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New print

20 months later

 Even the cheapest current inkjet printer will produce a near perfect print when itís brand new. The important differences between printers only show up when you change cartridges, leave the machine unused for a couple of months, or look at your prints a couple of years later.  

Iíve had a few inkjet printers and Iíve looked many times on Google for good sources of information about them, without ever finding a holy grail. Magazine reviews of the printers always stress their latest features and the official Wilhelm Research longevity tests are conducted under such ideal laboratory conditions they bear little resemblance to real life. I canít believe such basic information doesnít exist somewhere on the web, but as I canít find it, I decided to write my own guide. I was particularly frustrated by my prints fading ridiculously fast, even when shielded from sunlight. Last year my mum, whoís an artist, was also getting concerned about the fading of her digital prints, so I set up my own tests (see below).

If you have an Epson, your prints won't fade, but your whole printer may clog up and have to be chucked out if you leave it unused for more than a few weeks.
If you have an HP or a Canon, the inks fade because they react with the air, so laminate your prints to stop them fading.
Its worth buying the manufacturers own ink cartridges, but not their own papers. 


 Hewlett Packard, Canon and Lexmark/Dell inkjets heat the ink to boil droplets and project them onto the page. Epson inkjets use piezo elements to vibrate the droplets onto the page. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. 

Hewlett Packardís domestic printers have the nozzles and heating inkjets built into each ink cartridge, so when you put in a new cartridge, the quality should be literally as good as new. It often isnít though Ė because their system requires a large number of electrical contacts all to be perfectly made when a new cartridge is inserted. Iíve had difficulty getting them to print well after changing cartridges whenever Iíve attempted to refill one, and also when using cheap brands of cartridge Ė I think the problems were due to dodgy electrical connections, though also possibly airlocks. With HP printers, Iíve taken to buying their own brand high capacity cartridges, as they do seem to work well. A big drawback of HPs Ďheatingí system is that the heat affects many of the best dyes so the colours are generally less stable and fade quicker than Epsonís (see test below). An advantage of HPs inks is that they seem naturally resistant to clogging (compared to Epsonís) when the printer is not used for a month or two. And even if a cartridge does clog, a new cartridge has new ink jets, so should restore the printer perfectly.

Epsonís printers come with pre-installed piezo ink heads, so the ink cartridges are simply reservoirs of ink. The problem with their system is that itís easy to end up with an airlock between the ink and the jet after changing cartridges. (I always had a particular problem with the yellow ink, I think the path for the ink must have been slightly longer).

This airlock is why Epson introduced Ďchippedí cartridges that alert you before theyíre completely empty. This is a good idea, though in order not waste ink, some inkjet cartridge suppliers will sell you a chip re-setter. In my experience this wasnít successful as the ink then ran out and I never got the printer to run properly again. Epsonís own brand cartridge have an amazingly complicated air vent system inside to release the ink at a controlled rate whatever the temperature or atmospheric pressure - the cheap compatible versions donít have anything like this. Iím not sure how important this is.         

Epson inks are generally much more resistant to fading than HPs as the dyes do not have to be heat resistant. My own tests with their recent Ďlong lastingí pigment based cartridges is impressive. (I did use an Epson with cheap cartridges for a while, and prints from these have faded just as quickly as those from my HP printer.)

Their airlock problem is made worse by the fact that their inks, though longer lasting, are more liable to clog up. The printers have a head cleaning function (this is what makes all the strange noises when you first switch on an Epson) but in my experience this is not always effective. If the inkjets heads are badly clogged, which can happen if thereís an air lock or if the machine is unused for a few weeks, it often means scrapping the whole printer as the heads are built in. There are companies who replace the inkjet heads. I did this once, but  it was relatively expensive and the printer failed again within months.  

 Canonís printers are similar to HP though the heating inkjet heads are a separate replaceable unit, not built into the ink cartridges. This causes fewer problems with the electrical connections but more with airlocks. Canon printerís main advantage seems to be that they are particularly fast. I don't have any experience of Lexmark/Dell inkjet printers. 

All manufacturers state the importance of using their own brand papers. HP claim that their papers seal over the dyes to protect them from the air. To test their claims I printed a test strip of primary colours with my HP deskjet 130 (a wide format printer that uses their Ďvivera dye basedí inks) on a variety of different papers, and hung them up in a south facing window for 9 months. Gary Alexander kindly printed the same strip on the same papers  with his Epson R800, which uses Epsonís Ďpigmentí based inks.

