Review: Epson EcoTank -- an inkjet printer without cartridges

Epson is attempting to rewrite printer history with its new line of EcoTank inkjet printers. Instead of using small, prefilled ink cartridges that have to be frequently (and expensively) replaced, Epson's new printers use permanent tanks in which generous amounts of ink are poured. When you run out of ink, instead of buying and snapping in new ink cartridges, you just pour more in.

There are currently five models that are part of the EcoTank line: two consumer-level printers (the $380 Expression ET-2500 and $400 Expression ET-2550), two business-level all-in-ones (the $430 WorkForce ET-4500 and $500 WorkForce ET-4550), and the $1,200 heavy-duty WorkForce Pro WF-R4640. On the whole, these printers tend to cost more than their traditional equivalents -- for example, an inkjet all-in-one such as the HP Officejet Pro 8620 retails for about $150 rather than the $430 or $500 that you'll pay for one of the EcoTank printers.

The idea is that, while EcoTank printers and ink may cost more at the outset, they will save the user money over the long term. For example, take the WorkForce ET-4550, the model that I reviewed for this article.

Beneath a hinged cover on its right side, the ET4550 has four ink tanks, each of which has a plastic window so you can see the ink level. The printer initially comes with two bottles each of black, cyan, magenta and yellow ink; each bottle of black ink holds 4.7 oz., while each bottle of colored ink holds 2.35 oz. One bottle just fills each individual reservoir, which is then closed with a rubber stopper.

According to Epson, rather than needing a new set of ink cartridges roughly every 700 or 800 pages (as do most standard inkjet printers), Epson's eight bottles of included ink are good for 11,000 pages of black text or 8,500 of color content. By the company's estimate, that's two years of printing (assuming about 300 pages a month).

Then, when you've used up the ink, a replacement set for the ET-4550 costs about $58 direct from Epson. The company says the new set is good for between 4,000 and 6,500 pages of general-purpose printing. This is compared to, say, the cost of ink for the aforementioned HP Officejet Pro 8620, which costs about $150 at Staples for a complete set and is rated for about 2,300 pages for its black ink and 1,500 for its color ink -- and so which will run out a lot faster.

A messy fill-up

There are, however, certain disadvantages to Epson's new system. Filling the ink tanks can be a little messy. Each bottle has a foil seal that needs to be removed, which can splash ink on your fingers or, worse, clothing or furniture -- so you need to be careful. I got small ink splotches on my thumb and forefinger during the ET-4550's first fill-up. I suggest wearing latex or nitrile gloves.

et 4550 tanks2

Beneath a hinged cover on its right side, the ET4550 has four ink tanks, each of which has a plastic window so you can see the ink level.

You also should be careful when moving the printer to prevent spills. In fact, the printer comes with a plastic bag to cover it while moving, although I carried it across an office and down two flights of stairs without any leakage.

To get all the ink into the tank, you'll need to give the bottle a gentle squeeze. If you don't use it all for any reason, each bottle comes with a cap. However, Epson warns that you should use any remaining ink in the bottle within six months to keep it from drying out; an unopened bottle has a three-year shelf life.

Once its tanks are filled, the ET-4550 takes 20 minutes to perform a one-time initialization that involves pumping ink and removing air bubbles.

Using the printer

For businesses with limited space, the ET-4550 should fit right in. It has a 20.0-x-14.2-in. footprint and is 9.5 in. tall. It includes a text-based 2.2-in. monochrome info screen, and can connect via a USB cable to your computer, or via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, it has neither a USB slot for quickly printing the contents of a mobile drive nor a Near Field Communications (NFC) spot for touching a phone to print. The 8.7-x-12.1-in. glass platen can scan letter-sized originals.

