How your printer tricks you into buying ink and toner when you don't need it.

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Aug. 21 2008 3:21 PM

Take That, Stupid Printer!

How to fight back against the lying, infuriating, evil ink-and-toner cabal.

The Brother HL-2040 printer.
The Brother HL-2040 printer

I bought a cheap laser printer a couple years ago, and for a while, it worked perfectly. The printer, a Brother HL-2040, was fast, quiet, and produced sheet after sheet of top-quality prints—until one day last year, when it suddenly stopped working. I consulted the user manual and discovered that the printer thought its toner cartridge was empty. It refused to print a thing until I replaced the cartridge. But I'm a toner miser: For as long as I've been using laser printers, it's been my policy to switch to a new cartridge at the last possible moment, when my printouts get as faint as archival copies of the Declaration of Independence. But my printer's pages hadn't been fading at all. Did it really need new toner—or was my printer lying to me?

To find out, I did what I normally do when I'm trying to save $60: I Googled. Eventually I came upon a note on FixYourOwnPrinter.com posted by a fellow calling himself OppressedPrinterUser. This guy had also suspected that his Brother was lying to him, and he'd discovered a way to force it to fess up. Brother's toner cartridges have a sensor built into them; OppressedPrinterUser found that covering the sensor with a small piece of dark electrical tape tricked the printer into thinking he'd installed a new cartridge. I followed his instructions, and my printer began to work. At least eight months have passed. I've printed hundreds of pages since, and the text still hasn't begun to fade. On FixYourOwnPrinter.com, many Brother owners have written in to thank OppressedPrinterUser for his hack. One guy says that after covering the sensor, he printed 1,800 more pages before his toner finally ran out.

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Brother isn't the only company whose printers quit while they've still got life in them. Because the industry operates on a classic razor-and-blades business model—the printer itself isn't pricy, but ink and toner refills cost an exorbitant amount—printer manufacturers have a huge incentive to get you to replace your cartridges quickly. One way they do so is through technology: Rather than printing ever-fainter pages, many brands of printers—like my Brother—are outfitted with sensors or software that try to predict when they'll run out of ink. Often, though, the printer's guess is off; all over the Web, people report that their printers die before their time.

Enter OppressedPrinterUser. Indeed, instructions for fooling different laser printers into thinking you've installed a new cartridge are easy to come by. People are even trying to sell such advice on eBay. If you're at all skilled at searching the Web, you can probably find out how to do it for free, though. Just Google some combination of your printer's model number and the words toner, override, cheap, and perhaps lying bastards.

Similar search terms led me to find that many Hewlett-Packard printers can be brought back to life by digging deep into their onboard menus and pressing certain combinations of buttons. (HP buries these commands in the darkest recesses of its instruction manuals—see Page 163 of this PDF.) Some Canon models seem to respond well to shutting the printer off for a while; apparently, this resets the system's status indicator. If you can't find specific instructions for your model, there are some catchall methods: Try removing your toner cartridge and leaving the toner bay open for 15 or 20 seconds—the printer's software might take that as a cue that you've installed a new cartridge. Vigorously shaking a laser toner cartridge also gets good results; it breaks up clumps of ink and bathes the internal sensor in toner.

These tricks generally apply to laser printers. It's more difficult to find ways to override ink-level sensors in an inkjet printer, and, at least according to printer manufactures, doing so is more dangerous. I was able to dig up instructions for getting around HP inkjets' shut-off, and one blogger found that coloring in his Brother inkjet cartridge with a Sharpie got it to print again. But I had no luck for Epson, Lexmark, Canon, and many other brands of inkjets. There are two reasons manufacturers make it more difficult for you to keep printing after your inkjet thinks it's out of ink. First, using an inkjet cartridge that's actually empty could overheat your printer's permanent print head, leaving you with a useless hunk of plastic. Second, the economics of the inkjet business are even more punishing than those of the laser business, with manufacturers making much more on ink supplies than they do on printers.

Inkjet makers have a lot riding on your regular purchases of ink—and they go to great lengths to protect that market. In 2003, the British consumer magazine Which? found that inkjet printers ask for a refill long before their cartridges actually go dry. After overriding internal warnings, a researcher was able to print 38 percent more pages on an Epson printer that had claimed it didn't have a drop left. Lawyers in California and New York filed a class-action lawsuit against Epson; the company denied any wrongdoing, but it settled the suit in 2006, giving customers a $45 credit. A similar suit is pending against Hewlett-Packard.

There's also a long-standing war between printer makers and third-party cartridge companies that sell cheap knockoff ink packs. In 2003, Lexmark claimed that a company that managed to reverse-engineer the software embedded in its printer cartridges was violating copyright law. Opponents of overbearing copyright protections were alarmed at Lexmark's reach; copyright protections have traditionally covered intellectual property like music and movies, not physical property like printer cartridges. A federal appeals court dismissed Lexmark's case, but manufacturers have recently been successful in using patent law to close down third-party cartridge companies.

In the long run, though, the printer companies' strong line against cartridge makers seems destined to fail. Buying ink and toner is an enormous drag. Having to do it often, and at terribly steep prices, breeds resentment—made all the worse by my printer's lying ways. Some companies are realizing this. When Kodak introduced a new line of printers last year, it emphasized its low ink costs. Kodak claims that its cartridges last twice as long as those of other printers and sell for just $10 to $15 each, a fraction of the price of other companies' ink. When my Brother finally runs dry, perhaps I won't replace the toner—I'll replace the printer.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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