Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?

Razor-blade makers sell consumers the shaver at low prices and then make a killing selling replacement blades. Printer manufacturers do the same thing--selling their printers on the cheap and then making bank on expensive consumables like ink. It's a time-tested practice that's inspired a lively aftermarket of cheap ink from third-party suppliers.

The printer makers--the original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs--claim that their ink is worth the premium prices they charge for it. OEM ink, they say, creates images that are more accurate and color-rich, and longer-lived. Third-party suppliers, on the other hand, say that their inks are just as good but cost a lot less. For example, HP charges $18 for a black ink cartridge for its Photosmart C5180 printer, but the same cartridge remanufactured by Cartridge World costs only $8.75.

Who's telling the truth? To find out, PC World teamed up with the Rochester Institute of Technology, a respected research university known for its top-notch laboratory for testing imaging products. Using popular ink jet printers from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, and Lexmark, we ran side-by-side tests of brand-name and third-party inks to compare image quality and fade resistance. We also tracked how many pages each cartridge churned out before running dry.

Our tests show that all of the third-party inks in our test group yielded more prints per cartridge--on top of costing less--but that, with some notable exceptions, the printer manufacturers' ink we evaluated usually produced better-quality prints and proved more resistant to fading. Of course, our conclusions apply only to the printers we tested. We couldn't test all of the printers that are available (partly because you can't get third-party ink for all of them), so we picked a set of mainstream inkjet printers from recognized brands as a way of taking a snapshot view of the ink market.

More on Inks

The Image Quality Face-Off

Good Quality: In a Canon printer, Canon brand ink accurately re-created the gradual hues of the test image. Not-so-good Quality: In the same printer, TrueStar ink created abrupt changes (called banding) between color shades.
Good Quality: In a Canon printer, Canon brand ink accurately re-created the gradual hues of the test image. Not-so-good Quality: In the same printer, TrueStar ink created abrupt changes (called banding) between color shades.
The PC World Test Center created a number of different text and image printouts, pitting manufacturers' inks against third-party inks in five different printers. Image samples included a motion shot of cars on a racetrack, a close-up of a butterfly, a photo of a group of people with different skin tones, and a black-and-white photo of a boat. For text we created Word document samples on plain paper; for line art we designed a test document with closely grouped vertical and horizontal lines. Judges then rated the pages for qualities such as color accuracy and vibrancy, sharpness of text and of line art, and contrast levels in grayscale images.

In most matchups, brand-name inks outperformed third-party alternatives, but there were a few instances in which third-party inks fared just as well as the brand-name inks did. For example, in evaluations of output from the HP Photosmart C5180 printer, inks from third-party challengers Cartridge World and LD Products earned scores identical to those awarded to HP's own ink, including an overall rating of Good, on almost all of our tests. Both the HP and the third-party inks printed color glossies quite well but were just so-so at producing color images on plain paper.

However, after RIT technicians submitted their fade and yield results--and returned the printers it had tested to us--they became concerned that some of the HP-brand ink might have remained in the HP 5180 printer when it was printing test images using third-party ink, because the printer has unusual, long ink tubes that connect the cartridges with the printer nozzles. RIT therefore recommended that we omit the HP and HP-compatible inks from the fade test results.

We subsequently conducted our own tests to determine how much ink could have remained in the HP printer's tubes. To do so, we swapped the cyan and magenta inks (in a set of aftermarket cartridges) and printed a color composition. The image quality changed dramatically with the eighth print, indicating that the swapped ink had flushed the HP ink; if any difference in image quality were to occur, it would have to happen after the machine had printed eight pages. We then printed 20 pages from each set of cartridges--HP's ink and three aftermarket inks--and saw no change in print quality, a result tending to support our earlier conclusion that the print quality of the third-party ink was equal to that of the HP ink.

In output from an Epson CX5000 printer, Epson's and LD Products' inks performed well overall, though the Epson ink scored higher for its color glossies and grayscale prints. Our judges didn't care for the line-art output from either vendor's ink, however; one judge commented: "Blech! Lots of overlapping lines. Horrible diagonals--jagged and feathery."

