TLDR: If you want to print photos cheaply, get an Epson EcoTank ET-7700 or ET-7750 or equivalent if new models have replaced them. If you don’t care about photos and just want to print a lot of documents, get any Epson EcoTank printer that has a replaceable maintenance box, or this will happen to you. If you won’t print that often and don’t want to worry about inkjet print heads drying out, then just get a laser printer, since they never dry out and are cheaper than non-supertank inkjets. A color laser printer is expensive ‘ink’ wise and doesn’t look that good compared to an inkjet, so be wary if you want to print a lot of color documents with a laser printer. If you get an inkjet, use cheap glossy photo paper to print your images.
I recently got a $450 inkjet printer, an Epson ET-7750. To most, that sounds rather overpriced, and you might wonder why I would buy one.
This printer is actually affordable to print a lot of content on it. The ink cost of printing a 4"x6” photo is something like $0.03, and affordable paper is about $0.05 per 4"x6” sheet. Typically on a color laser printer that is about $0.15 per photo in toner costs and doesn’t look good and about $0.30+ on anything else. Getting a 4x6 print done by a company usually costs around $0.15/photo, although there are so many coupon codes out there who knows the real price. Lets say it’s $0.10 per print + shipping.
The prints that the Epson printer does are pretty good, and you don’t have to wait for them to show up in the mail. On top of that, this printer can print up to 11” wide or on A3 sheets, which are pretty big prints. If you want to get a ‘cheaply done’ 11"x17” photo print done, your usually paying $6 a pop. While with the Epson you can just do it on a whim for about $0.50 to $1. $0.25 of ink and $0.25 a sheet.
To get out of the razor blade business model although, you have to pay the ‘real’ price for these printers to Epson or Canon.
Choosing a Printer
Who Is Playing the Supertank Game
When buying a SuperTank printer, you only have about 3 manufacturers in the actual game: Epson (EcoTank), Canon (MegaTank) and HP (Smart Tank). Brother has a ‘large cartridge’ offering called INKVestment but it ends up being more expensive. Of the 3, Epson and Canon are the most serious competitors. Almost all ecotank printers are targeted towards people that want to print of large amounts of office style documents on cheap letter / A4 sized copy paper for their school reports, excel graphs and similar. So if you look at reviews of various SuperTanks on rtings.com, you’ll see they’ll fall short in the photographic quality zone.
Pretty much the only one that makes a super tank printer that makes decent photographic prints is Epson with their ET-7700 & ET-7750 models and a few other L series ones that are not sold in the USA. If rtings.com reviewed them, they would show how much better they are than most other SuperTanks.
Beware the Waste Sponge
Another kind of secret about inkjet printers is they all have a waste sponge or waste box where excess ink is dumped as part of the printing process. On most inkjets, this sponge is not user replaceable, and if you print ‘too much’ on your printer, it will eventually give you an error about the sponge being full and refuse to print any further. On top of that, because they are not officially replaceable these manufacturers will indirectly tell you to buy a new printer by not providing servicing for this or making it cost as much as a new printer.
As a result, an entire bootleg industry has arisen where you can buy resetting programmers or other internal tool simulators to reset the sponge counter, along with youtube videos telling you how to unscrew a bunch of things and clean out an waste repository or wash your waste sponge. Some of the bootleggers even sell replacement boxes or sponges!
This is an issue on most SuperTank printers, except newer Epson printers where they sell you a $10 ‘maintenance box’ and let you replace them easily. It is something you’ll probably run into because you have a supertank and can actually print a lot affordably. Save yourself time and get a printer with a user replaceable box and not get super pissed off about it when you run into the error and make a youtube video about it warning everyone about it :D.
One trick I used was to go to a printer model on the manufacturers website and see if one of the ‘extra supplies’ was the maintenance box. You can also find out if your printer has a user replaceable waste box by looking it up in the manual. Most manufactures don’t advertise this crucial point.
The Epson ET-7700 & ET-7750 both have a user replaceable maintenance box. Hopefully the other SuperTank printer manufacturers will get the hint and add user replaceable maintenance boxes to their printers too.
