For those who aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about, This is an HP Laserjet 8150. The first 8000 series printers were being sold in 1998; the last rolled off the assembly lines in 2002. The manual says they weigh 112lbs, and while I don’t quite think they’re that heavy, they’re most definitely the sort of thing worth opting for “local pickup” if buying on eBay. The Energy Star qualifications must have been much different back then, because its 135W “idle” power draw is only dwarfed by its 650W operational power requirements. By today’s standards, they are by no means the gold standard in power efficiency. They don’t connect via USB, they stand nearly three feet tall with a single paper tray, and their toner cartridges cost $150 a pop and are getting harder and harder to find. I’ve been hard pressed to find out how much they cost when they were released, but with refurbished units selling for $500 or more, I’d speculate that a $1,500 would be a safe bet; it’s entirely possible to walk out of a Staples with half a dozen laser printers for that price.
And yet, I still consider them, and their 4000 series cousins, to be amongst the best printers ever made.
Their JetDirect cards, though requiring an insecure version of Java to interact with, still connect with modern networks. They speak PostScript and PCL, meaning that iPads and other mobile devices can print to them natively, with no configuration, even though they are a decade their successor. Though the paper jams I’ve had in these printers have been difficult to address, they are incredibly few and far between. Those $150 toners? They’re rated for 17,000 pages, making it likely that the paper will cost more than the toner.
The real reason that these are the best printers I believe were ever made, however, is because I’ve yet to see one truly broken. Sure, they need a new fuser every 300-500,000 pages, but even those last longer than the 80,000-100,000 page ratings on fusers for contemporary printers. Beyond that, along with the toner and rollers, I’ve never once seen one of these printers truly die. I can certainly understand a concern regarding survivorship bias; indeed it is a fair argument to make. However, every one of these I have disposed of, I have only disposed of due to their being replaced with newer printers, invariably for reasons other than a lack of function. It pained me a little each time.
But I think there is something a bit deeper that speaks to why no one is making a true successor to the 8000 series printers, and as usual, the reasons aren’t terribly technical.
Obviously, a printer that lasts for 20 years and costs $0.03/page in consumables isn’t making anyone rich, so it was in the best interest of printer manufacturers to increase that while masking the real cost difference in lower toner prices. Conversely, getting people to spend even $500 on a laser printer today is an uphill battle. The market has been largely polarized into either smaller offices who are price sensitive and would rather pay $60 for a 1,500 page toner, or larger offices who lease printers and document centers and pay for consumables and maintenance as a function of the contract. Meanwhile, environmental concerns and regulations are also involved here. Newer printers really are more power efficient, and their lighter weights means that fuel used during shipping is decreased, and more readily recyclable plastic reduces the environmental impact. Finally, just societally, we’re printing less. When was the last time you saw a printed photo that was taken since 2010, that wasn’t explicitly printed for the sake of framing that single image? Back in 2007, small photo printers were all the rave.
My real question, though, is how we’ve been chasing the “new and shiny”. Who wants a 20 year old printer, even if it functions nearly as well as the day it was purchased? Is the environmental impact of a 20 year old printer that much higher than the manufacture, usage, and disposal of 3-5 lower quality printers in the same timeframe? Was there a swath of these printers that failed in the first five years and I just wasn’t around to see it?
It’s tough to tell these things with any level of confidence, but I submit to you that when it comes to printers, they legitimately and quantifiably don’t make them like they used to. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a question I will leave you to decide. I, however, will wax sad that I neither have the room nor the print volume to retain one of these printers in my apartment.