Few products rankle consumers more than pricey ink cartridges for their printers. They generally cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per cartridge, and most printers require at least two or three. You may need replacements every couple of months, depending on how many vacation photos or kids' school reports you're printing out. And the ink inside those cartridges can cost anywhere from $10 to $70-plus an ounce—more than a 15-year-old single-malt Scotch.
But a new line of printers is promising to provide an alternative. Epson EcoTank printers, which are due to go on sale this September, have large, refillable ink tanks instead of cartridges. The five models will come with enough bottled ink to last for about two years, according to Epson. Once the bottles are empty, you can buy replacements for $13, or $52 for a set of all four colors that you need—cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. (Ink for the priciest models will be more expensive.) Those bottles should last for another two years, according to Epson.
Fifty bucks for two years of ink sounds like a great deal, and it is. There is one catch, though. These products, which Epson calls supertank printers, will cost a lot upfront compared to other inkjets: Prices will range from about $380 to $500 (with one business model costing $1,200).
Epson has presented some of its own arithmetic on how much users will save. According to the company, four ink bottles are sufficient to print 4,000 black pages and 6,500 color pages on the new consumer-oriented models. Printing the same number of pages using one of Epson's standard inkjet printers would require 20 sets of cartridges. At $40 each, the total price for cartridges would be $800—about $750 more than what you're expected to spend on ink for an EcoTank model.
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We'll be watching to see if this new type of printer takes off in the United States. Similar models were introduced last year in other parts of the world, including Europe. According to some of our partners in International Consumer Research and Testing, an association of independent, not-for-profit organizations that Consumer Reports belongs to, these models have sold moderately well, but they've remained niche players. That may be due to the high purchase price, regardless of long-term savings.
Our European partners also tipped us off to a potential trouble spot. The ink bottles will carry a "best before" date, with a three-year window. What happens if you buy ink that's been sitting on a store shelf for a while and then only use the printer occasionally? Will the machine start producing poor quality prints as the ink ages? It's a question we'll want to explore once we start testing the printers in our labs.
We will present our initial results soon after the printers become available this fall; as always, we'll be buying the models through the same retailers that consumers use, to make sure we get true production models. In addition to the costs of ownership and print quality, we'll want to see how messy it is to refill the printer tanks.
Here are some details on each of the five new printers. All include built-in wireless connectivity, and all can print, scan, and copy.