Think About Inks
In the consumer printing world, there are 2 kinds of Inks:
Pigment: This ink is a suspension of particles of a certain color. They tend to look more vibrant but dont make as much dynamic color range since they don’t really mix like dyes. They also last a lot longer, 50 years is the general quoted time. Pigments are typically more expensive than dye inks.
Dye: These are colors that mix together. They don’t last as long in a print but they have more color range than pigments.
Typically photo printers use dye inks, although you can get pigment inks too for longer lasting prints. Many office printers use pigment inks too.
There are also special higher quality inks that the printer manufactures sell, like ‘Clara’, etc. Almost all supertanks do not use these higher quality inks, probably to prevent cannibalization from their “pro” art printers which use a lot of cartridges which can cost a few hundred dollars to replace a set of. In the art print world although, it’s usually worth it due to the high costs these prints are sold for, even though it doesn’t have to actually be that expensive.
The ET-7700 / ET-7750 use dye for photo printing and have an extra pigment black ink type for text in office document prints.
A Back Feeder is Useful
Make sure which ever printer you do get lets you feed paper from the back, otherwise you are more restricted in what kind of paper you can print on. A back feeder tends to not bend paper 180 degrees like a bottom tray feeder does, so you can use thicker or more sensitive papers.
How to Get the Best Price
Like the apple refurbished store is usually the best place to get new equivalent MacBooks, Canon & Epson have their own webshops with a ‘clearance’ section that are often the best place to buy their printers. I trolled https://clearance.epson.com/ for a few weeks to buy my ET-7750, since it typically costs $650 otherwise.
It can be hard to find cheaper printers nowadays, because COVID has actually significantly increased printer demand from all the WFH behavior. Many people print out stuff that they have to read as part of their jobs, vs read it on their screen.
How to Print Well
Now you’ve gotten your supertank printer, how do you get the most out of it?
Print Once or Twice a Week
A downside of inkjet printers is how you cannot leave them idle for long, otherwise their printheads clog up and you start getting wonkyness that is hard to resolve. Inkjets are kind of like organic creatures that way. The lack of a clogging issue one of the major advantages of laser printers, since they are a completely dry process.
The solution to the drying issue is printing regularly and always leaving your printer plugged in with some ink. Many printers have duty cycles where they will use ink to clean out the nozzles if you haven’t printed for a while, but this can be unreliable, because some do things like only duty cycling when you start a print. So if you haven’t printed in a month you still have the same issue.
The solution to this uncertainty is to print something, anything, in color once or twice a week. It doesn’t have to be a lot, or on nice paper, it just needs to happen. Some people use apps or cron jobs to do this. You could even probably whip something up with zapier and a cloud printing integration.
Unfortunately inkjet printers don’t have a cleaning fluid reservoir, ink is their cleaning fluid. Fortunately with a supertank printer, this is not much of an issue since the ink is so cheap and the amount used to clean it is relatively small compared to a photo print.
In return for this cron job setup, you get very cheap and very high quality printing.
Decent Paper Makes a Difference
TLDR: Print your images on cheap glossy photo paper or ‘presentation’ matte paper if it’s on sale. Card stock is good cheap paper if you want to print on something more substantial. Continue using your cheap multipurpose paper for office & school documents. Everything else is expensive and complicated art paper.
Something that is common sense once you think about it, but also easy to forget is the quality of the paper you print on can have a big effect on the quality of the images you print with. Images printed on cheap multipurpose copy paper you buy for $5 for 500 letter sized sheets will not look as good as almost any glossy cheap photo paper you buy for $5 for 100 4"x6” sheets of. Matte ‘presentation’ papers1 will look a lot better than equivalent matte card stock paper, and will be as expensive as glossy photo paper.
In paper, there are various qualities:
Baryta, Resin Coated (RC), Uncoated, etc
Many papers, even cheap copy papers usually have some sort of coating on them. But cheap papers such as card stock or copy paper should generally be treated as mostly uncoated papers, since they behave in similar ways and tend to lack vibrancy compared to coated papers. The two major coating types are Resin Coated, which are what most glossy or semi-glossy photo papers are coated with. Resin means plastic, and is usually the same cheap & thin plastic of grocery bags. Baryta is an older coating method and tends to be on more expensive art papers and prints a bit differently. There are other coatings, but they are not nearly as common as those two and not really advertised.
