Consumers hate it when the tail wags the dog; when the running cost of a product overtakes its purchase price --as in the case of inkjet printers. Ever since the 4-colour inkjet printer was first launched by Hewlett Packard in 1988, makers have reduced the quantity of ink in the cartridge by a factor of almost 10, without significantly lowering the cost. Things reached absurd levels, when the replacement cost of a set of colour cartridges, was three times the capital cost of the inkjet printer. A cruel joke went thus: volume for volume, the ink for the printer was costlier than caviar.
Finally the worm turned. Consumers responded in a way that hurt manufacturers most: They shifted in droves to third party ink refilling agencies. This hit the printer industry -- and their cosy lifetime revenue from every printer sold. It forced them to innovate-- or die. The answer which came first from Epson in 2011 -- and has since been followed by Brother, Canon and HP-- was the refillable tank printer. The idea is this: the inkjet printer came with 4 tanks. You filled ink, as and when, any colour was depleted. The tank had many times the capacity of the ink cartridge -- so straight away you enjoyed the economics of bulk ink purchase. Such printers, were initially offered to the professional sector, but since last year, there has been a trickling down of the technology to the consumer end.
Epson recently launched four multi-function ( print, scan, copy) ink tank printers for the home/office market in India -- L361, L380, L385 and L485 -- at prices ranging from Rs 10,999 to Rs 16,999 (a bit lower on Amazon). I have been testing the L380 (Rs 10,999) for a week now.
The four printers have common features like A4 sized paper and 600-by-1200 dots-per- inch scanning. The high-end L485 has double this resolution and is a WiFi Direct printer, ie, you can connect 3-4 devices wirelessly, without using a router.
For long, printer makers rated printing speeds as pages per minute, which we could relate to. Now they have shifted to a confusing system that rates them as images minute or ipm. This is a complicated formula and the answer is obtained by printing three types of standardized text documents: a four page Word document, a four page Excel document and a four page PDF document. This is supposed to be the new international standard definition. The new Epson printers are rated at 10 ipm for black and white and 5 ipm for colour. The low-end L361 (also Rs 10,999) is slightly slower.
The set of ink bottles you receive with the printer are said to give you 7500 pages in colour. These numbers can rarely be checked since our print jobs vary in density. But it is certainly a big improvement on the productivity of cartridge printers.
Filling the tanks for the first time is of course an additional chore, but fairly easy. There is little new to remark about the basic print-scan-copy functions except that the L 380 is remarkably silent in operation. But for lay users, the switch to refillable tanks, which will give us a year's service or more, between refills, is a giant step in the evolution of inkjets and their running cost.