Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?

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.

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