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More Expensive Than Gold : Printer Ink

Have you ever owned a printer, more specifically anything that called itself a BubbleJet, InkJet or any one of the other ridiculous names they used? You’re probably already in pain reading this. However if you own a LaserJet, maybe you’re still smiling. The difference is considerable in many ways.

Your standard issue Bubble/Ink Jet is usually a small form factor, typically costing under $100 and the ink comes in little cartridges. They’ll boast this stupid claims such as “print on a CD label, photo paper, print banners, colour everything!!111!!1!!”. It’s all nonsense. These things aren’t even good enough to hold your door open, or act as an anchor for your boat. They’re trash, and that’s where they belong – but people still buy them in droves. Why? Because they’re cheap and look like they do a million things, only you don’t realize they do none of them well. The print quality is about the level of the runny watercolour painting done by a toddler.

Then there’s the LaserJet. These things are the ONLY printer you should ever buy. They’ll typically cost you a bit more, but it’s worth every penny. They’re bigger, bulkier, and seem a bit less attractive as an option. They do one job, and one job only – print. They almost never offer features such as scanning / copying, but do you really need those? Seriously? Even if you do, you should never use anything other than a LaserJet for more than a few pages of printing a month unless you’re looking to take out a second mortgage on your home to buy the ink.

Oh, The Ink.

It’s got to be one of the biggest scams ever sold. But let’s be clear here. We’re talking ink – what you put in one of those “OfficeJet/InkJet/BubbleJet” pieces of crap. When you’re using a Laser printer, it’s called Toner. You’d think in a higher priced more commercial printer the consumables would cost more, but they don’t – not even close. For the colour LaserJet printer I’ve been using for the past 10 years, a set of 4 replacement toner cartridges costs about $45.00 where-as the ink cartridges for a sub-par printer cost about the same, however last about 1/4 as long.

I’ve often wondered if the blacks were made from the sacred ink of an endangered species of squid, extracted artesianally, by the Buddhist monks, and only during a full moon; after all, it’s priced about the same. The reality is that ink for a printer is worth upwards of $12,000 a gallon. Yes, a gallon. That makes it more expensive than a gallon of vintage champagne. The kind of champagne you can’t find at the LCBO. The kind of champagne that makes Dom Perignon look like toilet water (for reference, a gallon of Dom is about $1,200 – or 1/10th of what a gallon of printer ink costs). Still not disgusted? Printer ink costs more than human blood.

Just Get The Knockoff Stuff, You Idiot!

Yes, I hear the retorts before I even began writing this post. For every toner or ink cartridge out there, someone is selling replacements at a fraction of the cost under some no-name brand. An excellent alternative to the insane markups the manufacturers are charging. This would be all well-and-good, except that there’s a little thing called DRM, or digital rights management. That’s the nice way of the manufacturer saying “we own you, and we will get our pound of flesh”. They want the consumer to be a slave to them, and a slave you will be.

They pull nasty little tricks like slightly changing the shape and size of the cartridges depending on the model or revision making it harder to produce as many knockoffs. However the most nasty trick of them all is implanting a little microchip into the cartridge itself. That microchip will have a unique code embedded in it that your printer will read to determine if it’s a genuine cartridge made by the original manufacturer or not. Think of it like a serial number, which is exactly what it is. Oh, the knockoffs should just get a working serial number and use that for their copies! Well, that used to work for a while – until these printer companies caught on and now they need to verify that serial number online to ensure it hasn’t been used before.

Yes – you read that right. To use your printer, it needs to be able to communicate back to a central server to verify that the ink cartridge that you have installed in it is in fact one that you bought at some insane markup, as opposed to the knockoff one you got from the discount brand (which, I should add is just as good, if not better than the “authentic” ones). What if you want to use this printer in your cabin in the woods with no Internet? You’re screwed. HP & Canon will give you the typical PR nonsense of “black-market cartridges could cause damage to your device. We do this to ensure the proper function of our devices” or some other BS.

Hacking Your Printer.

Personally, I’d figure out a way to break this. Being the tinkering kind that I am, I’d just intercept the traffic from that printer and redirect it to a makeshift server I spun up that would mimic their “authentication” server. A little DNS redirection, some packet sniffing, decoding the payload of what the printer is sending to the server, and then sending a “reply” that “all is good, allow this”. In layman’s terms, I’d prevent the printer from talking out to the Internet and instead just tell it to allow whatever I put in there.