Glossy vs Semi-Glossy vs Matte
Basically how reflective the paper is. Glossy paper tends to have a reflective sheen and is prone to glare, but looks far more vibrant and colorful than cheaply coated matte copy paper. Matte is not nearly as reflective but generally is not as vibrant, although with the right matte papers with the right coating they can look pretty good and tend to cost more than equivalent photo paper. Semi-glossy is something in between.
Pearl, Luster, Metallic, Washi, etc
Generally these are vague indicators of what kind of texture the paper has, what it was made out of or how glossy it is. Except for metallic, where they actually put some sort of metal coating on the paper to make it reflective and gray like a metal with very vibrant and unique colors. It’s a fairly unique paper.
Paper Weight, Brightness and Thickness
Paper weight is a measurement of how heavy a sheet is, which is usually analogous to how stiff and thick it is. It’s not an actual measurement of those properties although, because if the paper is not made out of wood pulp, then it will behave differently at the same weight compared to wood pulp paper. Almost all paper is wood pulp paper although, so paper weight is usually good enough.
Brightness is a rating that tells you how well it reflects blue light that goes from 1 to 100.
Paper thickness is measured in mil (thousands of an inch) or mm. Paper is not necessarily uniformly thick and can be measured differently between manufacturers. So if one type of paper with a thickness rating of say 20 mil prints fine on your hypothetical printer, but another paper with the same 20 mil rating is too thick for it, you have probably run into that problem.
Cheap multipurpose paper tends to be 20lbs or 75g/m2 and a brightness rating from the 80s to mid 90s that you can see on the pack.
Color Calibration & Spaces
TLDR: Use the Printer’s OEM papers to get free calibrated color profiles for your printer with a bunch of different paper types. You can often fudge this with glossy photo paper, since they all tend to act the same anyway. Computer monitors that can show all the colors of printing are typically expensive to get (at least $500) outside of 2015+ apple devices with their P3 displays. A properly color managed process can get expensive and complicated, so I wouldn’t go much beyond that.
When you print things, what you see on your screen is often different from what you print. If you really care about color accuracy, this can be a fairly frustrating process to match everything together. On top of this, every printer, screen and paper tends to be fairly different. Different paper & printer combos create different color results, so it can get pretty complicated to match everything.
Fortunately to help resolve this difficulty, there is something called an ICC color profile. ICC color profiles are small files that basically tell software how your specific monitor or printer, paper and ink combo changes colors, and what translations are needed to make everything match. To do this, they use a concept called color spaces.
Color spaces are basically color coordinate spaces that specify the range of colors that can be expressed in them. Usually they contain themselves within the human visible color space, but can go beyond it like ProPhoto RGB. Different color spaces generally represent different capabilities of media. So an sRGB color space is what all computer displays can show, but tend to be not enough for print media. Many 2015+ Apple Displays & HDR TVs use the P3 color space to show more colors. AdobeRGB is another expanded color space, created mostly to show enough color for printing. Paper’s & Ink combos themselves often have their own unique color spaces with non triangular shapes representing physical reality and can often go beyond the sRGB color space available in most monitors. P3 & AdobeRGB displays on the other hand can generally display enough colors to match what you mostly see in printed media.
Another issue with computer displays is the need for color calibration. Displays can drift over time and each display can be different when it comes out of the factory. As a result, color calibration devices are sold to keep your colors in sync on your computer. Display manufacturers also advertise if their displays are pre-calibrated, so at least you have something mostly accurate when you get them. There are even monitors that come with their own built in calibrators and can self-calibrate themselves, although they tend to sell for $1500. At that point you might as well just buy an iMac and a $150 color calibrator yourself.
Just like displays need color calibration, so do printers, ink & paper combos. Fortunately although, most printers are already ‘pre-calibrated’ to the manufacturer’s papers with a set of ICC profiles. When you choose a paper type when your printing, you are essentially selecting an ICC profile for your printer to use. It is possible to create new ICC profiles for non-OEM papers, but it also requires special equipment to do properly.
