The aftermarket for printer ink can be a tricky place to shop. Third-party cartridges cost less than the manufacturers' brands--which is why people buy them. But it can be a lot harder to tell whether a third-party vendor sells high-quality ink products.
One time-tested method is to shop at an established retailer (online or brick-and-mortar) that guarantees the quality of its products. Obvious examples include office supply chains such as 123Inkjets, Cartridge World, Office Depot, Office Max, and Staples, all of which carry third-party ink cartridges.
But finding third-party ink for your specific printer model can be a challenge, particularly if your unit is very new, very old, or not very popular. Before driving around town to find the right cartridge, do a little homework online. At today's insane gas prices, you could end up spending $20 on fuel just to save $10 on an ink cartridge.
Like the online arms of other major retailers, Staples.com has an Ink & Toner Finder. Click the link for to find a decent assortment of third-party supplies for Brother, Canon, and Lexmark printers. If you find compatible ink, you can buy it online or check with your local outlet to see whether it has the product in stock.
If you're dealing with a vendor that you haven't used before, ask questions. A reputable online ink retailer will provide names and contact information for the ink manufacturers that it buys its supplies from.
When shopping for remanufactured cartridges, ask the third-party supplier how thoroughly it inspects used cartridges before refilling them. "Do they look for cracks? Do they test the electrical characteristics of the cartridge? A cartridge can look fine but have a broken electrical component, and then it won't work," says Tricia Judge of the International Imaging Technology Council. The vendor should also test the cartridge after the refill, Judge adds.
For our latest in-depth coverage of the pros and cons of printer manufacturers' inks versus third-party inks, see our feature article, "Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?" and the related slide show, "Head-to-Head: Printer Manufacturers' Ink vs. Cheap Third-Party Ink." For additional advice on reducing the cost of running your inkjet printer, see "The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing," "Save Money on Inkjet Printer Ink," and "How to Spend Less on Printing and Get Better Results." Our digital photography expert, Dave Johnson, has written helpful articles on photo print longevity ("Digital Focus: Make Your Photo Prints Last") and printer paper ("The Paper Chase: Pick the Perfect Paper for Your Printer"). And finally an earlier three-part PC World series on the issues of counterfeit name-brand inks ("Bogus Ink Stink"), third-party ink quality("Cheap Ink Probed"), and high ink-cartridge prices ("Why Do Ink Cartridges Cost So Much?") provides valuable historical background and additional test results for various ink cartridges.