Epson's EcoTank MFP Radically Changes Printer Pricing

by Ted Needleman

We review the Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank multifunction printer to see whether its new high-reservoir ink tanks can save big money on small business printing.

For decades, the printer industry has followed the highly lucrative razor-and-blade business model; give away the razor and make your money on the blades. The industry has made a fortune by selling low-cost printers and very expensive ink. How expensive? According to Consumer Reports, prices range between $13 and $75 per ounce.

Epson plans to change all that. Its new line of EcoTack printers and MFPs take a drastically different path—they don't use cartridges. Instead, a bump-out on the right side of the device contains four larger ink reservoirs designed to last long past the typical life expectancy of a set of inkjet cartridges. Curious about this new approach to small business printing, we put the Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank—a multifunction printer (MFP) to the test.

What's Different About the EcoTank ET-4550 MFP?

Epson claims that the ET-4550's reservoirs hold enough ink to print 11,000 black pages, or 8,500 color pages, and that you can easily refill them from small bottles of ink. These bottles are priced cheaply enough that it makes sense to get spares long before you need them, though Epson includes one set of spares along with the MFP.

The logic behind this selling-strategy switcheroo is simple. Instead of pricing the MFP low enough so that both the vendor and the dealer barely make a profit and using low capacity, high-priced ink cartridges to generate the revenue stream, Epson charges a price premium right up front ($499). But that price also includes an extra set of ink bottles, which means that you can print more than two cases (10 reams of 500 sheets) of monochrome pages.

And when you do run out of ink, replacement bottles won’t cost you an arm and a leg. The black ink bottle costs $19.49 and yields about 11,000 pages, while each color bottle costs $12.99 and provides about 8,500 pages of print. That's a very low cost per page, at least based solely on ink.

Epson Ecotank: small business multifunction printer

The Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank features high-capacity ink reservoirs.

Epson claims that the four bottles provide the equivalent page yield of about 50 replaceable cartridges. Epson estimates that the ink supply in the box is enough ink for the average small business to print for two years. Unfortunately, we had neither the paper supply nor the two years to actually test this.

WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank MFP Features

Epson designed the ET-4550 for small business or for use as a departmental MFP. Business MFPs generally add a fax capability to the print/scan/copy mix, and the ET-4550 is no exception. While faxing is much less popular these days, many organizations still prefer a faxed copy of a document rather than an electronic copy, so having the capability to fax may prove more useful even if you transfer most of your documents electronically.

The printer includes both a power cord and a phone cord to hook the ET-4550 up to a standard telephone RJ-11 connector. If you want to attach the MFP directly to a PC or a Mac, you'll need to provide a USB cable, since there isn't one in the box. Nor does it include an Ethernet patch cord. The ET-4550 does connect to a network via Wi-Fi, and it can also connect to a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone via Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing a network connection altogether.

The ET-4550 sounds advanced, but unfortunately, it is a bit less so than you might think. Other than its unusual ink system, it's similar to the Workforce WF-2650, one of Epson's lower-end Workforce models. The unit is small and light, measuring 20.3 x 14.2 x 9.5-inches without the front-mounted output tray extended, and that width includes the 4-inch bump-out that holds the ink reservoirs.

The ET-4550 also weighs in at a scant 16.3 pounds. Other than the additional size on the right side of the device to accommodate the ink tanks, the ET-4550 is pretty much the same machine as the WF-2650. It uses the same single PrecisionCore printhead, has the same 2.2-inch non-touch sensitive monochrome LCD display, the same duplex printing capability, and the same 30-sheet non-duplexing ADF (automatic document feeder). One large difference between the older WF-2650 and the new ET-4550 (other than the vastly different ink supply system) is that the new EcoTank MFP adds an Ethernet port, which the older Workforce machine lacked.

And unfortunately, as with the WF-2650, it shares the same 150-sheet capacity paper tray. That seems kind of like an oversight in a device that's configured and supplied to print 11,000 pages right out of the box. You might not change ink for the two years that Epson estimates, but you sure will fill the paper tray frequently.

The Epson ET-4550 MFP Out-of-Box Experience

The Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank is pretty light, so it was easy to unbox. While the ET-4550's ink tank system is new to the U.S., Epson has been selling models with this technology for more than a year. That means you're not taking a chance on an unproven technology.

You'll find two sets of four ink bottles in the box, with each bottle separately vacuum-packed and foil-sealed. Each of the four color reservoirs has a rubber pop-on cover at the top, plus a color-code panel on the flip-up lid shows what ink goes in which tank. Once you remove all of the blue tape from around the MFP, it's time to fill the tanks, which takes only one set of four ink bottles. The color inks are all in the same size bottles, while the black ink bottle is almost twice the size.

It's important to note that once you fill the ET-4550 with ink, you need to firmly seat the tops of the ink tanks. Epson ships the MFP with a large plastic bag, which it advises that you place the MFP in before moving it. Epson also cautions against tilting the MFP once you have filled the ink tanks.

Transferring ink from the bottles to the ink tanks is the most challenging part of the setup process. Each ink bottle is sealed with peel-off foil underneath a screw-off spout. The spout has a break-off tip that you then use to cap the empty bottle after transferring the ink, just in case there's a tiny amount of ink left in the bottle. Epson thoughtfully includes a pair of disposable gloves, just in case you get a little sloppy with transferring the ink. A roll of paper towels, though not included, would probably be a good thing to have nearby.

