How I became a hostage to a printer

There I stood, wondering why of all days I had chosen today to go to the store.  He paced back and forth in front of us, holding his cell phone to his ear tightly.  I had never been a hostage before, and I wondered if any of the other dozen or so people with me were nearly as frightened as I was.  Our captor stopped pacing for a moment, apparently angered by what the negotiator had told him.  “Perhaps they were unwilling to meet his demands,” I thought to myself.  He started pacing again, now raising his voice and becoming more animated.  He was brandishing his ink cartridge back and forth towards us, at one time pointing it right at me.  My heart nearly stopped.  I kept wondering if this was going to be the end.  Suddenly, in an angry outburst he threw the phone down and began storming toward one of the other hostages.  He aimed his ink cartridge straight at him and fired.

I immediately sat up in bed, wet with perspiration and panting heavily.  “That same dream again,” I thought to myself as I wiped the sweat from my forehead.  I sat back in the bed and looked out my bedroom door.  In the distance I saw my printer.  It almost seemed to leer back at me with its eerie glow.  “This has got to stop,” I said aloud as I laid back down, trying to forget the terror that had awoken me.

I have considered myself to be somewhat of a computer technology expert during varying stages of my life.  I have meticulously compared models, stats, reliability, and many other factors as I weighed past electronics selections at home and at work.  This time, however, I made a fatal error when selecting my home printer: it was a blind, impulse purchase.  This…is the story of my failure.

It all started with a Canon BubbleJet printer.  A Canon BJC-600, to be exact.  My very first printer, which cost an exorbitant $600.  You may be shocked, but that’s how it was almost 15 years ago: the printer used to cost more than the ink.  It had a feature that I thought was really ingenious: each color had its own cartridge.  And get this–each cartridge was only about $6 to replace!  I loved that printer.  Together we printed beautiful pie charts.  But, sadly, as all printers do, it eventually grew old and died.

Next came HP.  My HP PSC-1310 looked like a futuristic toaster oven when compared to the regal stature of my aforementioned Canon printer.  No sleek curves.  Worse yet, however, no individual ink cartridges.  It seems that the world in general had decided to stray from the individual ink cartridge.  Was there more merit to the combined, tri-color cartridge systems that seemed to dominate the store shelves?  I had only a few choices at the store where I purchased this printer: an HP, an HP with a scanner, or an HP with a scanner and the capability to do 6 color photo printing.  As I had begun to dabble in photography, I selected the latter.

It was a beautiful friendship for a time.  I was able to print some truly great-looking photos using its system of two tri-color cartridges.  Scanning was excellent as well.  I slowly began to forget my first love.  Then the honeymoon ended…I ran out of ink.  $40?  For one cartridge?  Seriously? Bear in mind that I had been accustomed to spending $6 per cartridge with my previous printer.  Now I was expected to pay 666% of that for a tri-color cartridge?  Ridiculous!

But, pay it I did.  I had to, right?  It was then that I knew I needed to find a way out of this eventual quagmire of spending.  So, I investigated ink refills.  It seemed so simple…you take a needle filled with ink, stab it into the cartridge, and pump it in until it is full again!  How hard can that be?  Hours of scrubbing ink off of myself taught me that not everything is as simple as it may seem on the back of a box.  To make things worse, HP had placed a microchip on each cartridge.  I could almost hear faint laughter coming from the cartridge as I put it back in.  The printer knew that this ink cartridge had been emptied.  It knew because the chip on the cartridge ratted me out.  There had to be another way.

I next invested in re-manufactured cartridges.  These seemed to be immune to the microchip problem that I had experienced when performing my own refills.  While more expensive than the refill kits, they were still modestly less expensive than the official HP cartridges.  But this too was not to last.  The problem?  Just about half of the cartridges I bought were dead-on-arrival.  The ones that did work worked so poorly out-of-the-box that I had to use up half of the cartridge running cleaning cycles just to get a decent printout.  How I longed for the days I had spent frolicking hand-in-hand with my Canon BJC-600.  I resolved to bide my time until I could find a printer worthy of my purchase.  Then, I would replace this mess and start a new blissful chapter in printing.

Meanwhile at work I had occasion to research numerous printers.  In the course of such research, I discovered that both Canon and Epson offered printers which used individual ink cartridges.  I had heard good things from Epson owners.  They seemed satisfied.  They seemed happy.  Could Epson provide a happy printing partner for me too?