Tested in a Canon Pixma MP830 printer, Canon ink produced samples that looked particularly sharp in our plain text, color glossy, and grayscale print tests. A third-party competitor, TrueStar, was no slouch either, receiving an overall score of Good. The TrueStar ink excelled at color glossies, but fell far short of Canon ink at printing on plain paper, whether the content consisted of color images, grayscale images, or text.

Lexmark's house brand of ink (tested in a Lexmark X3470 printer) earned a Good overall score, and its color glossy output snagged the only superior rating our judges awarded. Meanwhile, the inks from Cartridge World, Overstock.com, and Walgreens earned lower marks overall: For color glossies, the third-party inks earned scores of Good or Very Good (below the ratings for Lexmark's own ink), and their grayscale output received a grade of Poor. Our panel criticized the third-party inks for banding (abrupt changes between shades of the same color) and for odd, greenish hues.

Manufacturers' Inks Made Higher-Quality Prints

We used different inks to print various images on plain and photo paper, and then compared the quality of the prints. With one exception (HP vs. third-party inks), images made with manufacturers' inks were more accurate and more color-rich.

PRINTER Ink Text and line art Photos (color and black-and-white) Overall
Canon Pixma MP830 Canon CLI-8 Good Very Good Very Good
TrueStar Fair Good Good
Epson Stylus CX5000 Epson No. 69 Fair Good Good
LD Products Fair Fair Fair
HP Photosmart C5180 HP 02 Good Good Good
Cartridge World Good Good Good
LD Products Good Good Good
Lexmark X3470 Lexmark No. 1 Fair Very Good Good
Cartridge World Fair Fair Fair
Overstock.com Poor Fair Fair
Walgreens Poor Fair Fair
Kodak Easyshare 53001 Kodak 1963149 Good Good Good
HOW WE TEST: We used five test printers to print a series of text, line art, grayscale, and color photo images on plain or photo paper. For photo prints we used the paper that the printer's manufacturer recommended for optimal results across all ink types. A panel of three judges, using guidelines developed by the PC World Test Center, graded the test prints as Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, or Superior. The overall rating is an average of seven image quality scores awarded to test images created using that ink. FOOTNOTE: 1No aftermarket ink for the Kodak 5300 was available at the time of our testing. Source: PC World Test Center.

Third-Party Ink Yields Were Higher

On the other hand, printing with the third-party cartridges in our tests will save you anywhere from 3 percent to nearly 70 percent per page, depending on what kind of printing you're doing. For example, a set of remanufactured Epson Stylus CX5000 color cartridges (cyan, magenta, and yellow) from 123Inkjets.com printed nearly 70 percent more pages than the Epson ink, at a cost of about 9 cents per page of color printing, and 2.6 cents per page for black. In contrast, Epson's ink cost 30 cents per page of color printing and about 10 cents per page for black. Epson's Web site says that a set of its color cartridges for the CX5000 should print about 350 pages, but the Epson cartridges we tested averaged only about 190 pages. In contrast 123Inkjets' remanufactured color cartridges averaged just over 320 pages.

Third-party ink cartridges outlasted HP ink cartridges by an even greater margin. 123Inkjets' black cartridge for the HP Photosmart C5180 printed at a cost-per-page of 0.6 cent, while its brand-name HP counterpart printed at 2.2 cents per page. The 123Inkjets cartridge yielded 72 percent more pages than the HP before needing replacement. 123Inkjet's color cartridges (cyan, magenta, and yellow) did even better, yielding an average of 99 percent more pages than the HP cartridges. Cartridge World cartridges, which cost less than HP's OEM versions on all counts, produced impressive page yield numbers, too: Its black, cyan, and magenta cartridges generated about 70 percent more pages than the HP cartridges, and its yellow cartridge churned out 80 percent more.

The overall disparity between Canon inks and Cartridge World inks was smaller. Both cartridge sets produced reasonably good page yields and costs per page for black and color prints. For high-quality photo prints, however, the Cartridge World cartridges were a bargain, printing at 17 cents per page versus the Canon inks' 26 cents per page.

