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Printers' cartridges: replace or refill

Though PC printers are becoming more affordable the cost of ink and toner refills is prohibitive.

THE INDIA head of IBM, the world's biggest computer company, was speaking at a seminar in Bangalore last week to an audience of Information Technology executives. If you want to remain in business, he told them, you must give your customers good value for money.

These days, they are looking for an attractive Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), not just cheaper initial price. You can't sell them a product at a discount, and then hope to make it up, by overcharging for services, he added.

It sounded great. Indeed, that may well be how IBM does its big biz in India. But in one sector of the industry at least, they still do business, the old-fashioned way. That is the business of selling budget printers, both inkjet and laser, to the price-conscious homebuyer.

These days printers seem to become cheaper every week: last month, for the first time, an Epson printer was available for less than Rs. 3,000. HP, Canon, Samsung, Lexmark, are other brands, which are attractively priced: Budget colour inkjets now come with price tags between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 4,000, while black-and-white laser printers cost around Rs. 10,000. Almost half of what they used to cost two or three years ago.

So you buy one of these machines, but in next to no time, the ink or the toner cartridges get exhausted. In fact, many inkjet models are high tech these days: a picture of the cartridge pops up every now and then on your monitor, warning you that it is time to replace it.

That's when your troubles start - because new inkjet cartridges seem to cost only slightly less than the printer. Typically, black-and-white cartridges cost between Rs. 1,200 and Rs. 1,500 and colour a bit more. Laser toner cartridges last much longer, but when the time comes to change them you have to pay Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 4,000.

Someone has calculated that if you take into account the quantity of ink in a cartridge, it costs more per litre than Dom Perignon, the king of champagnes! No wonder the overwhelming majority of inkjet users prefer to refill, at least their black and white cartridges, rather than replace them.

In most Indian cities, there are shops that will do this for you at around Rs. 250. Alternatively, you can these days buy refill kits that are good for two refills. Amkette is the best known of the Indian brands.

Refilling cartridges yourself will work out cheaper than getting it done, provided you have the time and the patience. It takes about 15 minutes, because forcing fresh ink into a used cartridge has to be done drop by drop... and it can be messy if you are not careful. Refilled cartridges never give the print quality that a new piece will deliver, but for most of us, a little sacrifice in quality is okay because we are saving so much money.

It is the same with laser printer toner cartridges: You can have a refill done for you in India for around Rs. 850. The problem with lasers is the cartridge has a fine blade that controls the flow of the powder, so after about two refills this will stop delivering powder evenly and you have to throw it away.

The printer manufacturers you can be sure, are unhappy at the whole refill business. In printer models sold in the U.S., some of them have installed smart chips, which will lock the printer once the cartridge is empty, unless another new cartridge is used.

A court case is ongoing in that country, where a company that sells counter technology that allows customers to be smarter than their smart printers, and use cheaper third party cartridges has challenged this technology.

The printer company has won an injunction against this technology. But public anger at these companies is so strong that in one State — North Carolina — the Senate has taken up a bill, which will allow customers to use whatever cartridges, they choose.

Trying to force them, by technological gimmicks, to use only the original manufacturer's cartridge is like a car maker who says you can use only tyres made by him, during the lifetime of the vehicle, so the argument goes.

A hint that the U.S. Consumer Association has given will be useful to Indian users as well. Don't believe the smart printer, which tells you that the cartridge is empty, they say. In most cases, they are still between 17 per cent and 38 per cent full. So keep printing, till the pages come out blank.

Indian consumers are grateful to printer manufacturers who have made their machines affordable. Sadly, they seem to be making up in other, greedy ways that ensures that the TCO of the printer is still quite stiff. It's up to us to use our machines in the way that suits us best. Refill, or replace but do it because you want to, not because you are forced to.


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