Monday, November 30, 2020

Caught in the HP Printer Cartridge Wars


A few months ago, the old computer printer I was using expired, and as I'm working mainly from home these days and need to use the printer several times a day, I spent a half hour or so researching printers and ended up buying an HP 8035 unit.  It's a middle-of-the-line combination inkjet printer/scanner, and as long as the original printer cartridges lasted it worked fine.  And even once the red (I guess the technical name is magenta) cartridge gave out and I swapped a new one in, it was fine.  Then the yellow cartridge gave out, and I decided to swap out both the yellow and the cyan cartridge.

When I turned the unit back on, it gave me an error message that said in effect "These cartridges are not intended for use in this printer."  Now on some level, I was aware of the ongoing battle that printer manufacturers wage with those pesky cartridge remanufacturers and refillers who recycle used cartridges, refill them, and sell them for a fraction of what the manufacturer charges.  And if I'd gone out on the web and bought some of the remanufactured cartridges, I wouldn't have been too surprised to see such a message, as there are software ways HP can use to figure out what kind of cartridge was installed. 

But the cartridges I installed came out of an HP box I bought at the same time I bought the printer, and had HP labels all over them, and their expiration dates (if that's what the little date codes ending in 2021 or 2022 meant) were well in the future.  By all reasonable considerations, these cartridges should work in this printer.  But they didn't.

I ended up finding an odd part of HP's website where it instructed me to do a hard reset of the printer (unplugging it and plugging it back in), and if that didn't fix the problem, to answer a series of questions involving the printer's serial number and the date codes and place of manufacture (China or Malaysia) of the cartridges.  When I did that, I was informed that HP will, some day, send me some replacement cartridges, and in the meantime, here's how to print in black and white. 

HP and I go back a long way, though both of us have changed in latter years.  One of my prize surplus-equipment purchases in high school was a World-War-II era knockoff of the famous HP 200-series vacuum-tube audio oscillator that got the company going back in 1938.  It's still sitting in my garage, and the last time I tried to fire it up, it still worked.  During my brief stint in industry, I learned that of all the different kinds of test equipment out there, Hewlett-Packard gear was the ruggedest and most reliable, and typically exceeded its specifications even after a decade of use. 

Around the end of the 20th century, HP decided its future lay in the direction of computers and computer peripherals, and spun off the division that made the super-reliable test equipment.  That division became known as Agilent, and a few years later, Agilent fissioned into a biological and chemical division, which retained the Agilent name, and rid itself of the electrical test-equipment people, who became Keysight.  In the meantime, HP, which merged with the Houston PC maker Compaq somewhere along the way, was not doing that well, and eventually became known mainly for its printers, as far as I'm concerned. 

The consumer and enterprise printer business is a lot different than the lower-volume, sophisticated-customer test equipment business.  From what I can tell, one way to make money with printers is the way Kodak made money with cameras:  they could give the cameras away as long as people kept buying the film from Kodak.  I don't think HP does that with their printers, judging by what I paid for mine.  But it does seem like they could arrange things so that when you buy a set of printer cartridges that say they will work with the printer you just bought, that implied contract doesn't turn out to be a lie.

Admittedly, HP makes a bewildering variety of printers and an equally bewildering variety of cartridges to go with them.  Some cartridges include the printer head, others don't.  The ones I bought are evidently just little tanks with foam-covered outlets that soak the ink into the printer head, which is a separate unit.  I found out how that works when I tried to fix this printer's predecessor.  After replacing its cartridges didn't get it printing again, I ordered a new printer head (again, from some third-party place—they seem to be difficult or impossible to get from HP).  It didn't help, so I wasted about $60 on new cartridges and a printer head before concluding the unit was ready for the junk pile.  (Actually, I donated it to Goodwill, and if they can get it to work again, more power to them.)

But even given all the complications of selling different lineups of printers in different parts of the world, you would think that HP could keep their supply chains straight so you can't go out and buy a box of printer cartridges that say they will work with your printer, and wind up discovering that no, indeed, they don't. 

I'm not the only one with this problem.  A cursory web search turned up at least two sites discussing the fact that if certain packages of HP cartridges have an expiration date earlier than, for example, January 2021 (which is still a good bit in the future), they won't work with certain printers that they are nominally supposed to work with.  Evidently, this is part of a game, or war, that HP is playing in order to stay a step ahead of the recycled-cartridge people.  But now they're updating things so fast that they are obsoleting lots of their own cartridge inventory that is still in the supply chain somewhere.

This is not how the old Hewlett-Packard company would behave.  But that organization is just a fond memory, and now we have to get used to being caught in cartridge-war crossfire if we buy a new printer.  Some day I'll be able to print in color again, but until HP deigns to send me replacement cartridges, I'll just have to settle for a monochrome world.  And by the way, what about these other new cartridges I bought at the same time?

Sources:  Discussions of HP cartridges not working in their designated printers can be found at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia entry "Hewlett-Packard." 

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