Third-Party Inks Printed More, Cost Less

Which printer inks--those made by printer manufacturers or those made by third-party ink sellers--delivered more bang for the buck? Using 13 competing cartridges in five printers, we calculated the cost of the ink needed to print a page of black-only, full-color, or high-quality photo printing. Though many third-party ink cartridges failed to work in our test printers, those that did printed more pages and cost substantially less than the brand-name rivals. See the companion charts, "Manufacturers' Inks Made Higher-Quality Prints" and "Manufacturers' Inks Resisted Fading Better," for the rest of the story.

PRINTER Ink Black-only printing1 Color printing2 Photo printing2
Canon Pixma MP830 Canon CLI-8 3.6 cents 11 cents 26 cents
Cartridge World 2.6 cents 7 cents 17 cents
Epson Stylus CX5000 Epson No. 69 9.6 cents 30 cents 59 cents
123Inkjets 2.6 cents 9 cents 16 cents
Cartridge World n/a3 n/a3 n/a3
HP Photosmart C5180 HP 02 2.2 cents 9 cents 32 cents
123Inkjets 0.6 cents 3 cents 11 cents
Cartridge World 1.3 cents 6 cents 17 cents
Lexmark X3470 Lexmark No. 1 16 cents4 16 cents 30 cents
Walgreens n/a5 15 cents 29 cents
Overstock.com 10 cents4 10 cents n/a6
Cartridge World 7 cents4 7 cents n/a6
Kodak Easyshare 53007 Kodak 1963149 2 cents 8 cents 12 cents
HOW WE TEST: All printers were evaluated following ASTM International testing standard F2555-06 "Standard Practice for Determining Page Yield of Ink Jet Printer Cartridges-Continuous Printing Method." Using an ASTM F1942 text document with 5 percent area coverage (all colors) as our definition of a printed page, we report the average page yield of three cartridge sets. n/a = Not available. FOOTNOTES: 1Black-only ink cost per page is derived by dividing the cost of one black cartridge by the number of pages it yielded. 2Color and photo printing ink costs per page are derived by dividing the cost of all ink colors (including black, whether in separate cartridges or all-in-one) by their average page yield. 3Cartridges failed to print when installed. 4Black ink and color inks (here contained within one cartridge) ran out simultaneously at the end of the test. 5The all-inks-in-one cartridge failed before the black ink ran out. 6Cartridges failed early with major print-quality defects (see "Brand-Name Cartridges Were More Reliable"). 7No aftermarket ink for the Kodak 5300 was available at the time of our testing. Source: Rochester Institute of Technology; ink prices from PC World research.

Manufacturers' Inks Aged Gracefully

Lexmark brand ink faded marginally, yet noticeably, under exposure to ultraviolet light. Lexmark-compatible Walgreens ink, by contrast, lost 57 percent of its color density in our UV test.
Lexmark brand ink faded marginally, yet noticeably, under exposure to ultraviolet light. Lexmark-compatible Walgreens ink, by contrast, lost 57 percent of its color density in our UV test.
Several factors determine how well a color print withstands the effects of aging. Heat, light, and pollution play major roles, as do the inks' chemical composition and the type of paper they're printed on. To test the inks' resistance to these sources of image fading, RIT technicians placed print samples in an image-durability chamber, which speeds up the aging process by exposing the prints to concentrated levels of ozone and ultraviolet light (see "How We Tested the Longevity of Inks"). In the end all of the inks tested suffered some loss of optical density, but the OEM inks generally resisted fading better than their third-party competitors did.

In RIT's study, Epson's inks, on average, showed by far the greatest resistance to fading. Test prints created using Epson ink lost only 0.5 percent of image density in the ultraviolet light test, and only about 1.6 percent of image density in the ozone exposure test. So slight a degree of degradation is hard for the human eye to detect. Images created using Epson-compatible 123Inkjet inks, the lone Epson competitor tested by RIT, lost an average of 36 percent of their image density under UV exposure, and 29 percent under ozone exposure.

