Competition in Printer Cartridges Makes Life Easier on Consumers

Buying an ink-jet printer is getting cheaper. Unfortunately, maintaining one is not. Once the machine runs out of ink, consumers have to shell out lots of cash to get a replacement cartridge.

In other words, once you've printed 5,500 color pages through your printer, you've paid for a whole new printer. Again.

Don't blame the manufacturers. They're simply using the old strategy of selling the razor cheap and making profits on the razor blades. Trouble is, ink-jet printer cartridges cost a lot more than razor blades. And consumers are getting angry.

Take the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 820Cse. At $400 or so, this popular color ink-jet printer has an attractive price. But Hewlett-Packard hasn't extended the deal to its printer cartridges. Replacements cost $25 for black ink; $30 for color.

Another example is the Xerox WorkCenter 250, one of those all-purpose machines that scans, prints, faxes, and copies documents. For $550 at a local discounter, the machine is a pretty good deal. But every three months it runs out of ink. The cost for a new replacement cartridge: $40.

What makes such prices outrageous, competitors maintain, is that the cartridges contain less than a dollar's worth of ink. True, each replacement cartridge also includes an expensive print head - the gizmo that sprays the ink onto the page. But one has to wonder. Are the companies really incapable of finding ways to reuse the cartridge and replace the ink? Or are they merely out to make fat profits off of consumers locked into their technology?

It's certainly big business. Worldwide sales of replacement cartridges and other after-market ink-jet printer supplies are expected to top $9 billion this year. Fortunately, smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are developing lower-cost alternatives to the throw-it-away cartridges of the big printer companies.

The best-known of these competitors is Nu-kote International in Dallas. It sells through retailers various kinds of replacements that it says will save consumers anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent off the price of name-brand cartridges. Sometimes these are straight one-for-one replacements. In other cases, the company offers a mail-in service where it will refill the cartridge for you.

On popular Hewlett-Packard models, and a few others, Nu-kote sells a two-piece cartridge where users can replace the ink but reuse the cartridge. Nu-kote and others, notably the Jet-Master system out of Portland, Ore., also sell kits where users can refill the cartridges themselves. These alternatives - when they work - can dramatically cut printing costs.

As you might imagine, printer companies are hopping mad about these upstarts. Having spent millions of dollars to develop the technology, they've gone to court to try to protect it. Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Epson have all filed suit against Nu-kote alleging everything from trademark violations to patent infringements. So far, only one suit - Epson's - has been resolved, almost completely in favor Nu-kote.

The companies argue that the upstarts are selling inferior products which can ruin the machine. Consumers often blame the manufacturers' printer, they add, even if it's the cartridge that's at fault. It is true that the replacement-cartridge industry has had its scam artists that made a fast buck by selling poor products. Also, refilling an ink-jet cartridge is more complicated than, say, filling a fountain pen. It can be a messy job.

But by sticking to reputable firms and following directions to the letter, consumers can save a bundle. For $80, I can buy two Xerox replacement cartridges or a Jet-Master refill kit with enough ink to recharge my cartridges up to 16 times.

You do the math. I bought the refill.

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