There I stood, looking at a sea of printers.  I was in a large electronics store, helping a dear family friend select a new computer.  It was as if the printers had summoned me from across the store; I was drawn to them.  I started to look around anxiously…was there an Epson printer here?  Was this my chance to escape tri-color torment?  I saw both Canon and Epson printers.  As I had expected from my prior findings, the Canon printers were more expensive, so I concentrated on the Epson offerings.  I fixed my glance upon one in particular: a sleek, black Epson Workforce 500.  Restraining myself, I immediately scanned the information sheet to see what ink cartridges it took.  Then, with the help of a sales associate, I located them.  The price seemed expensive, but it was a bit cheaper than my current HP costs.  But wait…I don’t know anything about this printer!  But I knew Epson sounded good to me, and I knew that some could be modified to further save money on ink by connecting them directly to large bottles of ink.  I fantasized that perhaps this model of Epson printer could have that feature too.  I bought it.  I bought it without doing my homework.  I never expected to be shopping for a printer that day…but I made an impulse decision.  How bad could it be…?

The test page later that day answered that question.  It was printing with large gaps in anything using blue ink.  A printer nozzle test showed me that the blue print head was near-completely clogged.  I dutifully followed the instructions and ran a cleaning process on it.  It grumbled and groaned for a few minutes, burning away precious ink as it cleaned every print head–not just the blue one.  Once it finished I printed a nozzle test again.  Same as before–most of the blue nozzles were clogged.  I ran another 10 or so cleanings.  The store was hours away from me, so returning it was not a viable option.  I followed ‘alternate’ cleaning ideas I found online.  Finally, about 70% of the blue nozzles were clear.  I simply could not improve beyond that.  I grew irritated at the idea of how much ink that whole fiasco had wasted.  Through subsequent trial and error, I discovered that I could only get an ‘acceptable’ printout if I set the printer on the highest quality setting.  “Great, more wasted ink.”  But, that was soon to be the least of my worries.

“The printer won’t let me print my text document,” she said angrily.  “It says the black ink cartridge is empty.”  My wife was in a hurry, and desperately needed to get her printout and leave.  “Take out the cartridge and put it back in,” I replied.  I had done that a number of times with my old HP printer, and it always got me a few more pages.  This would not, however, work on the Epson.  “Change the text to dark blue instead of black,” was my next suggestion.  I had done this many times too when my black ink would run out in my HP.  “It says that it won’t allow me to print anything until I replace the cartridge,” she said more angrily than before.  “It’s like this stupid printer is holding me hostage!” Her words sank into the pit of my stomach.  It was then that I finally appreciated the problem that I had caused by not doing my homework first.

“But that’s not a total loss,” I thought.  “I’ll just buy some re-manufactured cartridges and save some money.”  That had been my thought from the moment that I first priced the genuine Epson cartridges.  I assumed that I could find cheaper third-party ones and save a boatload of money.  Again, homework would have saved me.  I could not find any re-manufactured cartridges available for this printer.  None.  Apparently, the microchip on each cartridge was so sophisticated that they just didn’t have a way to do refills either.

Now, after my ill-fated purchase, I began to research my ‘hostage’ situation.  I found countless other users who had experienced the same frustration.  “This would have been good to know then,” I mused to myself.  Finally I stumbled upon a type of hybrid ink cartridge from a third party.  This cartridge consisted of two pieces: one was larger and had the expensive microchip, while the other was just an ink reservoir that clipped into the larger piece.  There was an up-front investment, but after that I would only pay about $7 for the ink reservoirs!  That was finally a price that could give me some happiness!

“Replace with a genuine Epson ink cartridge,” it said almost mockingly, as if it knew what I had tried to do.  My new special cartridges worked for a time, but then for no apparent reason they also stopped and presented me with this message, again totally refusing to print until I complied.  I took them out and reinserted them a half dozen times, wasting precious ink each time due to its mandatory cleaning process.  Finally it accepted them…for a few more pages.  Same message.  I invested in an additional set of the third-party cartridges.  Same result: the printer printed great for a time, then complained forcefully for no apparent reason.

At the time of this writing I am waiting for my printer to run out of ink.  I invested a fair bit of money in buying this ink, and I can’t bear to simply not use it.  When it does run out of ink, it will die.  I will kill it.  No life support.  No hospice.  No last rites.  I will hold an ink cartridge to its head and squeeze.  And I will smile about it.  My next printer will have individual ink cartridges.  They will be cheap.  My next printer will not hold me hostage in any way.  How do I know this?  I know it because I will be researching my next printer.  It will not be an impulse buy.  I have learned a lesson from this experience that I will not soon forget.