The Kodak inks (tested with a Kodak Easyshare 5300 printer) averaged 5 percent fade after 80 hours in the UV chamber, while fading only 1.45 percent under ozone exposure. (At the time of our testing, no compatible third-party ink had yet emerged to compete with Kodak's ink; LD Products has since brought out cartridges for the 5300.)

The Canon brand ink faded 28 percent under exposure to ozone, and 10 percent under UV light. Canon-compatible Cartridge World inks faded about twice that much--roughly 66 percent in the ozone test, and 22 percent in the UV test.

In RIT's UV test, the Lexmark ink proved far more fade-resistant than the Walgreens ink, and marginally better on average than the Cartridge World and OverStock.com inks. None of the Lexmark or compatible inks faded substantially in the ozone test. Canon supplies--particularly the black and green inks--faded noticeably, but Cartridge World ink faded even more in all colors except black.

Manufacturers' Inks Resisted Fading Better

Printer makers' inks usually stood up better than third-party inks to heightened levels of ozone and ultraviolet rays, though the OverStock.com and Cartridge World inks resisted ozone better than their Lexmark brand rival. The numbers below represent percentage of image fade, so lower is better.

PRINTER Ink Ozone fade Ultraviolet fade
Canon Pixma MP830 Canon CLI-8 28.36% 10.03%
Cartridge World 66.01% 21.63%
Epson Stylus CX5000 Epson No. 69 1.61% 0.06%
123Inkjets 29.1% 35.96%
Lexmark X3470 Lexmark No. 1 3.32% 11.4%
Walgreens 5.13% 57.01%
Overstock.com 2.22% 22.12%
Cartridge World 2.96% 28.29%
Kodak Easyshare 53001 Kodak 1963149 5.17% 1.45%
HOW WE TEST: For the ozone fade test, we gauged the ability of an image to resist fading when exposed to pollution-in this case, ozone. Each color was measured before and after seven days of exposure to 5 ppm of ozone; we recorded the percentage of image density loss for each color and then averaged the figures. For the light-fastness evaluation, we exposed sample prints to an increased level of ultraviolet light in a Q-Panel xenon-arc chamber for 80 hours at 63 degrees Celsius. We recorded the percentage of image density loss for each color and then averaged the figures. FOOTNOTE: 1No competing aftermarket ink was available for this model, so we compared the Kodak ink to other OEM ink brands in the market. NOTE: RIT did not obtain usable results in fade tests of HP and HP-compatible ink cartridges. Source: Rochester Institute of Technology

And Now a Kodak Moment . . .

Kodak asserts that its cartridges have more going for them than a low price: Prints made with its inks are as vivid, colorful, and accurate as those made with any other manufacturers' inks on the market, the manufacturer says. We confirmed Kodak's claims on both counts: Kodak inks were as economical as the third-party inks, selling at $10 for black and $15 for color cartridges, the same price as cartridge refills at Walgreens. The Kodak inks' cost per page is fairly good, too, at 2 cents for black printing, 8 cents for color, and 12 cents for photo. Kodak inks earned scores on a par with those of the other manufacturers' inks in our print-quality tests, and rated especially highly in color glossy print jobs. And Kodak inks were second only to Epson in resisting ozone and UV light.

Brand-Name Cartridges Were More Reliable

Third-party inks (left) are sold in new or refurbished cartridges at bargain prices. Printer makers sell their own pricier inks (center) in cartridges built specifically for their printers. Walgreens refills empty ink cartridges (right) brought to its retail stores.
Third-party inks (left) are sold in new or refurbished cartridges at bargain prices. Printer makers sell their own pricier inks (center) in cartridges built specifically for their printers. Walgreens refills empty ink cartridges (right) brought to its retail stores.
Printer vendors say that their ink cartridges are more reliable and pose fewer technical problems in their own printers than third-party inks do. Most third-party ink sellers remanufacture (that is, they buy, clean, and refill) used brand-name cartridges or resell cartridges that they buy from another manufacturer.

Our research tended to corroborate the printer manufacturers' claims. In the RIT tests, brand-name cartridges consistently installed and ran without a hitch, whereas some third-party supplies worked poorly or not at all.

