I just published the in-depth review of the Brother MFC-J6945DW printer that I’ve been working on for almost a month. In the review, I compare it to other similar printers on the market and list other contenders I considered. Conspicuously missing in the review is any mention of HP printers. I want to get into the reasons for that here.
HP started out as a company I really respected. Whether it was their original LaserJets printers, mid aughts business inkjets, or their HP/UX workstations and servers that had stronger frames than a HumVee, they were a company that was serious about making products that were engineered to last. When my brother and I took a stab at our own business, I bought three used LaserJet III printers and then ran them continuously on refilled toner for, I’m sure, 20,000 pages of flyers each in a month. If I hadn’t needed to get rid of them for weight and space reasons, they would still be working. Those old LaserJets were easy to repair and could be kept operating forever. Fast forward a few years to the mid 2000’s when I picked up an HP OfficeJet Pro K5400DN. It has aftermarket extended cartridges and over the last 12 years has been dragged back from the brink of death at the hands of my kids more than once. Replaceable printheads meant the printheads could also be removed and refurbished with ease.
From a consumer perspective, though, it feels like HP has lost their way. Cost, control, and reliability are the reasons why.
Although it’s Lexmark that first pioneered the practice, HP has turned bilking customers on ink sales into an art form (interestingly, it didn’t end up working so well for Lexmark, who exited the inkjet market in 2012). HP’s price per page has gotten steadily worse and is now just north of robbery. The only way to get genuine ink for anything like reasonable prices is to sign up for, essentially, a service contract where you pay a monthly fee for the number of pages you want to print. You pay whether you use the pages or not, though. And a page with one line on it is a page. “Software as a Service” has the software industry twitterpated. Printing as a Service is HP’s mantra. When I see HP now what comes to mind is Thenardier from Les Mis belting out “but first…. YOU PAY!”
Let’s say you do sign up for their “printing-as-a-service” ink program. You might think you own those cartridges HP sends you. Think again. HP owns them, and basically owns your printer to boot. The ink cartridges you get are actually locked out for use on any other printer. They are locked to your printer’s serial number and can only be used there. In addition, HP gets information on everything you print. Do the printers communicate this securely? Damfino. HP sees everything you print and controls how you can use your ink. They control how many pages you can have and what constitutes a page. It’s really kinda big brother.
All of the big four printer manufacturers (HP, Brother, Epson, and Canon) have at least flirted with ink-tank printers. Interestingly, the only two who have made a serious go of it world wide are Brother and Epson; who are notably the two manufacturers who use reliable piezo print head technology. Canon has a couple ink tank printers, but hasn’t really committed to it. HP has done it in other markets but not here. In North America they have shied away from this concept like a prisoner from a torturer’s branding iron. Why? Well, for one thing HP is, of course, addicted to the money they make on business ink sales. But I suspect the other reason is reliability. An ink-tank printer implies not just low price-per-page but also long-term reliability.
Thermal ink jet print heads send current through a tiny resistor to heat it up and vaporize a bubble of ink. Like the bottom of your tea pot, when this tiny bit of ink is vapourized, it leaves behind a residue. They require ink to flow through and wash this off periodically but that doesn’t always work and they are much more prone to clogging over the long term. Their inks have to be very carefully formulated for solubility. This is also why pigmented inks have been troublesome for HP and Canon. They have both come a huge way in print quality, so much so that they may now be superior to Brother and Epson on that front. But in my experience, HP and Canon print heads just don’t last.
HP used to put replaceable print heads on most of their higher-end printers. Those printers where the heads weren’t built into the ink cartridge, at least, and just for that reason of reliability. This is becoming more and more of a rarity, though. Even on their higher end printers, the ones where they ostensibly aren’t subsidizing the printer cost with future ink sales, their print heads are fixed. I refuse to treat my printer as a disposable item.
I have had great experiences with HP printers. Great old LaserJets, a 12-year-old OfficeJet Pro that still works, a photo printer I gave to my daughter… I loved HP. The last one I bought from them, though, made me take a long hard look at them as a company. It was an OfficeJet 7610, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Two disasters, actually, since I set up a friend of mine with one for his restaurant business too, and which was just as much of a disaster for him. The black ink leaked out the print head when it wasn’t printing, the colour inks wouldn’t flow, and the cartridges were a fortune. The drivers for it were cut-down and had almost no controllability – I ended up forcing my printer to use the drivers from my 12-year-old printer (PCL 6 to the rescue) because they let me control everything. It was philosophizing on the reasons why this printer was so terrible that lead me to the realization that they have lost their way. Now, am I sour grapes because of one bad experience? To some extent, of course I am. The question remains, am I blinded by my own uniquely bad experience, or did I have a bad experience due to a real trend. That is up to you to decide.
In my view, though, HP is more and more becoming the Microsoft of the printer world. The business model they want is “printing as a service”. Which means contracts and monthly charges. It also means that long-term reliability isn’t necessarily even in their best interest. They want you on contract, not going it alone. It’s for this reason that, unless they make some significant changes, their offerings will likely not even make it onto my radar any time soon. And I don’t think I’m alone. A company can trade on its goodwill and name for only so long.