Everyone knows that buying new, brand-name printer cartridges from the original equipment manufacturer can be expensive. But are third-party alternatives really a better deal? As PCWorld's Serial Refiller, I've set out to try third-party options--including remanufacturers, refill services, and do-it-yourself refill kits--and tell you whether the savings seem worth the hassle.
Because I use each refill for just a brief period of time, and with only one printer, my ink refill experiences are anecdotal and do not test the durability or archivability of third-party inks, nor how the printer will fare after repeated use with them. Nevertheless, my hands-on trials will give you a taste of what to expect if you try a third-party alternative with your own printer.
My test printer is an HP Photosmart e-All-In-One. For each evaluation, I start with a new set of OEM cartridges, drain them, and then use them for the refill or for comparison with the remanufactured option. I use the standard-size HP 60 cartridges; the high-yield 60XL cartridges will last longer and usually save you more money.
With both the OEM and third-party inks, I print a set of pages--ranging in content from plain text to a full-size color photo--over and over again until the ink starts to run out (blank streaks appear on the page). I count the number of pages that printed before streaks appeared, to get a sample page yield. These page yields will likely differ from those that the OEM or third-party ink vendor quotes, just as your own mileage will vary depending on what you print. I also compare the print quality of the pages using third-party ink versus those printed with the OEM cartridges.
Office Depot Remanufactured Cartridges Save a Step--For a Price
When printer ink runs dry, nothing is easier than heading to the nearest office-supply megachain to buy a new cartridge. Not the OEM cartridge--the Serial Refiller would never do that!--but a remanufactured one. That was my penny-pinching strategy when I went to Office Depot and bought two refurbished ink tanks for my HP Photosmart e-All-In-One. Office Depot's cartridges undercut HP's price by just a few dollars, but installing them is definitely less messy than using the do-it-yourself refill kit I tried last time.
* Office Depot OD640WN (HP 60) Remanufactured Black Ink Cartridge ($13)
* Office Depot OD643WN (HP 60) Remanufactured Tricolor Ink Cartridge ($17)
Tax and shipping costs: Varies by locality
OfficeDepot.com OD640WN (HP 60)
OfficeDepot.com OD643WN (HP 60)
Worth trying? Yes
Hassle factor: Low
Print quality compared with OEM ink: Satisfactory, but not as good as OEM
Yield (mixed set of samples): 134 pages
Cost per page: 22 cents (OEM: 27 cents)
The store's $13 OD640WN is an HP 60 black cartridge filled with Office Depot's house-brand ink; the $17 OD643WN is a remanufactured HP 60 tricolor tank. Office Depot also collects spent cartridges of any make and gives you a $2 in-store credit for each one you bring in. Not counting the store credit, the two cartridges cost $30 before tax--about $5 less than the HP 60 standard-size black and tricolor cartridges (when purchased separately).
The remanufactured cartridge is pretty much identical to HP's product, aside from the Office Depot sticker on top. Installation is a breeze, particularly if you've replaced HP cartridges before: Simply pop out the empty HP tank and insert the Office Depot unit.
After running the HP-recommended alignment procedure to calibrate the cartridges for best quality, I began printing. At least, I tried to, amid incessant dialog boxes that popped up once the printer recognized that the product was not a genuine HP cartridge. Whenever I'd check a box (in a Windows dialog box) to make one message go away, another would quickly take its place.
HP's cavalcade of warnings included:
- 'Low on Ink: Refer to status screen on your computer for details.' (This appeared right after I installed the Office Depot cartridges.)
- 'Original HP Ink Depleted: Print cartridge(s) refilled or depleted. Replace cartridge(s) or press OK to continue.' (An immediate follow-up to the first warning.)
- 'Black: If this cartridge was sold to you as a new, genuine HP cartridge, it may be a counterfeit.'
The Results: Good Enough?
After all that fuss, the pages I printed with the Office Depot inks looked pretty good. When I held the Office Depot-printed pages beside their HP counterparts, however, I noticed visible differences in print quality. Overall, HP's black output was noticeably darker, and text appeared bolder and sharper. Skin tones were smoother, and colors seemed more vibrant. Naturally, your subjective impressions of print quality may vary. If good enough is, well, good enough, Office Depot's ink could be a reasonable alternative.
I also dripped some water across both samples. As expected, each set exhibited streaking and color bleeding, but Office Depot's ink fared no worse than HP's.
Page yields were a draw: Office Depot's rebuilt tanks lasted 134 pages, compared with 132 for the HP inks. Based on those page yields, I paid 27 cents per page to print with the printer maker's standard-size HP 60 cartridges; with Office Depot's inks, I spent a little less, at 22 cents per page.
Buying remanufactured cartridges from Office Depot saved me a few bucks, as well as the trouble of refilling the tanks myself. I lost a little print quality along the way, however. If satisfactory output meets your needs, Office Depot's inks deliver--but the better results of HP's own cartridges are just a few dollars away. Of the two third-party ink alternatives I've tried so far, the Inktec do-it-yourself refill kit is cheaper by a long shot.