Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?

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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.

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