The Myths and Strange Science of Printer Ink

Planning a lengthy work trip usually means carting a fair amount of technology so that I can continue to research, write, and post from the road. Last week, as I prepared for a journey that would put me closer to InfoWorld headquarters, I sat in my home office looking at my work rig and trying to decide what I could do without.

A printer is not absolutely essential to my remote office kit, but going without one for more than a month would be difficult. As I was trying to decide whether I should borrow a printer or use FedEx Office while traveling, I briefly considered investing in a mobile printer. But then I found myself at HP.com, where instead of being tempted by mobile printers, I discovered I could have a low-end Deskjet printer shipped directly to my destination for $20, including the printer, a small ink cartridge, and shipping.

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My problem was solved for the price of lunch at a fancy San Francisco restaurant. I placed the order, and it arrived at my destination before I did. When I was bragging about this small success to one of my fellow InfoWorlders, he said, "Oh sure. But what do the refills cost?" He also shot me a look that said I wasn't nearly as clever as I thought.

The comment struck me as a little negative, but it got me thinking about the cost of printer consumables. I have never used refillable ink cartridges: Buying genuine cartridges is easy (if expensive), and I was under the impression that generic cartridges would void my printer's warranty.

Since assumptions and laziness aren't solid decision-making strategies, I decided to dig into the question. Along the way, I wasted some time, dispelled some myths, and learned a little strange science -- but haven't really changed my ways.

First, I read a dated but nicely researched three-part article at Trusted Reviews.com that made me think using an alternative to manufacturer cartridges might not be such a bad idea. Though a few of the cartridges the site tested were initially problematic, they printed well and held up in the review's smudge and fade tests. They also seemed considerably cheaper than buying new cartridges direct from the manufacturer.

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