It's Dead, Jim

“I'm a doctor, not a mechanic.”*
    Leonard McCoy, Star Trek original series, “The Doomsday Machine”

In October, 2011, I took delivery of a whale of a printer, an Epson Stylus Pro 7900. With a 24-inch carriage width, this 220 pound (101 kg) “production” machine was probably not the best choice for a low-volume printer like me (said in the crystal clarity of hindsight). As usual, I did significant research prior to buying the machine, and chose it based on a number of factors, including the substantial build that would make for consistent results with minimum maintenance and fuss. In that, I was partly correct. More on that later.

When I got the 7900 I wrote about choosing it over competing offerings after having owned a 17-inch Canon imageProGraf for several years. As mentioned in that article, I also started a blog, Life With a 7900, to document exactly that. I did this because I could find no similar discourse as I researched a replacement for the Canon machine. I thought perhaps the blog would help someone in a similar situation. I don't know if it ever did. In the early days, as I climbed the 7900's learning curve, making interesting, sometimes useful discoveries, dealing with the machine's flaws and general weirdness, and making excellent prints, I had a lot to say. Eventually using the machine became routine. I knew how it would behave in most situations, how it would be easy and nearly flawless when I printed often (daily, or at least several times a week), and how, if I ignored it by not printing for a few days, it would punish me. At that point my blog entries became much less frequent, since routine printing wasn't the purpose of the blog. Instead, I used it to document the unusual, things like features added with new firmware updates, the frustrations and annoyances, and the sometimes hours-long process of getting the machine ready to print.

Nozzles, Nozzles, NOZZLES!!!

Epson made a number of promises when marketing the x900 series of printers, among them a new ink chemistry and a Teflon-coated head that combined to all but eliminate clogs. A little background on “clogs:” To get ink to paper, an ink-jet printer forces a particulate suspension (ink) through microscopic ports, or nozzles, in the printhead. The head has many thousands of these nozzles, arranged into channels (groups of nozzles) for each color. As the printhead's carriage pulls it across the paper, pressurized ink passes out of the nozzles in remarkably tiny droplets, across a small air gap, and lands on the paper where it is absorbed (more, or less, depending on the type of paper and it's ink-receptive coating). You'd think ink goes all over the place, and in the micro it probably does, but for our purposes it's pretty well controlled. Most of the ink lands where it's supposed to. The paper is then moved forward a small increment and the head makes another pass, laying down the next “band” of the picture. When printing is finished, the head is parked and a capping station covers the nozzles to prevent air from drying out the ink in and around the nozzles. I'm oversimplifying here, as there's more going on, such as a slight vacuum that pulls ink back from the nozzles, and other clever features intended to reduce clogging. As the machine ages the capping station seals less and less well, resulting in more frequent clogs. Clogged nozzles, even just a few out of thousands, equals sub-optimal prints.

The 7900's software included an auto-nozzle-check (ANC) feature, a way to detect nozzle problems and clear them. If this worked as intended the machine would always be ready to print. Just fire it up, load the desired paper, send the print-optimized file from Photoshop (in my case) to the printer, and get a perfect print. But ANC didn't work, and to make up for that it wasted a lot of ink. By the time I'd received my 7900 this failing had been pretty well documented by users, who continued to complain despite a few software updates from Epson intended to resolve the issue. Most users, it seemed, disabled ANC. I did that out of the box, never used it.

Red fox on a snowy day

A typical 7900 nozzle check print. Penciled circles highlight missing nozzles. Red arrows show machine-killing deflections in the Light Black channel, enlarged at right to show detail. The missing nozzles can be successfully cleaned, but the deflections can't be eliminated; a costly printhead replacement is the only repair.

Instead, prior to every print job, or, more accurately, at the start of any day's printing (during which I might make several prints) I manually made a nozzle check print. A few button presses on the 7900's control panel, load a sheet of plain paper, and a series of color patches would print. Examining these with a ten-power loupe showed whether any nozzles were clogged. If not (hey, it happened!) “just print;” it didn't get any better than that. More often, though, the print showed missing nozzles and a cleaning (or two, or three) would be needed to get a 100% good nozzle check. Just to make this more interesting, if any ink cartridge required for cleaning had less than five percent of its ink left, the machine wouldn't clean until a replacement cartridge was swapped in. Once the cleaning finished and a good nozzle check printed, the old cartridge could be returned to the machine. A five-percent cartridge could make a lot of prints before running dry. As you might expect, this swapping of inks added considerably to the prep time. It also meant keeping a generous inventory of ink on-hand. With the smallest available ink cartridges costing around $80 (US), and with 11 different inks in the machine, a fair chunk of change could be wrapped up in ink on the shelf. All of this is hardly what I'd call minimizing maintenance and fuss, which, you'll recall, were among my criteria when selecting the 7900.

