By Anna Merlan
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By Scott Snowden
Q: My Epson printer's always telling me the ink cartridges are empty after, like, only four weeks. But when I pop 'em out and shake 'em up, I can hear lots of ink still sloshing around. This wouldn't bother me so much, except the printer refuses to accept such "empty" cartridges. Any way to fix this, or has the Man screwed me once again?
Epson printers are notorious for fibbing about the amount of ink remaining, the better to keep you buying those pricey replacement cartridges. Epson claims that the leftover ink prevents the accumulation of air bubbles that can damage the printer, but there's a big difference between having a smidge of "buffer" ink and being stuck with a half-full cartridge. Keep in mind, the printer itself is essentially a loss leader, the computer equivalent of the non-disposable razor; what keeps Epson execs flush with yen are ink sales. Fortunately, some rebellious programmers have hatched a plan to fight back.
Though your Epson monitoring software may show easy-to-follow bar graphs that chart ink depletion, don't be duped into thinking the measurements are the slightest bit accurate. You know that little green chip on the side of every ink cartridge, the one that the instructions warn you not to touch, even if your firstborn's life depends on it? Contrary to what you might surmise, that chip isn't connected to the ink supply. Rather, it's pre-programmed to make the cartridge stop working once print quality falls below a certain level, as determined by how many dots of each color have been used. So those fancy bar graphs your ink monitor displays? A made-up sideshow, man. A freakin' made-up sideshow.
The trouble with this pre-set system, as you've had the misfortune to discover, is that your cartridges may still have some pop in 'em when the chip says, "No más." With a lot of brands, the trick is merely to take out the cartridge, shake it around a bit, and place it back in the carriagevoilà! Another 50 or so pages can be teased out. But most Epson ink-jets aren't so easy to monkey-wrench; once the chip decides the cartridge is dead, it stays dead.
Unless you're up for practicing a little geek necromancy, that is. As previously discussed in this space, there's a burgeoning subculture of folks who save cake by manually refilling their spent cartridges. Mr. Roboto doesn't particularly recommend this tack; even your humble narrator, who fancies himself at least moderately handy, once had an awful experience with an ink-filled syringe.
But much respect to the refill underground for inventing resetters, which trick chips into thinking a cartridge is full. Resetters come in two flavors, hardware and software. The former sort of resembles a beeper and is simply clipped onto a spent or near-empty cartridge for a few seconds. Mr. Roboto much prefers the software options, though, especially a $10 program called InkLevel 3.0 (available at inklevel.cjb.net). Alas, it only works with a few model numbers, so check the specs list or try the free demo before purchasing.
If the program won't work, stick with a hardware resetter, available from Repeat-O-Type (repeatotype.com); prices vary depending on what model Epson you're using, but are generally in the $30-$40 range.
True gearheads who own an Epson Photo 770, 870, or 1270 may also want to think about chip swappingthat is, outfitting your old cartridge with a chip from a generic (and therefore cheaper) new one. If that sounds risky, it's because it is. The brave among you can check out the step-by-step instructions at crazy-stuff.com/epson/epsoncheat-e.html.
There's no way of telling how many extra pages you can squeeze out of every so-called empty cartridge before it gives up the ghost for real, though Mr. Roboto's guesstimate is from 20 to 50 of so-so quality. That may not sound like a lot, but given the astronomical prices of brand-name refills$32-plus for a black C80 cartridge, for exampleit can really add up after a spell. And weren't you just thinking the other day about saving up to buy some blue suede Pumas? Thought so.
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