For instance, a few Walgreens and OverStock.com cartridges designed for the Lexmark X3470 printer suffered from color mixing (in which ink from one cartridge leaks into another inside the printer) and from print-quality defects. supposedly compatible Cartridge World cartridges--40 of them, in fact--failed to work in the Epson Stylus CX5000 printer and could not be tested. (The Epson unit's ink-replacement software utility reported, "The installed ink cartridge is incompatible with this printer," but didn't provide details.) And 2 of 20 Lexmark-compatible cartridges from Cartridge World arrived at RIT with ink leaking into the packaging prior to installation.

These reliability problems are not entirely the fault of the third-party ink sellers. Some manufacturers put microchips in their cartridges and printers, thus making it harder for third-party suppliers to design compatible supplies. "They'll put in a chip to keep third parties from being able to reverse-engineer" the product, says IDC printer analyst Keith Kmetz.

For instance, Canon ink cartridges include a computer chip that thwarts third-party competitors. "Nobody's been able to replicate it, figure it out, figure out how to reset it, get around it," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California. "Printer manufacturers roll out new printers every six to eight months, and it's a struggle to keep up with all the new technologies," Eaton says.

Vendors also use scare tactics to discredit third-party products. "We see vendors saying your warranty could be affected if you're not using their genuine supplies," says IDC's Kmetz.

"Usage [of a third-party ink cartridge] alone does not void the warranty," says Tricia Judge, executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council, a trade group for toner and ink suppliers. The only way the warranty can be voided, according to Judge, is if a third-party product damages the printer. And if you're dealing with a legitimate aftermarket vendor, "They're going to repair or replace the printer for you if their cartridge damages it."

The Bottom Line on Printer Inks

Depending on your printer, you may be able to find cheaper, third-party inks that perform as well as or better than the brand-name stuff. In our study we found that third-party ink cartridges usually cost less and often yielded more prints than their manufacturer-made rivals. On the other hand, in most cases, we confirmed the printer manufacturers' claims that their own inks produce better-looking images.

Deciding between brand-name and third-party alternatives depends in part on how you plan to use your prints. If you want high-quality color photos that future generations will be able to enjoy, then OEM inks are usually a better choice.

Many of us, however, don't need the best ink supplies that money can buy. If your prints tend to be for one-time-only office presentations, text documents for school, or temporary color images (such as plain-paper photos), inks from third-party supplies may be a reasonable cost-saving option. And over the lifetime of your printer, cost savings from buying third-party inks can be considerable.

An Ink Aftermarket in Flux

Finding suitable third-party cartridges for a particular printer isn't always easy, and may be getting harder. That's because selling third-party ink, we're told, is a tough business.

According to imaging industry forecaster Lyra Research, parent company of The Hard Copy Supplies Journal (a printer industry trade publication), printer manufacturers control about 80 percent of the market for replacement printer ink cartridges. Total worldwide revenue from inkjet cartridge sales will be about $31.5 billion this year--$25.1 billion of it going to printer makers and the other $6.4 billion going to third-party cartridge sellers and refill shops or kiosks.

And experts say that third-party vendors' market share may be falling. "Overall, the OEMs are gaining back a little share, maybe a point or two over the next several years worldwide," says Charlie Brewer, managing editor of The Journal.

One key factor in the printer manufacturers' dominance of the replacement cartridge market is a landmark 2007 ruling by the International Trade Commission (a U.S. government agency) that barred the importation of Epson-compatible ink cartridges into the United States. The immediate result for U.S. consumers is a big drop in the availability of third-party inks for Epson printers.

Another factor is the printer makers' aggressive and persistent effort to take third-party vendors to court for infringement of their ink cartridge patents. "A handful of OEMs have a dominant share of the market, and they are laden with patents," says patent attorney Edward O'Connor, who has been arguing printer industry patent-infringement cases for nearly 20 years. "They're very litigious, they're very threatening, and they go after people." O'Connor is helping Ninestar Image, a large China-based ink cartridge vendor, appeal the 2007 ITC ruling mentioned earlier.

Aftermarket lawsuits are nothing new, says IDC's Kmetz. The printer manufacturers "are not making as much money on the hardware as they are on the supplies, so any supply revenue that gets threatened is of great concern."

