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Separate Or Combined Inks?: The Debate Is On Again

Canon, HP's Xmas Ink-Jet Printer Fleet
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The most significant innovation is found in the Photosmart 8250 from HP. This manufacturer has been basing its strategy for years on the concept of color inks combined in a single cartridge, but this time they've decided to offer a model with separate inks. This model has six independent tanks, each one dedicated to a particular color. This is not the first time HP has used this printing architecture, but until now the company has offered separate inks only on their professional A3 models. This is the first time HP has applied this principle to a printer aimed at the consumer market.

There are two main reasons for this decision. The first has to do with cost per page; despite attempts by HP and Lexmark to convince users that combined inks aren't more expensive in terms of cost per page than separate inks, tests have systematically proven the opposite. By separating the inks and disconnecting the cartridges from the printing head, HP was able to increase the volume of ink in each cartridge, optimizing the ink used for each color. You don't replace a color unless the corresponding cartridge is empty, rather than having to get a replacement as soon as the first of the colors runs out. This greatly improves yield and the user doesn't get the feeling that ink is being wasted.

This change has also let HP make up part of their lag with regard to printing speeds. The ink tanks on the Photosmart 8250 - which we'll discuss later in more detail - are fixed, and connected to the printing head by a system of tubes. This means that the printer head, which had to carry the weight of the cartridges until now, is much lighter and thus can move faster.

Conversely, Canon has introduced a few printers and multifunction devices that combine the three primary colors in a single cartridge. Since these are very much entry-level products, we haven't included them in this test, but the tests we've run give you an idea of the savings made by using separate cartridges. The table below will give you an idea.

Model Type of cartridge Average life Cost of 4" x 6" print
Canon Pixma MP450 Combined inks 54 pages at 25% 58 cents
HP Photosmart 8050 Combined inks 48 pages at 25% 52 cents
Canon Pixma iP5200 Separate inks 200 pages at 25% 29 cents
HP Photosmart 8250 Separate inks 107 pages at 25% 31 cents

As you can see, it's no contest, with the cost for a 4"x6" (10x15 cm) print almost double with combined inks as with separate cartridges. We must remember that combined cartridges still have an advantage: the printing heads are replaced at the same time as the cartridge, which is bound to increase the printer's life. Yet that argument is losing weight. The price of the printers is so low, and the pace of technology change so rapid, that it makes sense to replace an older model with a new one when it starts to show signs of age rather than buying new printer heads.

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