 The results are dramatic. Epson produces colours on all papers that have good resistance to fading, left in the sun for nearly a year. There appears to be little need to buy their own brand paper. The test strips were photographed in daylight with a Canon S85 digital camera.

Epson R800 
 Epson inks, printed 
on Epson heavyweight 
 inkjet paper




Epson R800 
 Epson inks, printed 
on artists watercolour paper




HP black ink fades really badly, though the other colours arenít quite as bad. With standard inkjet paper, or artistís watercolour paper, the black was pale grey after the test. HPs own papers are much better, but no better than the no name brand photo paper.  None are a match for the blacks of the Epson, even on plain paper.

HP Design Jet 130 using HP dye based inks, printed on cheap inkjet paper.
(smudging from condensation in window)




HP Design Jet 130 using HP dye based inks, printed on 
artist's watercolour  paper




HP Design Jet 130 using HP dye based inks, printed on cheap photo paper




HP Design Jet 130 using HP dye based inks, printed on HP proofing paper




Canon i685 printer with Canon inks, printed on Canon photo paper






 If you donít want your prints to fade, buy an Epson and use Epson inks, and then you can use any paper you want.

 If youíre likely to leave your printer unused for a few months, buy an HP or a Canon.

 If you have an HP and want your prints to last as long as possible, print on photo paper, not on inkjet paper. And as I have since found - laminate them immediately (See update below).

 If you donít want hassle when changing ink cartridges, buy the manufacturers cartridges, not re-manufactured ones or refilled ones Ė and avoid chip resetters.   

UPDATE September 2010

 HP are still using the vivera inks we used in our tests, and most Epson inks haven't changed. Despite the constant new printer models, the basic technology changes little, so my original test results are still relevant for current printers.   

After my tests, I laminated 4 posters (printed on my HP130) in a hot mounting press with a protective matt pvc film. These were in an outside window for over 2 years with little sign of fading. So if you want  ordinary photos printed on any printer to last longer, laminate them.( A4 pouch laminators are now cheap - about £20, from office suppliers). 

Most HP ink is even worse at fading than their vivera ink. I laminated some prints from an old deskjet 130 a few months ago and put them outdoors - they are already hopelessly faded. However, I've also found that vivera inks clog more easily than the old inks. I don't keep my HP130 switched on because the fan is so noisy, but this stops it performing its intermittent cleaning cycle and after 3-4 years the inkheads clog up, nearly £200 for a new set. 

Since my tests HP has introduced 'pigment' inks on a few of its printers. These are said to be much more fade resistant. It makes sense that tiny solid particles should be more fade resistant than true liquids, like dyes. Its likely the new pigment inks are more likely to clog the print heads, though I haven't tried them. The pigment inks are currently only available for 'fine art' printers with large numbers of cartridges and these are expensive to run. I've had a couple of correspondences with people who work in print shops and their experience is the same as mine, that its hard to see the difference between 4 colour printers (now only sold for CAD work) and fine art (photographic) printers, which use up to 11 colours. 

 Epson has started offering dye inks on a few printers, as the colour is said to be more vivid than pigment ink. Their recent home printers have been getting terrible reviews. I bought an A4, 4 colour Epson D120 last year for a job. After 6 months its still working but its often ridiculously slow, taking over half an hour to print a single page.

Canon printers have recently been getting the best reviews. However, they have thermal heads like HP printers and may have even worse fading problems (see test above). Like HP, they have recently started selling a range of printers with 'long lasting' ink. Please let me know if you have any experience of them.

 There is no perfect solution. The pigment inks that don't fade have tiny solid particles which are inevitably more likely to clog the inkheads. So its a bad idea to buy a printer that uses pigment inks unless you are going to use it very regularly. I could have saved a lot of cash by using a cheap old printer with compatible cartridges to check images and then sending all the ones I needed to last to an online print shop.   



If you're keen, you can watch an interview with Henry Wilhelm, he's much more eloquent in person than his website might suggest.

Marrutt is a great independent company selling inks and paper. They favour Epson for archival prints. Their page on 'inkjet myths' is well worth reading.  





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