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So absurd is the hardware industry that once I found myself with three scanners in the house, yet unable to scan. This repeated itself when I found myself with three printers, and unable to print! To be fair, two of the printers were not defective, and the third might well not have been; it was all about the ink.

This problem wouldn't have occurred in the Good Old Days when printers were more modelled on typewriters, and sometimes - remember Xerox - incorporated into the text processor itself. There were matrix printers (like the one bought especially to go with my Amstrad) and daisy-wheel printers (basically taking the typewriter keys and arranging their "hammers" in a circle) and the only ink involved was on a ribbon. Then, two new forms of printer emerged, which dominate the market today: laser, which burns the image into the paper with a combination of chemicals, and the marginally more environment-friendly inkjet, which spurts the ink through tiny, clot-prone nozzles. As a third and qualitatively (especially for photographs) superior alternative, there are wax printers, but they are far and few between and, I've heard, wasteful with both wax and electricity.

For the consumer, there are basically only inkjets. Because the consumer wants colour, and laser does not do colour well, while inkjet, with its tiny and easily mixed blobs of ink, was practically made for colour. True, it may take a while, and the printed paper may come out limp and wet, but there is always photo paper for that added gloss and sturdiness. Ink is the most important thing about the otherwise interchangeable inkjet printers, to the point where the printers are sold really cheap and the manufacturers get their money back through expensive ink cartidges that have to be replaced when not yet empty, or even when completely full but having sat in the printer too long, causing the ink to dry up. And there's the money to be had from replacing printer heads ruined by having their nozzles clogged. Luckily, many printers don't have heads, as the heads are incorporated in the cartridges, which may seem wasteful, but in the long run is the more economical choice.

Nashuatec P295 printer/telefax
Comment: B&W, but still my most reliable printer

To replace a fax that used thermal paper, which was expensive and tended to slip to one side in such a way that the fax thought there was no paper and consequently refused to print incoming faxes, I bought, at a ridiculously high price (but I was trying to work as a translator and had heard that every translator needs a fax machine) a printer/fax (a real combination, as opposed to all those all-in-ones these days) that printed faxes on REAL paper with normal ink, meaning the print would not deteriorate as fax-paper prints do. It would also, like a normal inkjet, make B&W prints sent from the computer. It would even photocopy (scan as for a fax, and then print), but this function was useless because of all the lines running through the image, and besides, a fax is not exactly a quality copy. Since this is the same scanning process as when faxing, I hate to think what faxes this machine sends. And yes, that does mean this could also be a scanner, only, the scan can't be sent to the computer and opened in a graphics program, even if the quality was worth it. Which it isn't, even at the Superfine setting.

Being a fax meant for continuous use, it doesn't have an on/off button and can only be turned off by pulling the plug out of the socket. If this happens when it is connected (through the parallel port, that's how old it is) to the computer, the computer gets a jolt. If it's connected and on, and the computer it's connected to is turned on, it gets a jolt itself and tries to save face by doing a little paper-checking routine, so that when I try to print, it bleeps about a paper jam and I have to drag the paper out, often tearing it (a one-page print always takes more than one sheet of paper). It will not be detected, though it's turned on and connected, if the external modem attached to the serial port is on at the same time. And I said this is my most reliable printer?

Though an inkjet, it emulates three printer types: a matrix printer, an inkjet and a laser jet, so to use it for printing, I have to choose the drivers for these three printers in Windows. Having dug up the manual, I now know the exact models being emulated: Epson LQ-510, Canon BJ-10E, IBM Proprinter. The printer also needs a Canon cartridge, which the manual helpfully describes as "type 50" but which in fact is Canon BC-02 or BC-01. What the difference is, I don't know; I've used either and can't remember the type of the last cartridge I bought, because it was bought more than a year ago, yet still prints. And that's what makes the printer reliable: its choice of ink cartridge. The cartridge can be left unused for a year and not clot. A lesson for Epson?

Epson Stylus Photo 830
Comment: Good printer, made useless by ink

And then the day came that I said "I want a colour printer and I want it NOW!!" I'd read a rave review about the print quality (no raster visible!) of an Epson Stylus model that was of course old and out of production by the time I went to the shops. This one looked close. When it prints properly, there is a raster, and when printing on normal paper, as with all inkjet papers, edges may be a little blurred and runny. But this printer has USB and worked under PC and Mac, which was good as I had a Mac that needed a printer. The first prints - CD covers for a pile of PC-Active CD-ROMs - were on the whole OK. Then the printer sat for a while, because I don't print every day. Or even every week, or every month. And on the next print I made, bits went missing. Time to use the software to clean the nozzles.