A Clog By Any Other Name

Banding caused by the failed printhead

Symptom (tiny red arrows) of the damaged printhead channel.

Eventually I stopped accepting that a bad nozzle check print indicated clogged nozzles. These machines are insanely complex; there's a long chain of components between an ink cartridge and the associated printhead nozzles. Any part in that chain can fail (or just occasionally get cranky), preventing ink from reaching the nozzle. The only tool I have, however, is the nozzle check print, and when that's not 100%, the only recourse I have is to run cleaning cycles. This can be run on all nozzles, which can unnecessarily consume a lot of ink. It can also be run on nozzle pairs, those pairs defined by the design of the printhead. If the Cyan channel showed an incomplete pattern, I could run a cleaning on the pair that included Cyan (it's paired with the Vivid Magenta channel). In all cases, that's what I did. Printing another nozzle-check often showed the Cyan problem resolved, but equally often showed other, unrelated channels now had gaps. On a bad day I might chase these problems around, doing another pair cleaning and then another, for half an hour or more. But on good days, the first cleaning resolved the problem, all channels showed 100%, and I could get on with printing.

Sword of Damocles

After a few years with the machine it became clear the end could happen any time, without warning. I knew the day would come when I'd fail to get a 100% clean nozzle check, and no number or type of cleanings (there's the standard cleaning, and there's a “powerful” that should be used sparingly) would resolve it. That has, after over nine years of service, finally happened, and it ends my printing with the 7900. The signs indicate a printhead failure. Epson says this is not a user-replaceable part, and that's generally true. However, with the proper tools and software and a reasonable mechanical ability, one can replace the head, assuming one can find the part. A new printhead costs more than $1000, would require a number of hours (and consume a lot of ink) to replace. I'm a decent-enough mechanic and have pulled off scarier repair jobs, and might consider giving it a try. But in the end I'd still have a 9+ year old printer in which something else could fail any day. This seems less than optimal.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Bowman Lake Sunrise large print

A rare (for me) maximum-width standard-format (non-panorama) print, Sunrise at Bowman Lake.

What's next? It's a good question, one I asked in my 2011 article about choosing the Epson over other brands and models. I've now circled fully back to that quandary. Clearly the smart money is in replacing the 7900 rather than repairing it. I want to continue to make prints; I found making large, high-quality prints, when I started years ago, changed (and improved, I think) the way I see through the viewfinder and the overall quality of my image captures in camera, and I don't want to lose that perspective. Besides, I just love seeing a great print on a beautiful paper emerge from the machine! I also have a number of clients who depend on my printing services, expect a high level of quality, and would be disappointed if I don't continue this service. Since I haven't had to, I've not kept current in the printer market and don't know much about what's available. I've plenty of research to do, but it's something I enjoy doing.

I know two things that will help me get started: First, the next printer will likely be smaller, probably with a 17-inch carriage. In nearly ten years with the 7900 I've printed a great many looong panoramic images, but very few pictures that required the 24-inch wide carriage (as did the one shown at left). A 17-inch machine should be sufficient. Second, I won't be blogging about it. In the early days the blog had a bit of a following, and I enjoyed some back-and-forth emails with a few regular readers. But as postings became less frequent, and as my postings about the aging machine became less and less relevant for anyone considering buying a new, large-format printer, those readers (understandably, I think) dropped away. Knowing the blog was “out there” but not getting much attention from me caused a bit of stress I didn't (and don't) need. So, the death of the 7900 also means the end of the Life With a 7900 blog.

It's very likely I'll write about the selection, purchase, and start-up of my next printer. I'll include a link here to that story.

May, 2021

*I began my 2011 article with a quote from Star Trek (The Original Series); it seemed appropriate here to end the story with another.

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