However, that can even be defeated as then my “fake” cartridges would need some sort of serial number chip implanted in them to at least “have” a code. Most of them don’t, so that’s a non-starter. People have even made these little syringes that you can inject the ink back into the original cartridge – brilliant! Except, the printer companies have figured out a way to put a stop to that, too. They know that the average cartridge is able to print X amount of pages, and when that serial number reaches that amount, it knows it should have run out of ink. If you attempt to refill that little plastic part, it will prevent you from printing any more pages. GAH!

So, we need to go deeper. That means we need to hack the firmware of these printers – the “operating system” they run on. Remove the part of the code the printer runs on that makes it check the validity of it’s ink cartridge and then install a new set of code that doesn’t have that. Seems simple enough – right? Maybe – if you’re someone who can not only obtain the original source code of a printer, but also know how to modify it, recompile it, and then upload it back to the printer (a skill I’d imagine less than 0.001% of the population knows how to do – I certainly don’t).

My solution – Use a hammer. Or a baseball bat. Smash the living hell out of that piece of crap you bought and drive the smashed pieces back to the company headquarters only to scatter them on their front lawn. Well, no – don’t do that, I’m not advocating for breaking the law, I was only dreaming of a utopian society.

That Is – Until There’s A Problem The Manufacturer Can’t Solve.

The irony. A perfect storm of circumstances has caused a worldwide shortage of silicon chips (those little tiny things you find on circuit boards in nearly everything from printers, to computers, to your alarm clock, to your car – basically anything that needs a circuit board). This has caused an unbelievable problem across many industries. For example I’m currently waiting on a certain model of VoIP phone to come back into stock, something that has been backordered for the past 7 months, and I have hundreds on backorder.

That shortage has resonated deep for some companies – such as Canon – a major manufacturer of printers – a manufacturer who uses this trash DRM system to make customers pay disgusting markups for ink. They’re not able to obtain enough silicon chips to attach to their overpriced ink cartridges. As such, they’ve been strong-armed into divulging a way to bypass the check their printers do for an authentic cartridge as they can only ship units that don’t have those chips embedded in them at this moment.

The irony indeed. But, for the time being, I still have a saving grace.

I’ve Got A Brother.

Technically, yes – my parents decided I wasn’t enough and made another spawn. But I also bought a colour LaserJet printer made by a company called “Brother”. They’re one of (if not the) last manufacturers who isn’t embedding DRM into their cartridges. You can pickup a half decent monochrome (black & white) laser printer for under $200.00, and a colour LaserJet printer for about $300.00. They’re worth every penny – and I’ll never recommend another brand of printer to a family member, friend, or client as long as this stands true.

I paid a fair (read: not terrible) price for my printer, and I’m able to buy their authentic replacement toner cartridges (which, are actually not terribly priced), or but in knockoffs – which are about $45.00 for a set of 4; Black, Red (Magenta), Blue (Cyan), and Yellow. It has WiFi capabilities, a pretty simple management interface, and has basically been my workhorse for the past decade – it never fails, but in all fairness I likely only print a few hundred pages a year at most. I suspect it’d do a lot more with absolutely no sweat.

So, What Can I Do?

First off, buy a Brother printer. Don’t even for a moment consider buying from a company that uses DRM. Hewlett Packard (what used to be a WONDERFUL printer company – not anymore), and Canon are two of the worst offenders you should never touch.

Second – consider what you’re printing. If it’s something that absolutely needs to be on paper, then go for it. But, why not consider things like sending the document to your phone to read while you commute or sit on the toilet? Can this be emailed as opposed to printed? Paper cuts down trees, let’s save a few, ya? Plus, it saves on your printer costs.

What about photos? Those snazzy all-in-one “Photo Printers” that cost a bajillion dollars in ink print substandard photos at insane prices. Just send your photos to a online photo printing company, or take them to your local Rexall pharmacy or Walmart that typically has a photo printer on site that you only pay $0.25 a picture for – a heck of a lot cheaper than the cost of the ink you’d use at home – let alone the cost of the sub-standard printer, too. Sure, maybe you want to say “but I’m sending my money to big box retailers!” – What do you think you’re doing when you buy an HP or Canon printer?

Better yet, lookup a locally owned print shop and see if they can print your digital images from your phone or digital camera for you. Not only are you supporting a local business, but you know that these small businesses actually care about the product/service they’re delivering to you – after all, it’s the only thing keeping them in business these days. You’re sending your money to someone in your community, not some multi-national trash that will pay dividends to their stockholders, and ship your cash overseas.

This is just one of the many little tips and tricks that I know that can help you save a boatload when it comes to your IT costs. It’s important to understand the innerworkings of the industry, and that’s just what I’m here to help you navigate.