We were fortunate; we got the ink from bottle to tank without undue trauma or mess. You do have to be somewhat diligent, however. While the color of the ink in each tank is marked on the flip-up lid covering the tanks, it's easy to put the wrong color ink into a reservoir if you aren't paying attention. Unlike ink cartridges, which are often keyed so that you can't slot them into the wrong place, there's nothing stopping you (other than paying attention) from filling a tank with the wrong color.

Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank MFP

Epson's Workforce line of EcoTank MFPs use four larger ink reservoirs instead of traditional ink cartridges.

Once you've filled the tanks, you power on the MFP. The priming process—which takes about 20 minutes—begins automatically. The printer shows a progress message on the 2.2-inch monochrome display. After priming is complete, the installation proceeds, and you set the language, time, date, and then install the print drivers from the included CD onto your PC or Mac.

If you're setting up the ET-4550 to use Wi-Fi, you may find entering the Wi-Fi password a bit awkward from the numeric/alpha keypad. We just used WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), which just requires pressing the WPS button on our access point and letting the MFP and access point find each other and connect. You can also print using Epson Connect, Apple AirPrint, Google Cloud Print, and Kindle Fire Printing. The total time to set up the ET-4550 was about a half-hour, mostly due to the long ink priming time.

Performance Testing the Epson WorkForce ET-4550 EcoTank MFP

It really doesn't matter how unique a printer or MFP is if it doesn't perform well. The ET-4550 isn't as fast as other $500 MFPs. That's actually not unreasonable, as a large portion of that $500 goes toward buying ink up front rather than bit-by-bit over the life of the device.

The ET-4550 does, however, use Epson's new PrecisionCore print head. This head has many more nozzles than most other printhead technologies offer, resulting in improved speed and resolution. Epson makes no claim that the ET-4550 is a speed demon—offering print speeds of 11 pages-per-minute (ppm) in monochrome and 5.5 ppm in color.

We don't use exactly the same test protocol (though we do use the same test documents), and came up with almost exactly those figures—11.4 ppm printing mostly monochrome Word documents, and 5.2 ppm printing Excel spreadsheets with mixed text and graphics. That's acceptable, though not exceptional.

Print quality was also good. We printed three test images including a color checker panel on different types of paper. As with most MFPs we've tested, printing on Glossy Photo Paper produced almost photographic quality output. We noticed slight color shifts in some of the printed output, but then, we were specifically looking for just that. The casual observer probably wouldn't notice these.

Printing on both Epson Premium Presentation Matte standard copy paper and on Hammermill Digital Color Copy paper produced somewhat muted color vibrancy. The Hammermill paper costs more than twice as much as generic copy paper, but we recommend it or a similar high-quality paper for printing reports that contain a lot of color graphics or images. Plain text, however, was quite acceptable on the inexpensive copy paper.

We also tested copying and scanning. Copying, as with all MFPs in this speed range, is more of a convenience for occasional use rather than a true feature. Duplex printing lets you automatically print on both sides of the page. However, while you can scan both sides of a document, you must do so manually, flipping the page to scan or copy the other side.

Scanning on the ET-4550 worked well, and the scanned images didn't lose much in the way of resolution or color accuracy. The Epson TWAIN-compatible scan driver works with any application that can make use of a TWAIN scanner. Epson includes a basic scan-to-PDF utility, and we tested the scanner with both that utility and with the Picasa Import function without problem.

No More Ink Cartridges: Is It Worth $400?

Reviewing the ET-4550 begs the question of whether it's worthwhile to pay $500 for an MFP when you could spend just $100 on a model without high-capacity ink reservoirs. It probably is, especially if you anticipate doing a moderate amount of printing over a period of time.

Essentially, you're paying for the ink up front in the device purchase price. If you work out the cost per page based on the initial purchase, it comes out to about 3.6 cents per monochrome page (based on 11,000 pages with the ink that's included), and 4.7 cents a page for color pages (both calculated on just using $400 as the ink cost and not including the $100 for the cost of the MFP). That's good, but not spectacular.

However, the real benefit kicks in when you exhaust the ink that comes with the ET-4550 MFP. From that moment on, the price per page for monochrome or color is amazingly low. A complete replacement set of the four inks costs slightly less than $60, and it should yield in the neighborhood of 11,000 monochrome or 8,500 color pages.

You may pay more up front, but if you keep the ET-4550 over the long run—and if you really use it—you get the benefit of not running out of having ink quickly and at inopportune times, and you also get significant financial benefits as well.

We offer one last caution. The ET-4550 is designed to print a moderate amount of pages over a long period of time. If your printing needs are more intensive, the somewhat modest speed and recommended monthly volume might make another model a better choice. At the same time Epson introduced the ET-4550, it also announced several other EcoTank models.

The top-of-the-line model, the Workforce Pro WF-R4640 uses replaceable ink pouches that provide a much higher yield than the ET-4550. The WF-R4640 also is faster, has a larger paper capacity, and costs slightly more than twice the price of the ET-4550.

em>Ted Needleman published his first review in 1978. Since then, he has written several thousand hardware and software reviews, columns, articles on using technology, and two books. He has no intention of stopping any time soon.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Aug 20th 2015
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