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Tips, tricks, and recommendations for printers.

#7 • July 17, 2016

Welcome to Value Berry number seven! I’m your host, Justin Michael, and today I’m going to talk to you about printers.

Printers… yeah. There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to printers.

Before we get started I want to make one thing clear: Everything in this episode pertains to small or medium home and office printers; the kind you’re likely to find at an office supply or computer store. In other words, the kind of printer you hook up to a computer or small network to print things like documents, photos, envelopes, and the like.

Okay. Printers. Wow.

So, have you ever seen a crusty, old, yellowing dot matrix printer still in active use somewhere? You know, the kind with the continuous stream of perforated paper that has the tear-off holes on both sides? You’ve seen those, right? Being used, today, in the year twenty-hundred-and-sixteen? Being used actively, every day, for critical functions? Maybe at the DMV, or a doctor’s office? You know why these ancient, clunky, things that print in only a single color at extremely low quality are still a thing? Why you can still find them for sale, and still buy supplies for them?

Because they work. They’re reliable. And they don’t cost a fortune to operate. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still printers, so they’re still a hassle, but they’re nowhere near as bad as modern printers.

It seems that we humans, as a species, have decide that we have some major past sins that we need to atone for, and that atonement would be well served by making sure printers are as horrible as we can possibly make them. There hasn’t been a new decent home/office printer released in decades. If you want to buy a new printer today you’re going to be shopping for a giant mound of crap. Unless, of course, you can get by with a dot matrix printer, and have software that can work with it. But you don’t, so let’s move on.

First, here are my printer recommendations: I recommend, very strongly, that you do not get a printer. In fact, I also recommend that you never use a printer either, if you can avoid it. I know, I know. You want a printer. You want to print things. Just keep listening, because I’m about to explain why printers are physical manifestations of pure evil.

Let’s start with paper. Printers, and the paper in them, are physical objects. That means they’re governed by the rules of the physical world, like thermodynamics and whatnot. Let me tell you a little something about the rules of the physical world: they’re a giant pain. In fact, one of the biggest reasons people decided to build the digital world was to get away from the horrible limitations of the physical one.

Paper, being physical, is finite in a way that the pages in your word processor, or canvas in your art application, are not. Paper runs out. It does, in fact, run out at the most inopportune times. Then you need to get more. If you have time to wait for delivery you might order some online. If you can’t wait you’re going to have to go to a store. That means interacting with people, putting on pants, and subjecting yourself to even more of those annoying physical laws we just talked about.

And, oh, the joys of shopping for printer paper. There’s standard paper, recycled paper, glossy paper, gloss laminated paper, UV gloss paper, matte paper, semi-gloss paper, cover stock, card stock, inkjet paper, laser paper, photo paper, premium photo paper, different weights, different brightnesses… and the list goes on. Which paper is right for you? Should you trust the marketing copy on the packages at the store? What are the pros and cons of each type? Is there a printer paper expert you can consult? Why are you being forced to waste your life researching variants of printer paper?

Let’s talk about another annoying manifestation of the physical limitations of printers: paper jams. Friction is a thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a peek inside a printer, but it’s a complicated mess of rollers and trays and feeders and all manner of mechanical witchcraft that works great right up until it doesn’t. When paper decides to get good and stuck somewhere inside a printer you’ll probably have to disassemble a significant portion of your big plastic frustration box to remove a now-useless, crumpled sheet that veered left when the printer was trying to get it to go right. Every jam is wasted paper, wasted ink, wasted power, and wasted time. Then, once you clear the jam, you get the privilege of trying to print again. Will it jam this time? Maybe! Every time you print you’re rolling those dice.

And that paper you’re wasting on jams and shopping lists and tax forms and whatever it is you think needs to exist in the physical world… that paper is made of trees. I’m no scientist, but I have it on good authority that all those trees out there in the world are responsible for producing the air we breathe. How many trees were slaughtered for every ream of paper you shove into your printer? Every time you’re about to print something, take a moment and think about the planet. Think about the air you’re breathing. You like breathing, right? If you’re pro-printing, you’re anti-breathing.

And then there’s ink. If printers are evil incarnate, ink is the vile, irredeemable, corrupted blood coursing through their veins. Most printers these days use either liquid ink, in the case of inkjet printers, or toner, in the case of laser printers.

We’ll start with the liquid ink.

First of all, it dries out. When it dries out, things get clogged. Like paper jams, this happens at the worst possible time. It makes sense, when you think about it; when is a good time for a clog? When was the last time anything in your life clogged and you thought to yourself, “Oh, yeah, this is a perfect time for a clog!”

So the ink dries, it clogs, it leaks, it makes a mess. Fine. Sure. Whatever. That’s annoying, but that’s the nature of any ink, and in the grand scheme of things it’s to be expected. What’s not to be expected is how much printer ink costs.

