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Epson follows Verizon and changes how customers pay for products

Epson EcoTank printers save money on ink. (PRNewsFoto/Epson America, Inc.

Epson EcoTank printers save money on ink. (PRNewsFoto/Epson America, Inc.

by Larry Magid

Verizon and Epson are in very different businesses but both just did the unthinkable by changing the way they charge for their products.

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Verizon recently stopped subsidizing phones so now you’ll pay full price for your phone (either all at once or in interest-free installments) but pay a bit less for your service. T-Mobile did this a couple of years ago while AT&T and Sprint give users a choice between subsidized phones or paying full price for the phone and a bit less for their service.

Epson is now doing something similar by allowing consumers to reduce the cost of using their product in exchange for paying more for the device itself.

Ink-jet printer makers have long, in a sense, subsidized hardware by charging a lot of money for their ink. If you do the math, the ink can costs thousands of dollars per gallon.

But Epson, with its new line of EcoTank printers and multifunction devices, is changing the equation. The printers are more expensive, but the ink is a lot cheaper.

The company loaned me a WorkForce ET 4550 All-inOne (printer, scanner and fax), which has a retail price of $499. There are also three less expensive models but the least expensive one is still $399.

The good news is that the cost of ink is dramatically cheaper and you won’t have to be replacing cartridges on a frequent basis. They don’t even have cartridges. The printer comes with bottles of black, cyan and yellow ink that you (carefully) pour into separate reservoirs. Epson says that the ink that comes with the printer is good for up to 11,000 black and 8,500 color pages or the equivalent of about 50 cartridge sets. They say this should last most users about two years.

If you ever use up all the ink that comes with the printer, you can buy a pretty big bottle of black ink for $19.49 and smaller bottles of color ink for $12.99 a bottle. A complete set of bottles costs $52. The cost per print is pretty close to nothing.

The printer itself is quite good. It has a rugged feel, similar to the higher-end HP Office Jet models. Epson rates it at 13 pages per minute black and 7.3 in color, which is a respectable speed. It has automatic two-sided printing which I find extremely useful and economical when printing out long documents.

Setup was easy. The hardest part was opening the four ink bottles and carefully pouring the contents into the reservoir, making sure each color went into the right tank and also being sure not to spill any ink. My review unit came with gloves but I did the job barehanded and, sure enough, had to wash ink off my hands when I was done.

The quality of both black and white and color prints is quite good. In fact, if I owned this printer, I might start using it for color photographs. For the last few years I’ve been using Walgreens, Costco and other services to print my photos because it’s cheaper and more convenient. But with ink cost reduced to nearly zero, it’s now cheaper to print them at home. I own a Hewlett Packard laser printer but I’m thinking of switching over to the new Epson because the ink is a lot cheaper per page than laser. There was a time when laser was much better quality than ink jet for business documents but that’s not so true anymore.

My only complaint was that the printer sometimes pulled in two sheets instead of one but that was with slightly warped cheap Costco paper. I loaded in paper from a new package (also cheap Costco paper) and it worked fine.

Speaking of cost, you need to do a lot of printing to justify the extra cost of the hardware. It’s hard to exactly calculate the point at which this printer pays for itself, because it depends on what other printer you might buy and what you pay for ink. But if you paid $80 for the Epson Workforce WF-2650 All-in-One, for example, your ink cost would be about 6 cents for a typical black page so it would take nearly 6,000 such pages before the EcoTank printer paid for itself. However, you could save on ink by getting off-brand cartridges or have your cartridges refilled.

Still, there is something nice about being able to simply fill up the printer with ink and stop worrying about it. It’s also a lot more ecologically friendly than dealing with cartridges (although some stores will recycle them or even give you a credit for spent cartridges).

I kind of think of this EcoTank printer like I think about my Prius. They cost more to buy than traditional models, but use a lot less expensive liquid.