*Disclaimer: I am not advising anyone here to buy nor avoid any particular brand or model of printer.  This post reflects my own experiences, and as always, your mileage may vary.

Phone and voicemail manners, R.I.P.

Why, Alex?  Why?

Those are my words to Mr. Alexander Graham Bell. You see, Mr. Bell may have been quite the genius in his work with the telephone, but he made one critical error: he didn’t ensure that each phone came with a guide to phone and voicemail manners.  I suppose I could let that slide if instead everyone who wanted to use a phone had to pass a rigorous test first.  But, no…that didn’t happen either.  But, of course, Mr. Bell is no longer with us (surprising, I know), so he does not have to bear the burden of today’s troublesome lack of phone and voicemail etiquette.

I’ll admit that there is one particular class of voicemail that irks me the most.  It’s the message that makes me wake up in a cold sweat.  It even makes me want to choke my telephone, even though I know that the person who left the message will never feel it (why didn’t you make that a feature too, Mr. Bell?).  Sit down, brace yourselves, and hide the kids: here is the message I despise most…

“Hey buddy, it’s me.  Call me back!”

Seven words.  Seven painful words.  One ridiculous message.  Four seconds of someone’s sharpened nails scratching across a chalkboard.  To be fair, however, I should actually explain why I find this just so irritating.

Part of my job involves providing technical support to hundreds of employees in a number of different offices (some local to me, some remote).  I receive phone calls dozens of times in a given day.  The biggest issue that I have with calls like the one I just mentioned, is that they are not respectful of my time.  How so?  Let me explain by citing an example from the other end of the spectrum…

“Hey, this is Frank from Payroll.  I have an error message on my computer that says ‘system error 12345 has occurred–contact support’.  It seems like it happens every time I try and print paychecks to the printer in my office.  I don’t need to run the checks until tomorrow at 3, so if you could get with me before then it would be most appreciated.  Thanks!”

Ah, I feel more appreciated already.  This message is admittedly much longer, but the length itself is not what makes me appreciate messages like this more than my aforementioned bane.  Let’s examine a few points that help make this message better.

Firstly, the message was very clear about who was calling.  True, I could navigate the menus on my phone to find the caller ID from any message, but should I have to?  Doing that takes time that I simply don’t care to spare needlessly.

Secondly, it described as clearly as possible the problem that the user was having.  I don’t expect every user to be able to articulate their problem like a scholar, but I do appreciate it when they are able to provide me with at least a rudimentary description. With that, I would be able to do specific research before I called them back.  You see, my ideal situation is to have one or more solutions in mind and ready before I call them back.  I shouldn’t have to call once to get details, then hangup and do my research, then call them back.  In my example, they also provided details about the steps they took leading up to the error message.  That may prove invaluable in ferreting out the solution in my research.

Having this information also allows me to triage my support cases.  Helping someone who can’t print payroll checks ranks much higher in importance than helping someone who can’t get their background to change to a picture of their new kitten.  Without the pertinent details, I would have to call this person immediately in order to find out what their issue is.

Thirdly, they were respectful of my time.  They did indicate that they had a deadline, but they gave me some time to get back with them, perhaps appreciating that I may be neck-deep in another issue at this time.

Lastly, they were appreciative of my time and assistance.  Slavery was outlawed a long time ago.  A respectful voicemail message does not assume that I am some kind of caged tech support pet that only exists to serve the person on the other end of the phone.  Respect is humanizing, and appreciates that I may be working on other issues which are more important.  Respect appreciates help, not demands it.

So, now do you see my dilemma?  The rude voicemail message insists that I call immediately.  It doesn’t tell me why I should, nor does it allow me to prepare for whatever revelations await me.  It assumes that whatever I may be working on is not nearly as important as what this person wants, and that by extension they are better at managing my time than I am.

I am currently building the nerve to change my voicemail greeting.  I want to include something like this…

“Any messages which simply request me to call back without providing any details will be deleted immediately.”

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  I think it will help me to be more efficient.  I think it will help me to not disdain the voicemail light on my phone any longer.  I think I can even come to love Mr. Bell once again (yes, I know he didn’t invent voicemail…just work with me here, ok?).

Am I the only one who receives these messages? Is it just me? What are your most-hated voicemail messages like?

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