If you own ink for an inkjet printer, it is likely the single most expensive liquid you own. By a wide margin. To give you an idea of how much printer ink costs, let me tell you about some other liquids that are less expensive than printer ink: First, tap water, which costs roughly a quarter of a penny per gallon. Next, coffee, the kind you might make at home. That’s about a buck a gallon. Kool-Aid is $1.85 a gallon. Bleach is $2.50 a gallon. Gasoline is about $3 a gallon (but could be significantly more or less by the time you hear this). Milk is about $3.50 a gallon. Coke clocks in at four bucks a gallon. Bottled water is about eight dollars for a gallon. Cheap beer? Nine dollars a gallon. Windex is $10.50 a gallon. A gallon of chocolate syrup will run you $14. Starbucks coffee is $19 a gallon. Red Bull is $30 a gallon. Shampoo, $38. Toothpaste, $62. Liquid paper, $200 for one gallon. That’s a lot of corrected mistakes! Penicillin is $300 a gallon. Remember, I’m listing off liquids that are cheaper than printer ink. Cheaper. Starbucks espresso? $320 a gallon. Let’s jump into some really big numbers with patchouli oil, which weighs in at $800 a gallon. Then there’s nail polish at $900 a gallon. The cost to process a gallon of human blood? $1,500. Eye drops? $3,300 a gallon. A gallon of mercury costs $3,500. Flonase nasal spray, for allergies, costs $5,200 per gallon.

All those liquids are cheaper than the ink in many inkjet printers. Let me say that again: everything I just listed is cheaper than the ink in many inkjet printers.

So how much does printer ink cost? There’s actually a huge range, but it’s all extremely expensive. At the “low” end, the cheapes ink for home and office inkjet printers costs around $1,700 a gallon. At the high end, a gallon of printer ink is going to run you $9,600 per gallon.

Nine-thousand six-hundred dollars per gallon. For printer ink.

No, I am not kidding.

So, what liquids are more expensive than printer ink? Some examples include precious ambergris, an extremely rare excretion from the digestive tract of whales that’s used to create fine perfumes. A gallon of ambergris runs about $10,000; just a bit more expensive than the most expensive printer ink. Speaking of perfume, you may have heard of Chanel No.5? That’s $25,000 a gallon. LSD is up there at $123,000 a gallon.

So printer ink is really expensive. But wait, am I being fair? I’m comparing the cost of printer ink with a bunch of other arbitrary liquids! What about a more direct comparison? What about the price of other kinds of ink?

Just a quick reminder, for comparison, printer ink costs between $1,700 and $9,600 a gallon. Here’s the cost of some other kinds of ink:

  • Newspaper ink costs about $20 a gallon.
  • Screen printing ink costs about $45 a gallon.
  • Halftone ink costs about $70 a gallon.
  • Speedball pen ink is about $320 a gallon.
  • Fountain pen ink is about $475 a gallon.
  • Squid ink is about $550 a gallon.

So inkjet printer ink is about ten times more expensive, give or take, than the next most expensive ink I could find, and about a hundred times more expensive than the ink used to print most common printed material, like magazines and newspapers.

So why is printer ink so incredibly expensive?

Because it can be.

It’s not magic ink, or even very good ink (which I’ll talk about in a second), it’s a business model. They sell you the printer real cheap and then gouge you on the ink. They gouge you hard and repeatedly. In fact, many inkjet printers are designed to waste as much ink as possible.

Every time a cleaning cycle is run, it uses ink. Inkjet printers need to have a cleaning cycle run periodically to clear out dirt and dried ink, but many printers will also run a cleaning cycle when turned on, even if it’s not needed, which wastes ink (so, if you have an inkjet printer, keep it turned on all the time to avoid these wasteful, extraneous cleaning cycles).

And then there’s one of my favorite little nuances: the vast majority of inkjet printers refuse to print black and white documents if you’re out of, say, yellow ink. How does that make sense, you ask? It’s because these printers mix color ink in with the black ink when printing things like black text. Why do they mix in color ink when printing black? “Deeper blacks,” they say.

Deeper. Blacks.

You know what? If you’re charging up to $9,600 a gallon for your precious ink, you’d better make absolutely sure it is the best ink on the planet. The black ink in these printers should be the deepest, darkest, blackest ink ever conceived of. I shouldn’t be able to look into this black printer ink without feeling as if I’m tumbling into the massive, dark void between galaxies because the darkness is so absolute. Light should not be able to escape once it comes into contact with this incredibly expensive ink.

But that’s not the case. This shockingly expensive ink is, somehow, not black enough so they add in some of their equally expensive color ink to make it properly black.

So yeah, if you’re trying to print some black text and you’re out of color ink then you’re also out of luck.

At this point you might be wondering about getting your printer cartridges refilled with ink that isn’t quite so absurdly expensive. It’s certainly cheaper (how could it not be?), but the printer manufacturers build in all kinds of mechanisms to stop you from doing it. Many ink cartridges have a little chip inside that will prevent it from working once a certain number of pages have been printed, or when it hits an expiration date. This prevents refilling the cartridge unless you also modify or replace the chip, or make modifications to your printer.

Speaking of that chip, you might be wondering how the chip can use an arbitrary number of pages, or an expiration date, as a cutoff and also ensure you get to use all the ink you bought before it reports itself as empty.

The answer is that they don’t.

