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.
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.
The ones that performed best in this review were from Cartridge World, so I took a trip to the one nearest me. (This is where I wasted time.) I was unable to buy a cartridge to fit my printer, in either color or black. but the guy behind the desk in this little shop told me if I brought in my empties, he'd refill them for me for $10.99 for the black. In comparison, a new cartridge online at HP is $14.99 delivered overnight for free. (I put in a call to Cartridge World but was unable to reach anyone in time for my deadline.)
I didn't make the purchase, but back in my office, I went online to check out the tales of woe at HP's new InkAmnesty site, where people share their experiences with refillable and remanufactured cartridges. These sorts of stories -- along with my own fruitless journey -- tend to make me think this is too much trouble. Then again, this site is run by HP, so that's the idea, right?
Still, a savings of $4.99 (not factoring in my own time and gas spent to drive to Cartridge World) seemed hardly worth settling for a cartridge that had been simply refilled versus one that is brand new. So far, my first assumption -- buying direct from the manufacturer is easier -- seemed to hold.
I put in a call to HP to settle the next question: Would using non-HP cartridges, remanufactured cartridges, or refilled cartridges void my warranty?
"No, it won't void the warranty," Thom Brown, HP's Ink and Media Technologist, said. "We never prevent customers from refilling their cartridges. You can walk into Walgreens and get a refill there. There are also remanufactured cartridges available. You can find those at Office Depot." He didn't encourage the practice and mentioned that damage to the printer caused by the cartridge might not be covered, but using off-brand ink does not void an HP printer's warranty. (This is where I had a myth dispelled.)
"Keep in mind, though, that ink cartridges are highly complex," he said. (This is where I learned some weird science: Thom's videos about ink.) "As much care goes into manufacturing an ink cartridge as is used creating a computer chip. It is done in a clean room by skilled technicians. When you get a cartridge refilled, it's done by whoever happens to be working that day at Walgreens. And the cartridge itself is used, having already served a full life."
Honestly, Thom was preaching to the converted since I remain lazy on the subject. Genuine cartridges had me at "easier," but if you print a lot or are on a bargain hunt, refilling cartridges might be for you. If you aren't using an HP printer, you should check the warranty issue.
Thom is certain you'll return quickly to using the genuine article, but if you've had a positive -- or negative -- experience with refurbished or refilled ink cartridges, please share or comment below.
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