Printer vendors say they're just protecting their turf, not trying to mortally wound their aftermarket rivals. "We believe in fair competition," says HP's Brown.

Critics, however, charge that printer makers engage in bullying third-party vendors, most of which lack the resources to fight long legal battles. The resulting chilling effect discourages aftermarket competitors from selling ink, which in turn hurts consumers by keeping ink prices artificially high.

The ITC's Epson ruling is just one reason why third-party ink makers may be losing ground in the United States. Another factor is the falling price of replacement ink cartridges from printer manufacturers. Five years ago, the average printer manufacturer's ink cartridge sold for between $30 and $35, Brewer estimates; today, the average price is between $15 and $20.

But the lower prices don't mean consumers are getting more ink for their buck. Rather, the printer makers are offering cartridges with less ink in them and selling them at a reduced price. High-yield tanks sell for around $35, while the lower-yield cartridges go for nearly half that. For instance, the HP 88XL Black Officejet ink cartridge costs $35 and prints an estimated 2450 pages, which works out to a price per page of roughly 1.43 cents. The lower-capacity HP 88 cartridge sells for $20 but prints only 850 pages, or about 2.35 cents per page. So despite their higher cost per page, printer manufacturers' cartridges that carry relatively modest sticker prices can lure consumers away from third-party inks.

And for people who print only a page or two a week, the higher-priced third-party cartridge may indeed be overkill.

"Overall, the OEMs are gaining back a little share, maybe a point or two over the next several years worldwide," says Brewer, although the shift is too new to be reflected in the research numbers. Brewer predicts that the market-share gains by printer manufacturers in some regions, including North America, will be significant. For instance, the 2007 ITC ruling will help Epson. And Canon ink cartridges include a computer chip that thwarts third-party competitors. "Nobody's been able to replicate it, figure it out, figure out how to reset it, get around it," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California. The challenge for third-party vendors is to keep up with the changing ink needs of consumers. "Printer manufacturers roll out new printers every six to eight months, and it's a struggle to keep up with all the new technologies," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California.

Vendors also use scare tactics to frighten users away from third-party competitors. "We see vendors saying that your warranty could be affected if you're not using their genuine supplies," says Kmetz. However, HP's Brown told us that using third-party products doesn't void an HP printer's warranty.

"Usage alone does not void the warranty," says Tricia Judge, executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council, a trade group for toner and ink suppliers. The only way the warranty can be voided, Judge says, is if a third-party product damages the printer. And if you're dealing with a legitimate aftermarket vendor, "They're going to repair or replace the printer for you if their cartridge damages it."

Our Ink-Stained Conclusion

For the best inkjet experience--including crisp, colorful, long-lasting print output--ink from the printer's manufacturer tends to be a better bet than third-party ink. That said, if you're willing to compromise a bit on print quality and longevity, you can save considerable money over the life of your printer by using aftermarket inks from reputable third-party vendors.

How We Tested the Longevity of Inks

Photograph: Courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology
All photographs fade over time, as sunlight and pollution take their toll. But to determine whether printer manufacturers' inks last longer than those of third-party suppliers, researchers need to condense years of image fading into just a few days. How do they do it?

Technicians in the Imaging Products Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) place color prints in environmental chambers where they can accelerate the prints' exposure to ultraviolet light and ozone--the atmospheric pollutants responsible for sapping the color from graphics as years go by.

For this feature, RIT tested print samples from manufacturers' inks and from third-party aftermarket inks. Altogether, it tested ten cartridges per color, per vendor.

Photograph: Courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology
For the light-fastness tests, RIT technicians placed the print samples in a Xenon-arc chamber (see the image above) for 80 hours at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, exposing the samples to an increased level of ultraviolet light. In the chamber, brief bursts of high-intensity light mimic the effects of a low-intensity exposure over a period of many years.

The laboratory also ran tests to determine how well a print resisted the effects of ozone or pollution in the real world. In this test, RIT researchers measured the image's color values before and after a seven-day exposure to air containing 5 parts per million of ozone.

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