Ditch printer cartridges for good (almost!): Epson Workforce ET-4550 Review

IMG_8249It’s been more than a decade since I’ve had a printer in my home.  I haven’t missed having one for many years, that is until I started testing some new ones.

It’s not that I haven’t needed to print anything, but you know, you find other ways around that; snapshot photos, email copies, and yes, printing stuff at the office.

I have to say, that since I’ve re-adopted having a printer in the house, I’ve found them quite handy; and so has my family. Particularly because they’re now easier to use, more versatile, and there’s less fussing with ink and cartridges.

No ink cartridges in this printer!

I had the chance to review and test the Epson Workforce ET-4550 wireless printer/copier/scanner/fax/ethernet, which has a unique feature: it doesn’t use printer cartridges.  Instead it contains “eco-tank” ink bottles that are equivalent to about 20 cartridge sets. The printer I have includes enough ink to print up to 5000 pages in black or 8500 pages in color, and with a set of bonus ink bottles included in the box, it will print an additional 6000 pages. That’s a long, long time before I’ll need to worry about running out of juice; possibly a couple years.

Set up of the Epson Epson Workforce ET-4550

The box for this printer is massive, but that doesn’t really fit what’s inside. The printer itself is what I would call “average” size for home printers like this. And it’s definitely not heavy. It would certainly be easy for one person to move without problem. IMG_8015

As is customary with brand new printers these days, easy removal tape is used to hold everything in place during shipping and transport. There are also pieces of tape holding some internal parts in place as well, and you’ll need to open up the scanner bed to access them during the set up process.

Filling Epson’s ink tanks

Once everything is unpacked plugged in and ready to go it’s time to fill the ink tanks. Step one of the instructions notes that you should not start messing with the ink bottles until you’re absolutely ready to fill them, and that’s probably good advice.IMG_8022
Getting ready to fill the ink tanks was a little bit intimidating since there are warnings all over the packaging and inserts about taking care with handling of the ink. Epson recommends you use gloves and place something underneath the printer when you go to fill or refill the tanks, and while I did not have any rubber gloves handy, I did spread some paper underneath.

Turns out filling each ink tank is a simple matter of unpacking the bottles from their tight plastic wrap, removing the stopper from the ink tanks on the printer, and then emptying each bottle into the tank.

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While this was generally mess free, once the tank was full there was a good bit of ink around the lip of the printer’s ink tank, so it’s worth taking a bit of care here and wiping up the edges  of the tank before putting the stopper back in. The tip of the refill bottle was also covered in ink so I made sure to put that into a garbage bag and get rid of it right away, lest I inadvertently drag a sleeve across it.

Colour your hair at home? Filling ink tanks is similar

Despite being careful, the tips of the ink bottles do get messy and pulling off the silver foil seals from the bottles does transfer a bit of ink to the fingertips. The whole process reminds me of home haircoloring, where you’re using different bottles and pouring messy, staining liquids between them. It’s effective but can be messy if not done correctly.

With the black tank full and ready to go I was able to move onto the other tanks; Blue, red or “magenta”, and yellow. Cleverly, each refill bottle of ink fills the tank, to the “fill” line, so there’s no leftover ink to try to store safely.

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Ink levels on the tanks are easily visible.

Once the ink is ready the printer will ask you to set the date, time, and your region and then it will begin going through a series of cycles internally to “prime” the ink tanks and lines into the printer. That takes about 20 minutes, so I left it to its work and went on to something else in the meantime; downloading the Epson iPrint app, which you’ll need if you want to print from your phone or tablet.

Setting up the Wi-Fi was next; the step is a simple tweak the settings on the printer itself. The printer will locate available Wi-Fi networks in the area, you select which when you want and input the password. Trying to figure out how to navigate the keypad to use upper, lower, and numerical characters was a bit challenging but after a couple minutes staring at it I figured it out.

With the Wi-Fi connected I was able to print documents from my phone right away easily. Though it did seem like they were taking a long time.

Photo Printing

Next I tried to print photos with Epson’s premium photo paper. There’s no separate way to feed in photo paper, as there is with other printers, so in what turns out to be a minor annoyance, you must unload the tray of its letter-size paper, load photo paper, and then reinsert the tray. It was here I struggled a bit as maneuvering the tabs that keep the paper aligned in the bottom of the tray were a bit finicky and felt quite rickety.  I had a bit of difficulty trying to manouver the paper and the tabs and the tray, and it seemed to get jammed a couple times. To be frank, the tray itself feels light and cheap, like it may break at any moment, and I didn’t enjoy having to fuss with it.
In any event, with photo paper loaded, the printer seemed to recognize for itself that I was trying to print photos, and popped that up on the digital display.

To print photos, go to the app, it will load any photos from your smart phone tablet or device, and once you select them they print in less than a minute.
I printed a couple photos and then my husband wanted to try to print some documents. It was back to the printer to unload the photo paper and reload plain white letter paper.IMG_8248

Print speed testing – Epson ET-4550

Printing seemed to be taking quite a long time, so I timed it, and was stunned to learn the printing a single side half page email in color took a minute and 13 seconds! In my opinion that is way way way too long, particularly when many printers can do it in a 10th of that time.
I also noticed when I printed pages that were very color rich, the ink saturated to the page to the point where it left eight wrinkled look.

