Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A narrow victory over HP

At one point last weekend, it looked like we were going to have to concede defeat to HP in the game of "Us Versus the Man." After successfully refilling the black ink cartridge three weeks ago, we found last Friday that the color ink supply was running low and we could no longer print anything in color (and our attempts to print in black-and-white mode came out looking all wonky). So on Saturday, Brian pulled out the color cartridge and attempted to refill it using the colored ink we'd bought for our old HP printer. Adding colored ink is trickier than adding black ink, because the color cartridge has three separate compartments—cyan, magenta, and yellow—and it's obviously important to get the right color into each compartment if you want your images to print properly. Brian consulted the same website where he found instructions for refilling the black ink cartridge and discovered that there's an additional wrinkle: on the HP 61 color cartridge, sometimes the yellow and magenta chambers are reversed. So the only way to be sure you've got the right compartment is to draw a little ink out of the chamber with the syringe and check its color.

So, being a meticulous person, Brian carefully checked the color of the ink in each chamber before filling them up. In order to access the chambers, he had to peel off the label on the top of the cartridge, which made working with it even trickier, as ink had a tendency to spill out if the cartridge was tipped. He eventually managed to fill all three chambers, although he noted that they didn't take much ink; it didn't seem like they could really be full, but with the ink overflowing through the holes, it was clear that the cartridge wouldna take much morrrrre. While he was at it, he also pulled out the black ink cartridge and pulled off the label to see if he could get it to accommodate any more ink than it had taken on the previous fill-up. He eventually discovered that by injecting the ink slowly, he was able to fit in quite a bit more ink than it had taken to overflow the cartridge last time.

So far, so good. He carefully (since they now had their labels off) reinserted both cartridges and printed out a test page, and it came out looking a bit odd. The blue sample looked normal, but the yellow and red bars looked muddy—as if he'd somehow managed to get the magenta and yellow ink into the wrong cartridges. But surely that couldn't be right; he'd checked the color before filling them. So he printed out a test photo, and all the greens came out looking pink. At this point, he could only conclude, with some bewilderment, that despite all his precautions, he'd somehow managed to get the colors reversed. So he figured we'd have to buy a new color cartridge and start over.

We stopped by a Staples the next day while out on our mulch-buying errand, but it was closed for Easter, so I went online to check prices on HP cartridges and see where we could find the best price on a new one. And in the course of my research, I made an interesting discovery: HP 61 cartridges actually come in three sizes. You can get the standard HP 61 tricolor cartridge, which prints up to 165 pages, for $20. But for just $10 more, you can get the HP 61XL, which prints up to 330 pages. At first blush, this sounds like a great deal: you pay only 50 percent more and get twice as much output. But I couldn't figure out, looking at our printer, how a larger cartridge was supposed to fit into the same space occupied by the standard HP 61 cartridge. It didn't look like there was any extra room. And then it hit me: there's actually no difference in size between these two cartridges; it's just the size of the sponge inside that's different. The standard ink cartridge is actually designed to hold only half as much ink as it's capable of holding, so that you'll be forced to buy new ones twice as often. And then, to add insult to injury, they make a cartridge that actually does hold as much ink as it's capable of holding, charge 50 percent more for it, and act like they're offering you a great bargain.

Well, it was clear that for those who intend to buy a new cartridge every time the old one runs dry, the HP 61XL was the best deal—but for us, there was no point in buying twice as much ink from HP at their grossly inflated prices, even if they were marginally less grossly inflated. Brian did pause to consider the number of times each cartridge could be refilled before the print heads would wear out, requiring a replacement—but then we concluded that this was probably a function of the number of pages printed rather than the size of the cartridge, so for us, it made sense to buy the smallest possible cartridge, the HP 61 Economy. According to Staples, this size would print up to 155 pages and cost $5 less than the standard cartridge—a 25 percent savings with only a 6 percent reduction in capacity—so it was definitely a better value, and the difference in time between refills would be minimal.

Once I'd discovered the existence of the Economy cartridge, it occurred to me to wonder if maybe the cartridges HP had provided with the printer when we bought it were actually this size. That might explain why the color cartridge (and also the black one, on our first refill attempt) seemed to hold so little ink. So I opened up the printer to take a look at the cartridge and see if there was anything on it to indicate what size it was. Except, of course, I forgot that the holes in the top were no longer covered, so I managed to spill ink all over my fingers—and when I tried to pop the cartridge back in, the black cartridge popped out and spilled its ink as well. While I rushed to wash the ink off my hands, Brian started cleaning up the spilled ink—and noticed something interesting. When he'd refilled the color cartridge, some of the spilled ink had apparently gotten onto the printer leads themselves. Could this be the reason why colors were no longer printing accurately?

By the time I got my hands clean, Brian had cleaned off both the cartridges and was carefully covering up the area formerly covered by the label with tape, so it wouldn't spill again. Then he put them back in and printed out the test picture again, and lo and behold, the greens all came out nice and green. So the good news was that we didn't need a new color cartridge after all...and the even better news was that he hadn't completely lost his marbles and managed to put the magenta ink in the yellow container even after checking it.

So, in conclusion, I can now declare Round 1 of "Us Versus the Man" a victory for Amy and Brian. And I can also say we've learned two useful lessons from it. First, when refilling these ink cartridges, clean them carefully and re-cover the label area. And second, a more general lesson: before you run out to replace something, be sure you check it carefully to make sure it's really broken. If I hadn't happened to spill ink all over the place, Brian might never have examined the old cartridges carefully enough to discover what was the problem with them. Good thing for us that the Staples was closed on Easter, eh?
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