LaserJet purchase, I have purchased at least 4 inkjet printers. My current one is a Canon Pixma MP990. I use it primarily to print photos and the occasional plain-paper color document. Unfortunately, my history with inkjet printers is a good deal more sordid than with my laser printer. And therein lies the tale.

The reason behind my multiple inkjet purchases is not because the printers broke down (although that did happen in one case). It was mainly because I kept wanting the improved quality and better features of the newer printers. For example, I had one inkjet printer that was sufficiently old that it just about no longer worked with the current versions of Mac OS X. In the case of the MP990, I decided it was time to abandon my old stand-alone flatbed scanner and get an all-in-one inkjet printer that had a scanner included (allowing the printer to act as a photocopy device). I also wanted an inkjet printer with Ethernet support. Finally, I wanted the superior color photo output that the latest printers delivered. The MP990 filled the bill.

Given how inexpensive inkjet printers are, these regular upgrades have not been a huge deal. In fact, I know some people that get a new printer whenever their current model runs out of ink. That’s not me, but I understand the logic. I could buy a brand new MP990 from Amazon for $146; a similar newer model goes for $199. To get a complete new set of 6 ink cartridges for the MP990 is about $66 at Amazon. If I was in a hurry, and wanted them immediately, my local Staples sells a set of cartridges for $85 plus tax. That’s not quite expensive enough to justify getting a new printer instead. But it’s getting close.

What remains irritating about all of my inkjet printers, compared to my laser printer, is that I need to replace these costly ink cartridges every couple of months (occasionally, if I am printing a lot of photos, after only a couple of weeks). The result is that I try not to use the printer for anything other than photos, lest I waste the precious ink on something that my laser printer could have handled as well.

Adding to the frustration, the software that supposedly reports the current ink levels is not always current. There are at least three ways to check the Canon printer’s remaining ink levels. I tried them the other day. Clicking “Supply Levels” from a Print dialog box on my Mac claimed all cartridges were fine (which is true, as I had just replaced the low ones). Clicking the Supply Levels button in the Canon’s Print Queue yielded an “information not available” error. When I instead selected the “Remaining ink volume” button on the printer itself, it reported that Yellow was low. Give me a break!

My sour attitude towards inkjet printers does not end with the hassles of ink cartridges. That’s only the beginning. [Note: My experience is mainly with Canon inkjet printers. Although I believe other printers share the same problems, this may not always be so.]

• Long warm-up times. If I have not used the printer for a day or so, I have to wait several minutes, listening to the printer make a series of whirring and spinning warm-up noises before the first page prints out. This gets tiresome very quickly.

 Convoluted software. I’ll give you just one example here. Using the “Automatically Select” media type option, when I put paper in the rear tray, I expect the Canon to chose the tray over the cassette. Not so. It still prefers the cassette. And this assumes that I can keep “Automatically” as the selected option. Often, it mysteriously reverts back to Cassette or Rear Tray.

• Print (and scan) errors. This is the coup de grâce of irritations. After successfully navigating the hassles of low ink cartridges and counter-intuitive software selections and long warm-up times — and finally hoping to see something actually print out, I get some oddball error message instead. This happens with disturbing regularity. Most recently, I had to deal with a “communications error” that kept popping up in the Print Queue. After trying a variety of things that all failed to have any effect, I did a Google search. I learned that the likely required fix was to delete the printer from the list in the Print & Fax System Preferences pane — and re-add it. This did the trick — at least until the next time the error returns.

The scanner that is included as part of the printer also has its share of problems. Most notably, to access the scanner from my Mac, I typically use Mac OS X’s Image Capture. It works perfectly — when it works. At least half the time, however, the scanner doesn’t show up in Image Capture upon launch. To get the scanner to re-appear, I have to power off the printer and turn it back on (and wait for the interminable warm-up period to finish).

Bottom line

It should go without saying by this point (but I’ll say it anyway): While navigating the myriad of problems I have had with inkjet printers over the years, my laser printer has merrily chugged along without a hitch. Despite its age, it continues to play well with Snow Leopard. It has never needed a repair. The quality of its output remains excellent — as good as what I have seen with newer laser printers. Indeed, the quality of its text remains noticeably superior to that of any inkjet I have owned. My laser printer just works. It never gets in the way.

The same has not been true for my succession of inkjet printers. My current Canon inkjet produces great color photos, when I can finally get it to do so. I’m just not sure it’s worth the hassles anymore. Going forward, I’m thinking of giving up on inkjets. For photos, I’ll use something like Shutterfly, which allows me to pick up photos at my local Target. If I find I have a need for color output beyond that, I’ll consider a color laser printer. In recent years, laser printers have come down in price and their color quality has improved. It has never made more sense to kiss inkjet printers goodbye and go with just a laser printer instead.