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Kodak's new inkjet math

Kodak has announced three new inkjet printers that use ink the company claims costs half as much as its competitors.

Kodak's Value Pack offers 4x6s at 10 cents per print. Kodak

As our own David Carnoy predicted, and as reported, Kodak announced a new line of inkjet printers yesterday at a lavish press event in Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. All three models are all-in-one printers, meaning they include built-in flatbed scanners--and in the case of the flagship model EasyShare 5500, a fax machine, too. Kodak is billing them all as six-ink printers, though they function as four-ink printers when producing color photos; the other two inks are a nonphoto-black and a clear, protective coating.

Kodak is making a big deal over the price of ink for its new printers, and rightfully so. Ink is one of the most expensive aspects of home printing. The company has even gone so far as to create a Web site called Ink is It, which goes to great lengths to compare the cost of inkjet ink to the cost of various luxury items. Of course, it comes as no surprise that the ink is more expensive. Anyone who has paid attention to the inkjet market has known this for a long time, and those who have had to order ink cartridges have felt the pain their bank accounts.

Kodak's battle cry in the inkjet war is clear: "50-percent less." That's what the company claims their inks cost when compared to the competition. All three of Kodak's new printers, the EasyShare 5100 ($150), EasyShare 5300 ($200), and EasyShare 5500 ($300), use two ink cartridges. One holds only black ink and sells for $10, while the other holds five colors of ink and sells for $15.

Kodak makes its 50-percent-less claim by comparing their new printers to other all-in-one printers, but it's difficult to make that comparison. For one, most inkjet printers, all-in-ones or not, have switched to individual ink cartridges for their color inks. That's because one of the inks almost always runs out first, and it's wasteful to throw away a multi-ink cartridge while two or more of its tanks still has some of that uber-expensive ink left. Kodak's multi-ink color cartridge includes cyan, magenta, yellow, and photo-black inks, as well as a clear protective coating. In my book, a clear coating, though certainly useful, doesn't count as ink, but let's not quibble. Also, since Kodak refuses to quote the amount of ink in their cartridges (some manufacturers list the number of milliliters of ink included in their cartridges), it's even more difficult to make a direct comparison.

To be clear, a larger volume of ink doesn't necessarily translate directly into more prints. Some printers waste more than others through head cleaning, thirsty paper, or other issues. However, it's useful and comforting to know how much ink is in the cartridge. If nothing else, it makes you feel that your printer manufacturer isn't trying to hide anything.

One of the ways that Kodak says they're able to save money in the production of ink cartridges is by eliminating the microchips that some manufacturers include for monitoring the remaining ink levels. Kodak also chose not to include print heads on their new cartridges, opting to just have one in the printer. The latter shouldn't cause a problem, but eliminating the microchip monitor means Kodak shouldn't be able to prevent its customers from using third-party ink cartridges. If they think that a 50-percent savings over their competition is attractive, wait until someone undercuts them by 50 percent on cartridges for their own printers. This could turn out to be a heyday for bargain hunters, or the world might end up with a lot of Kodak printers clogged by substandard third-party inks.

I applaud Kodak's attempt to put pressure on its new competitors to bring ink prices down. It's about time someone started talking about the price of ink. However, I hope they'll start being more forthcoming about the issue. And hopefully they won't further confuse potential inkjet buyers by padding the number of inks their printers use. I'll be kind this time and chalk it up to a rookie mistake.

Since we really need to give credit where it's due, Kodak did deliver in one very remarkable way. In addition to single cartridges, they're also offering packages of paper and color-ink cartridges. The Photo Value Pack includes 180 sheets of 4x6-inch glossy photo paper and a color-ink cartridge that should yield at least that many prints at that size. That means you'll be able to make 4x6 prints for 10 cents each at home, which means Kodak's new printers are some of the few that can make home printing compete with online processors. If you want to step up to fancier paper with a finish akin to the luster papers offered by some competitors, you can opt for the Premium Photo Value Pack, which includes 135 sheets of 4x6 paper and a color cartridge for $20, bringing the per-print cost to about 15 cents.

We look forward to reviewing these printers when they hit stores. The EasyShare 5100 and EasyShare 5300 will hit Best Buy shelves in March, while the EasyShare 5500 isn't expected to ship until May. However, the printers will be available for order on Kodak's online store starting in April.