Epson’s claims of cheaper ink are empty

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Users of multi-color inkjet printer cartridges end up throwing away half of their ink, according to a study commissioned by Epson.

But a Kodak-sponsored study focuses on the bottom line, saying you’ll pay more per page with printers that require a different cartridge for each color, such as Epson’s.

Epson-commissioned study dwells on ink efficiency

In a press release dated June 2007, Epson announced results of a study it commissioned from TÜV Rheinland, an independent certification body. Epson trumpeted the study, saying single-ink cartridges were more efficient than those holding multiple colors of inks. “On average the multi-ink systems used less than 60% of the ink before the cartridge had to be replaced, this compares to an average of 82% for the individual ink systems tested,” according to the press release.

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The study printed photos that were selected by focus groups, as well as the kind of business document typically output by home offices. Epson’s press release acknowledged that the documents, such as a presentation using a corporate template, tended to exhaust one color more than others. Running out of one color makes a multi-color cartridge unusable, even though the other colors in the cartridge may still have plenty of ink.

The TÜV study included printers from Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Brother, Lexmark, Epson, and Kodak. A summary of the report states that Kodak’s EasyShare model, which uses a multi-color cartridge, consumed less than 40% of each cartridge’s ink before becoming unusable. Models by Epson and HP, which have separate cartridges for each color, by contrast, had “ink efficiency” levels near 80%. Ink capacity was determined by comparing the weight of cartridges when they were full versus when a printer declared them exhausted.

“Now, as well as being cost competitive in the market, Epson’s individual ink cartridge system offers customers higher levels of consistency and efficiency,” states Rob Clark, Director of Consumer Inkjet Business for Epson Europe in the press release.

Oddly, despite repeated requests, I was unable to obtain from Epson a copy of the study. Finally, a summary of the study was posted on July 2 at the TÜV Web site on a Efficient Printers and Printing Consumables page. (The 1.87MB PDF summary is available from a link on that page under the heading Further Topics.)

My own research indicates that “ink efficiency” isn’t everything. If you want the lowest cost per page, a single cartridge that delivers multiple colors may be the winner.

Kodak-sponsored study touts cost per page

Just a month before Epson’s announcement, Kodak issued its own press release. This statement drew attention to a study the company had commissioned from third-party testing lab QualityLogic.

Unlike the TÜV Rheinland study, the QualityLogic study reported the number of pages (the “yield”) ink cartridges could produce when printing industry-standard 8.5″ x 11″ monochrome and color test documents and 4″ x 6″ color photos. A PDF of the complete study is available on the QualityLogic Web site.

The QualityLogic study does not include price information. However, Kodak ran the numbers itself, dividing the cost of the various printers’ cartridges into the number of pages that were produced. Kodak’s conclusions are the opposite of Epson’s. The results show that the Kodak Easyshare ink cartridges delivered the lowest cost per page or photo, while Epson and Lexmark cartridges resulted in much higher costs.

Here at WindowsSecrets.com, I analyzed the QualityLogic data for our readers. I first searched the Web for real-world prices of ink cartridges. I then used my own approach to calculate the cost per page from QualityLogic’s yield figures. I found that my cost results were nearly identical to the figures claimed by Kodak. (only in a few cases did the figures diverge by more than one cent per page).

The table below shows Kodak’s cost-per-page calculations, which I double-checked. Based on QualityLogic’s yield figures, and the street price of each printer’s cartridges, Kodak’s multi-color modules do seem to offer significantly lower cost per page for each document type:

COST PER PAGE OR PHOTO (in U.S. cents, sorted by color photo cost)

Printer
Mono Page
Color Page
Color Photo
Kodak EASYSHARE 5300
2.3
6.9
9.6
Canon PIXMA MP810
3.9
9.2
15.2
Canon PIXMA MP510
3.7
9.1
15.5
Canon PIXMA MP600
3.7
9.0
16.0
Canon PIXMA MP160
6.6
13.7
23.8
Brother MFC-5460CN
4.0
9.0
24.1
Lexmark X3470
8.7
17.2
26.0
HP Photosmart C5180
5.9
10.3
28.9
Lexmark X8350
8.0
15.2
32.9
HP Photosmart C3180
7.9
16.9
33.7
HP Photosmart C4180
5.2
14.7
34.1
Epson Stylus CX6000
12.8
16.6
38.7
Epson Stylus Photo RX580
7.4
18.4
50.1

In my research, the prices of all ink cartridges (except Lexmark) were obtained online from Office Depot. Taxes and shipping charges were ignored, as though all cartridges were picked up in-store. Lexmark cartridges weren’t available at Office Depot, and were priced instead at the Staples Web site. I computed the theoretical number of cartridges required to print 10,000 pages or photos, based on QualityLogic’s yield numbers, then calculated the resulting cost per page to substantiate Kodak’s figures.

HP has officially taken issue with the details of the Kodak/QualityLogic study. San Jose Mercury News writer Dean Takahashi has published HP’s critique as well as Kodak’s rebuttal in his tech blog.

Epson’s research study: damage control?

There are factors other than cost per page, of course, that should be used when evaluating printers. Print quality, paper handling, and product reliability are at least as important as the cost of consumables. But the recent flare-up over cost per page indicates how seriously printer manufacturers take pricing claims.

Epson’s press release comes just a year after the company put to bed a class-action lawsuit, which is described in a FAQ by the case’s claims administrator. Plaintiffs in the suit complained that the printer cartridges reported being out of ink, failing to print, even though a substantial amount of ink remained. Epson denied any wrongdoing and chose to settle the case out of court.

The company may be eager to draw attention away from the Kodak-contracted study and convince customers that the cost of its consumables is a good deal. Although the Epson press release specifically calls attention to the “ecological advantages” of single-ink cartridges, the clear message is that Epson’s single-ink system will save consumers ink and, as a result, money.

But Epson’s TÜV study didn’t look at cost. The Kodak/QualityLogic data indicates that packing multiple colors into a single cartridge can result in a lower cost per printed page than single-color cartridges. Until other studies validate or dispute these findings, Epson’s claims must be viewed with skepticism.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He is also a contributing editor of PC World Magazine, where he has written a monthly column since 1992, and co-author of 101 Windows Tips & Tricks (Peachpit) with Jesse Berst and Charles Bermant.
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