The printer has a black cartridge and three colour cartridges for mixing, and I've had after-images on my retina of the six blocks of colour printed in a row at the top of an A4 sheet of paper by way of "printer test" (each test using up a whole sheet of paper for this row) which had to be stripe-free as proof that the nozzles were fully unclogged. When, after about 8 sessions of nozzle-cleaning followed by a test print, the cyan block was finally stripe-free, the black head would have given up and the black block would be little more than smudges on white paper. Bottom line: any print I wanted to make, one of the heads would be malfunctioning. I've printed out a brochure that came out in shades of pink and lavender. I've printed out a letter in all-black lettering that was hardly legible. And when I thought "I'll just print some nonsense to empty the cartridges and then toss them" the cartridge-monitoring software told me that the cartridges, though still containing ink, had to be replaced. What an expensive pile of CD covers this has proven to be!

The printer is now a paperweight. I've Googled around and found that Epson printer inks do tend to clot if left for even a short time. Nice to know. As far as I can tell, the printer heads are part of the printer, not the cartridge, so the printer heads are now shot and would cost more than the printer originally did, to replace. Thanks, Epson. You've made a friend.

HP DeskJet 520
Comment: The problem is the cartridge (I think?)

A colleague tossing out old stuff wanted to know if I had a use for a monochrome monitor and an old B&W HP Deskjet. Since I can't bear to throw anything out and the Deskjet model dates back to a time when HP still made quality, I said yes. Since I was living at two addresses, it made sense to have a B&W printer at either address. And the first prints were fine, just fine, despite the printer's old age and possibly high energy consumption; its huge power brick warmed up nicely when it was on. But then I didn't have anything to print for a year, and the ink clogged the cartridge's printer head.

This printer required a cartridge that of course wasn't made anywhere anymore. I'd wanted to make some prints before going to a yearly anime convention and arrived at the con horribly late because I'd spent all morning and most of the afternoon running around Dordrecht to find a new cartridge. I found only a refill cartridge, and when I put it in, and tried to print something, the carriage banged against the side of the printer in an alarming way. I gave up and left.

Later, I searched for the cause of this banging online and found that maybe the ribbon used for calibration was dirty, which disoriented the carriage. So I cleaned it. So it still didn't work. Another year later, the ink in my refill cartridge was also clotted. More searching revealed that the contact points between cartridge and printer might be dirty, so I should clean them with alcohol. So I did. Still didn't work. So I searched again and found that refill ink cartridges often have defective chips, so the printer can't detect them, and that cleaning the contact points with something as aggressive as alcohol may damage them beyond repair. Curse you, Internet.

So now, after getting the printer for free but wasting money on two possibly defective refill cartridges, I'm stuck with a big heavy printer of which I'm not sure whether it's broken. I would have to buy an expensive original cartridge to find out. And if the printer turned out to be broken, I would be left with an unsealed cartridge asking people: "do you have a HP Deskjet 520 without cartridge that I can stick this into?" And the chances of that would be...?

Lexmark X1130 All-In-One
Comment: Unexpectedly useful

I've reviewed this one under Scanners as follows: "The All-In-One should really be called a Two-In-One because it's a combination of printer and scanner (a scanner sitting on top of a printer, to be exact) but because of the silliness noted in the intro, it is marketed as a combination printer/scanner/fax/photocopier. It does NOT photocopy, you can scan and print the scan with the same machine." I'll add that in reviews in the computer magazine c't, Lexmark printers always came out as producing crude blurry low-quality prints. The print made by this machine about equals that of the Epson above, minus striping. It came as a freebie with a computer, I thought I'd never use it, and so the ink in the two cartridges (black, colour, one of them had to be secured in place with bit of wire) was left to clot. But after the problems with the HP Deskjet, I thought I'd see what this one was worth. So I bought new cartridges. And (tears well up in eyes) it worked!!

Being an all-in-one makes it bulkier than it needs to be, but its paper feeder is less flimsy than that of the Epson. Which is not to say that one can safely pile on the paper and expect all to go well. The Nashuatec has the paper feeder typical of photocopiers, and even this system blocks from time to time; the consumer inkjet printer system of just putting sheets of paper half-upright and relying on gravity and the printer's suction mechanism for the paper to go through smoothly, just does not work. Paper will jam, and will be pulled in two sheets at a time, or at an angle for lopsided prints. The best thing is to put only a few sheets on the feeder at a time and to keep watch, or even to feed every sheet in by hand if your hands are steady enough (mine are not).

Like the Epson, it is a USB printer with big stupid-consumer buttons that I never use. I wonder if it would take the Epson photo paper that is now sitting around uselessly. Unlike the Epson, it has a flat top that I can stack paper on top of, and at the moment it is being buried under old papers. What the state of the inks is, I should check someday. At least, clotted ink in this machine does not mean the end of the printer.

Update: checked. Black ink has clotted, cartridge does not respond well to cleaning. I tried cleaning the printer's cartridge-holder as some black ink had leaked out, this made it worse, did I kill some circuitry? Coloured inks still work and the printer can be set to pretend it has no black cartridge, printing black using the colour cartridge: wasteful, but good for emergencies. Whether because the coloured inks have aged, or because there is no black ink, or because the print was so big: an A4-sized print of a photograph was blurred and off colour with a horribly visible raster, worse than the Epson prints.

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