When an inkjet cartridge says it’s empty it almost always has more ink inside. It only says it’s empty because it hit an arbitrary page count limit or an arbitrary expiration date. In fact, depending on what you’re printing and which printer you’re using, ink cartridges will say they’re empty and stop working despite the fact that they are still up to half full.

That’s right: you don’t even get to use all of the astronomically expensive ink you paid for.

Everything I just talked about pertains to inkjet printers. What about laser printers?

I won’t lie, laser printers are, on the whole, marginally better for home and office use than inkjet printers in many circumstances. Inkjet printers can print higher quality photos, but for pretty much everything else a laser printer is a better option. That does not mean they’re good, or not evil, or that I recommend you get one. Laser printers are better than inkjet printers in the same way that having your laptop stolen is better than having your laptop and your mouse stolen.

One of the biggest advantages laser printers have over inkjet printers is that they use toner instead of liquid ink. Toner never dries out or clogs, so if you print infrequently, laser printers are a much better option.

Toner is also generally less expensive than inkjet cartridges, on a cost-per-page basis, but toner is still very expensive in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, many toner cartridges also contain the chips that limit the number of pages you can print with them, or stop working on an arbitrary expiration date.

One of the big disadvantages laser printers have is energy consumption. The mechanisms that laser printers use require a lot of power to function. In fact, a commercial printing press can produce about a hundred pages using the same amount of energy that a small laser printer needs to print just one page.

Some laser printers also produce air pollution. This varies a lot from printer to printer, but if indoor air quality is important to you, it’s worth considering.

Next are the issues that both inkjet and laser printers share: horrible drivers, poor reliability, flaky networking, crummy wireless, and slow performance. I’m not going to dive into the particulars of each of these since they are, unfortunately, universal truths that pertain to the entire printer industry, but suffice it to say that printers are, in general, extremely frustrating.

So printers are bad, but you still want to print something. If you take my advice and avoid purchasing a printer, how do you print? Here are some ways you can use a printer without owning one:

  • Ask a friend if you can use their printer. Pay them for the privilege, or take them out to dinner, or wash their car. Do something to compensate them for dealing with the burden of printer ownership so you don’t have to.
  • See if your local library has a printer you can use.
  • Many office supply and shipping stores will print whatever you want for a fee.
  • If you work in an office, use the printer there. Yeah, you might get fired for using a company printer for personal stuff, but in the long run printer ownership is still probably more of a hassle than finding a new job every now and then.
  • Become a member of a co-working space and use the printers there.
  • Email what you want to print to your cousin three states over and wire them enough money to cover paper, ink, envelopes, postage, and the time it takes them to mail you the hard copies.

Alternatively, if you’ve decided to take all of my advice, and want to avoid printers all together, there are a number of alternatives at your disposal:

  • Find a preexisting document that’s close enough to what you wanted to print. This might be a page torn from a magazine, a greeting card, a flyer found on your car for kickboxing, or a portion of a discarded yard sale sign.
  • Cut up magazines, newspapers, and other preexisting printed material and paste together your document, one letter at a time, ransom note style.
  • Go to a home improvement store and buy one or more pieces of sheet metal. Go to an arts and crafts store and buy a magnetic poetry kit. Combine these ingredients to produce the document you want.
  • Find someone who can draw well (this might be you, a friend, a child, whomever) and task them with drawing what’s on your screen. Use pencils, pens, paints, or whatever makes the most sense in your situation. If you don’t have any art supplies or writing implements on hand, the condiments in your fridge will do in a pinch (there’s an untapped rainbow of creativity in there!). If you don’t have any paper use a napkin, coffee filter, cut up some sheets, draw on the walls, get creative. Or you could just go to the store and buy some pens and paper.
  • Have a professional replicate your document in the form of a durable, long-lasting tattoo.
  • Build a machine that rapidly splatters ink on a page, spits it out, and repeats the process with a new page. Devise a system to continuously feed it power, paper, and ink. Keep it running until it happens to spit out something that’s close enough to what you want to print. If the ink splatter mechanism is truly random this will happen eventually.
  • Put yourself in cryogenic stasis. Put a note on your capsule with instructions indicating that you should only be revived when one of the following two conditions are met:
    1. Technology has progressed to the point where paper is no longer used (having been entirely replaced by paper-thin tablets, or holograms, or whatever). Thus, when you’re revived, printers will be nothing more than historical curiosities relegated to museums and the private collections of people obsessed with how we used to collectively torture ourselves.
    2. Technology and culture have regressed to the point where no one even knows how to make paper anymore, let alone printers, meaning there’s an excellent chance you won’t have to deal with them for the rest of your life, as your days will be occupied with hunting, gathering, and just generally trying to survive.

If none of those alternatives appeal to you and you still want to get a printer, don’t get one of those multifunction ones that has a scanner, copier, fax machine, coffee maker, and paper shredder all combined into one. That thing is going to do none of those things well. And, whatever you do, don’t get a printer with a combined color cartridge. If blue runs out, but red and yellow are still full, you’re going to quickly find yourself in Sad Town, population you.

Well, that’s printers. We made it! Hooray! For more value that you can print out if you want to (but you shouldn’t) check out!