Blog — Tips and Tricks from the Mac Zen Team

Multi-function Ink Jet Printers

Do they still have a place in our home? How can we make best use of them, and what are the pitfalls to look out for?

Over the last few months, we’ve looked closely at a couple of solutions that are dedicated to capturing documents and reducing clutter. Scanner Pro is a gold-standard iPhone app by Riddle which turns your iPhone’s high-resolution camera into a very capable scanner. The Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 is a standalone document scanner and software solution designed for high-volume duplex scanning on your desktop.

But what of that inkjet you’ve had sitting on your desk? If you’re looking for a way to leverage your existing equipment, there’s a reason why I’ve left this scanning option to last.


  1. Inconsistency among the hardware capabilities of automatic document feeders included with inkjet printers
  2. Reliability and availability of software scanning solutions bundled with the inkjet printer
  3. Dependancy on inkjet cartridges
Inconsistency among the hardware capabilities of automatic document feeders included with inkjet printers

Back in the 90’s, working in the printing industry, Inkjet technology was in its infancy. High-quality inkjet printers were very expensive, but the inks themselves were the real money makers for the manufacturers. The business model was simple—sell an expensive piece of hardware at a slightly discounted price, and subsidize the initial loss with consumables that will (in a short time) pay off the cost of the hardware, and become profitable within less than 18 months.

For years the inkjet printing industry was largely built upon this practical means of growth and development. The technology got cheaper and easier to manufacture, and the industrial advancements in hardware, ink, papers made their way to consumers. Initially this was a move that favoured the consumer, but within less than 10 years the cost of manufacturing the hardware had come down so far, that the inkjet printers themselves could be commoditized to the point where they were practically given away. Cheap parts, basic construction—cheap printers. The inks however never came down in price. They gave the average consumer basic printing capabilities at a low cost, and continued charging the high prices for the cost of ink.

Now, most manufacturers saved the best engineering for those willing to pay for a higher-end unit. Aside from performance capabilities and longer usable shelf-lives, the most noticeable benefits of investing in a better inkjet printer were the noise levels, and a more solid construction. In addition, many higher-end inkjet’s were far better at managing ink wastage over the lifespan of a printer. The most complex mechanical parts of the printer—the ink heads—are prone to drying and clogging if tiny amounts of ink aren’t periodically purged.

Either way—whether you were low-end user, or a professional—the manufacturers were making a lot of money.

So what does this all mean? Essentially, there were two ways they could continue to make money off you:

a) Make it cheap so it breaks, and then buy a new one (after buying unique cartridges)

b) Sell you a better printer with more features.

The end result is a dizzying array of printers with as many variations in features and performance. These days the better inkjet printers—known as multifunction printers (or MFPs), have built-in scanners and automatic document feeders. Few I have found, however come close to providing the same level of build-quality and software solutions to match.

The only consumer line of multi-function Inkjet’s that I’ve been consistently impressed with are HP’s line of OfficeJets. The 8600 and its successors have consistently shown excellent performance, software support and reliability. Unlike so many others, the rollers on their automatic document feeders are excellent—a rarity among other manufacturers.

Reliability and availability of software scanning solutions bundled with the inkjet printer

If there’s one thing that you can be sure of with inkjet printers, it’s that the software it was bundled with will most likely not be supported in a few years. In contrast to the dedicated function of the ScanSnap ix500, performance document scanning is a feature on most multi-function printers, and little more. As a result the workflow and support software is nowhere near as feature-rich.

One particular nuisance that seems to plague printers—to the point of seeming almost a conspiracy of some sort—is the constant obsolescence of drivers for the printers. Because of this, every time you update the operating system on your computer, there’s a distinct chance that the drivers you were able to use previously are no longer supported. I’m not saying this happens all the time, but enough to make it a real pain, and something that has to be part of every operating system upgrade I perform.

Adding insult to injury, the constant tide of incremental feature updates to printers, means that the manufacturers suffer from fragmentation very similar to that experienced in the Android market—so may models, and not enough resources to continue to develop software for prior models. Even if the drivers are updated, all too often the utility software—the packages that include the scanning software suites—are left unsupported. The result? Your $300 MFP is capable of printing and scanning, but only by the Mac’s built-in universal printing and scanning functions.

In other words, it’s good for a couple of years, and then the printer needs to be replaced. As I said, it doesn’t happen to all printers, just a large majority.

Dependancy on inkjet cartridges

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, in the vast majority of inkjet printers, the devices are completely disabled for most other functions if you’re out of ink. Something I find quite abhorrent.

In conclusion, it’s not just paper mountains that lead me to want to reduce my dependance on printing, it is that we have to make a shift toward creating a sustainable method of managing our documents. Without it, we will no doubt continue to support an industry that has exemplified disposability and e-waste. At least with many cellphones there’s an incentive to repurpose and ship to developing nations. Inkjet printers however are little more than garbage when their cheap parts fail.