Why Printers Are So Terrible

And what (little) you can do about it

Clive Thompson
8 min readSep 11, 2022


“A broken Epson Stylus printer” by Newtown grafitti (CC 2.0 license, unmodified)

Recently I participated in a discussion on Twitter started by someone who was looking for a new printer.

This prompted conversation on a subject that’s both common and dismal:

“Why are printers so terrible?”

Because wow, they truly are. Like many people, I’ve had printers break on me in a myriad of irritating ways. Sometimes, the nozzles on inkjet cartridges started leaking or clogging, or wireless connections crapped out and never worked again. Other times, paper jams created a pile of internal confetti impossible to extract — or, conversely, the printer insisted it suffered from a paper jam that didn’t exist.

Then there’s the shakedown of wildly expensive, proprietary inkjet-cartridges, a substance “more expensive than vintage Champagne and even human blood”.

Printers are thus weird outliers in world where most other consumer tech has gotten better over time. Processors have gotten faster; hard drives have plummeted in price. Name nearly any tech category, and it’s better and cheaper than previous decades.

But not printers. They were wretched ten years ago, and they’re wretched still.


It’s kind of interesting, really. I’ve been low-key reading and researching this for years and years, and the upshot is there’s no single reason printers are so lousy. It’s more a constellation of interlocking and reinforcing reasons.

But the Four Big Reasons Printers Are Wretched are …

“Epson Inkjet Printer and Epson Ink Cartridges” by Cartridge People (CC 2.0 license, unmodified)

1) Printer companies sell ink, not printers

Printer companies don’t make any money on their printers. They make it on the very-expensive ink.

But the only way to sell you tons of proprietary ink is to make sure you own one of their printers. So they sell the printers at very cheap prices, knowing they’ll more than make it up over the months and years with ink sales.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net