The ET-4550's paper tray holds 150 pages of up to legal-sized paper; it also has a 30-page document feeder that can work with paper sizes ranging from 3.5 x 5 in. to legal size sheets, including a variety of envelopes and a banner measuring 8.5 x 47 in. It can use between 17-lb. and 24-lb. stock, a more limited range than many printers (since it excludes heavy card stock). I tested the feeder with several different inexpensive inkjet paper stocks as well as standard paper weights over three weeks of daily use without suffering a jam.

The ET-4550 can easily service a small office or workgroup with a duty cycle of 3,000 pages a month.

The printer's PrecisionCore 1S inkjet array uses micro piezo-electric pumps that lay down drops of ink that are as small as 3.3-picoliters (3.3 trillionths of a liter), which is smaller (and thus, provides more detail) than many other printers in the same market.

Able to create documents that are up to 4800 x 1200 dots per inch (dpi) resolution, the ET-4550 has printing modes for High (for photos), Standard, Standard-Vivid (offers best color balance) and Draft quality output. It can be set to automatically print on both sides of a sheet.

The printer comes with a disc containing the printer's manual and drivers for PCs (including Windows 10) and Macs (through OS X 10.10 Yosemite) as well as software for printing via an email (all of which are also available online ). In addition, Epson's free iOS and Android iPrint apps let you print and scan from a mobile device. The printer works with Google Cloud Print as well as Apple's AirPrint.

Near laser quality

The proof of any printer is its output -- and the ET-4550 is surprisingly good at creating type-based documents with sharp black characters that had excellent contrast. In fact, its output was equivalent in quality to that of my Brother HL-2240 laser printer.

In Standard mode, it delivered its first page in 23 seconds; I timed a 15-page double-spaced document at 12.1 pages per minute (ppm). That's just off its official 13ppm rating. (Since printer vendors tend to test their printers under ideal conditions, this isn't bad.)

Color documents were just as sharp, but printed much slower at 5.2ppm for a 39-page PDF-based presentation. I felt that the ET-4550's dye-based cyan ink made its blues look a bit washed out in Standard mode, although its reds and greens looked vibrant and bold. Using the printer's Standard Vivid mode worked the best with color prints.

As a scanner, the ET-4550 can create 48-bit color images at up to 1200 x 2400 dpi and can interpolate them to the equivalent of 9600 dpi. (Interpolation software uses edge enhancement and other techniques to boost an image's size and quality.)

The scanning interface has two modes. The Office mode, meant for speedy archiving, offers only selections for resolution and the ability to enhance type; it took me 26.3 seconds to scan a page at 200 dpi. The Professional mode allows the scanning of film originals, adds options like adjusting the color gamut and correcting for backlighting in the original; at 1200 x 2400 resolution it took 7 minutes 23 seconds to scan the same page.

The ET-4550's copier has a 30-page document feeder and color copied 12 pages at the rate of 3.3ppm. In some cases, the copies looked better than the originals -- it made some wrinkles in the paper less pronounced, for example. The printer also has an RJ-11 port for faxing; it can handle 20 pages per minute and hold up to 100 pages in memory.

The ET-4550 comes with a two-year warranty.

Bottom line

While Epson's new EcoTank design is a fascinating new approach to the office printer, I felt that the company's estimate of two years before having to purchase more ink (after using the included bottles) was a bit optimistic.

After printing more than 1,000 pages of a variety of documents with the ET-4550, the level of the black ink for the test unit had come down about 25%. That translates into about 4,000 pages per set of ink bottles or an economical 1.5 cents per page for ink -- not quite up to Epson's claims, but far better than most competing inkjet printers.

Although the ET-4550 sells for $500, roughly twice what other printers in its class go for, it comes with two sets of bottles, enough ink to produce about 8,000 pages of typical office printing (and, as mentioned before, each additional set will cost about $58). By contrast, HP's Office Jet Pro 8620 costs $150, but its ink (which also costs about $150 per set) comes to about 7.1 cents per page to create general-purpose documents.

At that rate, you'd break even at about 5,000 pages. After that, every time you hit the print button, you save.

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