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The moment of truth

In this case of a Lexmark printer cartridge gone awry, the customer was right.

My Lexmark ink-jet printer seems to run out of ink, even while I can still see ink in the 12A1970 cartridge. For over a year I have been putting up with this. Finally, I visited the Lexmark’s online chatroom and signed on, where a living, breathing support person (“Crystal”) materialized.

Crystal: Welcome to the Lexmark Technical Support chatroom. How may I help you?

Finley: Yes. How do I get my cartridge to print? It’s half full, and I have cleaned the nozzles and paper-toweled the contacts, as per the KnowledgeBase suggestions. I’ve printed out 50 sheets of tests, wasting much color ink. I’m beginning to lose heart.

Crystal: How long have you had the cartridge?

Finley: Oh, three weeks maybe. I use a lot.

Crystal: About how many pages have you printed?

Finley: About 150. At 600 dpi resolution–normal.

Crystal: With higher resolution, you won’t get many pages per cartridge. If you use the draft setting, you’ll get more pages per cartridge.

Finley: Yes, but the cartridge is not empty. The icon on the print utility plainly shows the cartridge still has lots of ink.

Crystal: The levels on the screen are not completely accurate, if that is what you are going by. It depends upon the resolution. If you use normal or high, the ink levels will be off.

Finley: But it shows it’s two-thirds full. That’s a serious magnitude of wrongness. And I can tell there’s still ink in the cartridge. It sloshes when I shake it.

Crystal: Don’t go by the icon levels. They’re usually fairly close, but not totally.

Finley: It seems like you’re determined that my cartridge is empty, even though I know it isn’t. Have I got that right?

Crystal: You just told me you printed 150 pages since you replaced the cartridge three weeks ago. That’s a lot. Even though you can “hear” the ink flowing in there, it is possible there is not enough ink left to print on the page.

Finley: I believe with all my heart that there is ink in it, and I’m here and you’re there. Why put quotation marks around the word “hear”?

Crystal: Okay. We have a weight-scale that we use to check the amount of ink in the cartridge. If you feel this cartridge is still almost full, send it in, and we’ll weigh it.

Finley: Sounds like I’d need to hire a lawyer to witness the weigh-in. I’m out of luck, aren’t I? Well, thanks. And I hang up.

So I thought I knew Lexmark’s dirty secret. Though they make good printers, their ink cartridges gum up–more so than HP’s. And Crystal, and all the other Crystals in tech support, know their cartridges are inferior, but aren’t allowed to concede the point to customers. Go to Amazon’s computer store and see the “reviews” of Lexmark cartridges. Harsh words!

I figured that was the end of it: I called, I got frustrated by the explanations, I hung up. Gonna buy me another printer. But there was more. The next day I get a detailed e-mail from a second Lexmark tech support person named John. Unlike Crystal, John didn’t talk himself into a premature diagnosis (“delusionary customer ‘hears’ ink in empty cartridge”). Instead, he described a simple procedure, called wicking, to talk the last ink out of the cartridge.

I decide to give it a shot. I remove the cartridge. I wipe the very gummy contacts on the bottom of the cartridge with a dry paper towel. Now comes the exotic part. I set the nozzles down on a damp paper towel and let it rest there for precisely 15 seconds.

Then, I smear the cartridge laterally across the towel, until the nozzles are cleared and ink flows.

Important step: if you are wearing a seersucker suit, you should have taken it off by now.

Voila–a gusher of ink. Spindletop in a bottle.

My print is dark again, the way I like it. I’ll keep my Lexmark. But how come Crystal didn’t know about this wicking business?

CU ColumnistMichael Finley also writes Diversions monthly in ComputerUser magazine.

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