I tested out some printing of airline tickets and documents that amounted to 18 pages.  I hit print from my smartphone, and the process began.  In the time I was able to make dinner, sit down and eat, and then clean the kitchen, the documents were still not finished!  I decided to do some timed tests.

My initial tests used both my Macbook Pro laptop and my iPhone 6plus.
First I printed a six page document in black-and-white only, from a basic note file on my iPhone. It took six minutes and four seconds. It also stopped for about a minute and 15 seconds just before printing the last page. By contrast it takes only 90 seconds to print the same document on another printer in the same room.

I tested a colour document next, also from my iPhone.  It took seven minutes twenty seconds to print three single-sided colour pages of a six page test, and at eleven minutes and four seconds into my six page print job the printer suddenly spit out page 4 only half completed and canceled the entire print job.

Next test was an 8 page email that I opted to print in colour (though it was mostly black-and-white) from my Macbook Pro. It took over 10 minutes, and then more than 11 minutes into the job, it again paused printing on the last page, spit out only a half completed page and then shut down the print job.

Another annoying pattern seemed to be none of the documents will print double-sided, despite this feature being turned on. I turned the future on and off repeatedly to check if it was something with in the settings that was tripping a problem, but this did not help.

Seeking help for slow printing

I got in touch with my contact at Epson to find out if this kind of speed slowness was a problem with my unit, or another issue. A conference call with some experts was arranged.  After some troubleshooting, they were able to determine that my MacBook Pro was defaulting to Air Print. Epson tells me Apple’s Air Print drivers are much slower then the dedicated Epson drivers.  Their assessment is that’s why pages take so long to print from the MacBook Pro.

Follow instructions EXACTLY. Do not Deviate.

While step 5 in the Epson set up/start  guide tells you to install the Epson drivers and how to get them, (by going to Epson.com/support), that was a step I did not take initially, as my MacBook pro immediately found the printer on Wi-Fi, and handled the set up using the Air Print drivers. Despite this, the Epson experts told me that my skipping the software installation step is not “what most users do.” They say most users follow the instructions exactly and would have set up the drivers as instructed, and thus would not likely be experiencing slowness when printing from the computer.

Hallelujah! A page in 20 seconds!

The techsperts had me download the new Epson dedicated drivers, install them, and print a few test pages. The printer was now able to print both color and black-and-white in about 20 seconds. Yay! A twenty second print time is also much more workable, and in line with other home printers of this type.

You can fix laptop slowness, but not iPhone delays on the Epson Workforce

However there is not such an easy fix if you are experiencing slowness of printing from a smart phone or tablet such as the iPhone or iPad.  Since these particular devices use Air Print and only Air Print to send documents to the printer, you are going to have to deal with delays.

During my tests I had another printer at my disposal, so I asked why I was not experiencing the same problems of slowness with the other printer when printing directly from iPhone or iPad. Epson tells me that’s because “Epson uses its own unique printer language” and that instead of the printer doing the heavy lifting of data transfer and conversion, the computer does it for the printer via bitmap when using the installed the software drivers.

There’s a fix for Apple issues… Kinda

The Epson experts recommend when printing from smart devices like the iPhone or iPad to use the Epson iPrint app instead of printing from within other apps, or using Air Print.  Using the iPrint app does allow you to print downloaded documents, photos and web pages, but unfortunately the app doesn’t integrate with your emails, for example.

The bottom line is Epson’s folks tell me delays in printing are not uncommon when printing from Apple devices such as smart phones or tablets. Avoiding those delays is fixable by using your laptop or computer, so long as you download and install the proper Epson drivers.

While there could potentially be other variables at play keeping Air Print from being speedy, such as variables with the router, web traffic in the neighborhood or time of day, Epson says at this time it “can’t explain why I was having problems” with slow printing from my iPhone and doesn’t know what can be done. “There’s no evidence it’s an Epson issue.”

Overall impressions of Epson Workforce ET-4550

Once the proper print drivers were installed, the Epson Workforce ET-4550 is a great printer, and can match speed with other printers of the same size and type.  The printer itself is light, easy to move, and the flexibility of having ink tanks which can store years of ink shouldn’t be underestimated. I also like that you can see the ink levels in the tank at a glance.

While the ink tanks for me are a pro, I can see the clumsy or the fidgety person having an issue with refilling them, which could be a con for some.

As far as speed goes, the Epson Workforce is a good bet, and when printing from a laptop (even an Apple Macbook) it works perfectly. However for me, the lack of print speed when printing from my iPhone is a huge con. I’d say 80-90% of my documents and emails get printed via my phone, so having to wait forever for them, whether the issue is Epson’s Apple’s or something else, is frustrating and a needless delay to my workday.

I’d recommend this printer particularly for an office where the bulk of printing will be done from dedicated computers, and not other smart devices.  I would not recommend it for an Apple user who intends to do the bulk of their work from a handheld device.

For more info on the Epson Workforce ET-4550, click here. The printer is available at Best Buy in Canada for $599.

Epson provided a Workforce ET-4550 printer for testing. It did not ask for nor recieve permission to approve this review.

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