Some paper manufacturers will create an ICC profile for your printer if you mail them a test sheet from your printer to them, although they tend to be on the expensive art paper side. They also tend to provide profiles on their websites too. You can also get third party companies to profile your printer, or do it yourself. Also since many papers tend to use similar manfuacturing processes, especially cheap glossy photo and multipurpose papers, you can often do just fine selecting a paper type that is similar to the OEM papers.
Unfortunately when your printing images, most software and OSes do not match colors up properly unless you are using specialized software. Most Adobe apps do color and layout management properly, even on windows, but they are expensive, clunky and take over your system with their annoying anti-piracy software.
On top of that a lot of software make it hard to control the layout and resolution of what your printing. It can be surprisingly hard to make sure that your image is centered in the page with the highest resolution, proper color profiles and the rest of the paper matches the background color of your image if it’s aspect ratio doesn’t match the paper your printing on.
Fortunately with Epson, there is a free app called Epson Print Layout that manages all of this properly. It doesn’t come installed by default with their EcoTank printer drivers, since it’s more targeted to their P series line, but it works fine with any Epson printer. Since it’s made by Epson, it does not allow itself to work with other printer brands.
Hanging Up & Enjoying Your Prints
Part of the appeal of EcoTanks is cheap printing that you can do it on impluse and get instant gratification. But a bunch of photos in a pile are hard to enjoy. This is why you want to generally hang your photos, but being forced to buy $1 frames for every $0.06 photo along with all the effort required to put the photos in a frame can get annoying and expensive fast.
Spontaneously printing some pictures for friend and giving it to them can be fairly appreciated. Many don’t print photos nowadays.
Pins & Tape
Since your photos cost only $0.06 to print, you should skip frames all together and just directly mount them to your wall. You can either use push pins or tape to put them on the wall. But you probably don’t want to put a million small holes in the wall, so you might be tempted to use tape. DO NOT USE NORMAL TAPE TO PUT PHOTOS ON YOUR WALL. Tape, especially over time, can rip off the paint when you take it off. After a whole bunch of research, I found out that 3M poster tape or command strips are pretty much the only safe adhesives you can use that will actually stay on the wall. You need to use more than you think with poster tape although, and it’s relatively expensive compared normal tape or even the photo your printing.
You might wonder why even tapes like ‘wall safe’ painter’s tape are not good to mount photos with. You’ll notice when you read the fine print on painters tape that it’s only guaranteed to work for 14 days. That guarantee is saying it wont rip paint off for 14 days, even though the fine print does not state this explicitly. Adhesives over time bind to whatever surface they are on more and more. Tape left on a wall for months can bind very strongly to it, to the point where it will rip off paint even if it’s ‘safe’ painters tape, or disconnect from the paper it was originally on and permanently bind to the wall instead as a small strip of rubbery goop that you need to use goo gone to remove. Poster tape is made to never do this, but is far weaker as a result.
Twine and Poster Board
So to reduce the amount of holes in your wall, you can use twine and clips instead. Twine and photo clips are fairly cheap to buy in bulk are easy to mount and replace and look pretty cool. Similarly you can use lightweight black poster or foam board and tape your photos onto it without having to worry about wall damage. You can then mount the poster board to the wall with twine you tape to the back of it or get something big enough that can stand on it’s own.
Printing Communities and Youtubers
Some printing communities that have helped me when google failed:
- https://printerknowledge.com : Friendly people who know a lot, mostly in Europe and Germany.
- dpreview’s printing forum : Helpful too
- Mostly an older crew for the most part.
If I’m Wrong or if You Have Suggestions
Please give me a shout! I’m only getting started in this, others can get pretty deep about it with multiple printers, filling in their own inks, making custom continuous ink systems, setting up printers just to apply sealing and more.
If you ever get one of these ‘presentation’ papers and can’t tell what is the printable vs non-printable side, lick your finger and dab it on the paper. The stickier side is the printable side with the special coating. All the sheets should be aligned the same way, so get a piece of copy paper and note which side is the printable side in your stack. ↩︎