Cheap Ink Probed
"Lowest ink jet prices!" "Three ink jet cartridges for the price of one!" "Save up to 80 percent!" With brand-name ink cartridges running $30 or more, the temptation to buy third-party cartridges at substantial discounts, either online or in stores, is understandable. But how do these inexpensive inks stand up next to their pricey printer- manufacturer counterparts?
To find out,
We found that third-party inks can save you money, and that some produce prints on a par with the output of printer vendor inks. But we also encountered third-party inks that produced poor-quality prints and clogged up printheads. The impact of generic inks on printer warranties is ambiguous. And if you frequently print photographs, you should steer clear of these inks: The prints might look fine, but Wilhelm reported that none of the clone inks he tested came close to matching the permanence of brand-name inks. He rated the best of the aftermarket inks to last only five years (see the
These days, you can get a capable ink jet printer for a mere $50, and a great one for $150. But brand-name inks are expensive, especially if you print in color: A single photo can cost 50 cents or more, not including the price of paper. Jim Forrest, who edits the
Third-party vendors have already grabbed more than 16 percent of cartridge sales, Forrest says, and that percentage is growing. Printer vendors contend that third-party inks can cause myriad problems--some of which, they say, may surface only after prolonged use of the generics--ranging from poor print quality and durability to printer damage. Third-party vendors counter that printer companies simply want to scare consumers out of straying from the branded inks, which the third-parties claim are overpriced in order to subsidize the artificially inexpensive printers.
To test the quality of our clone inks, we used them to print images on several grades of paper and then rated each image as either comparable to, somewhat worse than, or significantly worse than images made using the printer manufacturer's ink.
In general, most of the third-party inks printed text on plain paper as decently as the printer manufacturers' cartridges did (see our
But some inks, even those that made good-looking pictures, didn't always work well. All three aftermarket black inks for the Epson C82--OA100 (purchased from
Several OA100 cartridges purchased from PrintPal, most notably the black and cyan, frequently plugged the nozzles on the Canon S900's printhead, causing wide blank stripes in documents.
The HP DeskJet 3820's cartridges integrate the printhead and ink supply in one unit that can't be replicated legally, so third-party vendors simply refill used 3820 cartridges. A Printek cartridge we bought from PrintPal had no ink in the magenta tank, but we were able to complete our quality and yield tests with other cartridges. Wilhelm was unable to print all four colors satisfactorily with any of the Printek cartridges from PrintPal, but was able to test the same brand of cartridges from another vendor,
We also tried refilling our own HP cartridges with an InkTec kit that we bought from
And it was in permanence that third-party inks fell short. For example, Wilhelm projected prints made with Epson's C82 inks (colored with pigments instead of less-durable organic dyes) on Epson's most stable (with these inks) paper to last 92 years when displayed, while rating none of the prints with generic inks on the same paper to last more than a year. The HP and Canon inks are dye-based, so their advantage over third-party inks was somewhat less but still substantial. (Newer HP printers use inks that Wilhelm, in other tests, has found to be far more stable than HP's inks for the 3820.)
In general, third-party inks for the Canon and Epson printers produced about as many color pages as the printer manufacturer's inks (see our
The situation was different with HP's 3820, which uses two cartridges (one black, the other with three colors). HP sells 19ml and 38ml versions of the color cartridge (street-priced at $35 and $50, respectively). The low-yield HP color cartridge ran out of cyan after 380 pages (ending the cartridge's useful life); the
Do-it-yourself refill kits offer the greatest savings, if you're willing to brave the messy refill process. The InkTec refill kits for HP cartridges contained more than three times as much ink as a cartridge, and they cost only $10 for black and $14 for color.
Why did printer makers' products usually deliver better results than their generic counterparts? Printer vendors say they've invested heavily in developing inks, papers, cartridges, and printheads that work together. For example, John Stoffel, HP's ink jet technology manager, says third-party vendors can't fine-tune fluidity so that their inks spray properly onto the paper.
Often, aftermarket retailers buy prepackaged inks from manufacturers--many of them in China--which makes it difficult for the retailers to know exactly what they're getting. But some third-party ink companies do exercise direct control over their products. Gary Miller, Amazon Imaging's sales vice president, says his company makes its inks and uses cartridges made of polypropylene, a high-quality material that printer vendors use, instead of cheaper plastics that can damage the ink if it's stored for several months.
Buying third-party ink online can be frustrating. Some retailers' Web sites don't identify products by name, only by printer or cartridge compatibility, so getting a steady supply of an ink you like can be a challenge. Computer Friends, whose generic inks are unidentified on its Web site, sent us G&G ink to fill most of our initial order for Epson C82-compatible ink but completed the order later with a different brand. (The company fulfilled our request for a specific ink brand, however.)
Another murky issue relates to warranties. All the manufacturers' warranties for the printers we used state explicitly that they don't cover damage caused by other vendors' ink. But third-party vendors say the federal Magnusson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act forbids companies from dictating customers' choice of aftermarket products.
Ron Katz, a patent attorney with the firm Manatt, Phelps, & Phillips who has litigated on behalf of aftermarket vendors, says that "mere use of a third-party cartridge does not void the warranty if the cartridge does not cause the damage."
Tricia Judge, executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council, an association of aftermarket vendors, says that if a generic cartridge does damage your printer, reputable third-party ink sellers will repair the printer. However, none of the generic-ink sellers' warranties for the products we tested addressed this situation.
The IITC is working with the American Society for Testing and Materials to develop tests of yield, image density, and ink fastness. It has also partnered with the imaging lab operated by the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery to test and certify products. Judge says she expects the program to result in a certification sticker on boxes for the inks that meet basic standards. Printer vendors seem receptive to the idea of quality-control testing: "We are all for standards," says Pradeep Jotwani, vice president of HP's Imaging and Printing Group.
In the meantime, judging from our experience, finding a reasonably priced substitute for brand-name ink can be a risky business. If top quality and print longevity aren't of paramount importance, you can save money using no-name inks--but you may have to spend a lot of time cleaning clogged printheads. Still, some users may find the savings justify the hassles.
If print quality--and especially durability--are a top concern, however, you're better off playing it safe by gritting your teeth and shelling out for brand-name inks.