We tested Canon's Pixma MP610 multifunction printer with black ink cartridges from Canon and from G&G, an aftermarket brand owned by Ninestar Image. The differences in performance between the OEM ink and the aftermarket ink were striking. With the Canon cartridge installed, the printer stopped printing when 24 percent of the ink remained in the tank. Specifically, the full tank of ink weighed 27.333 grams, and the unused ink in the tank at nominal empty weighed 6.459 grams.
Canon didn't dispute our results, but the company pointed out that its printers do allow users to print after the initial low-ink warning. "There are typically a series of warnings before the ink is out, alerting users to ink status," spokesperson Kevin McCarthy wrote in an e-mail message. (We calculated the remaining ink weight at the point when the printer actually shut down, which was after the preliminary warnings appeared.)
When equipped with the aftermarket G&G cartridge, the Canon printer shut down with nearly 45 percent of the ink left. The full tank of ink weighed 27.320 grams, and its remaining ink weighed 12.277 grams.
G&G responded by running its own tests with a different Canon printer, the Pixma iX4000. (The vendor says the model that the PC World Test Center used wasn't available in its workshop at the time of testing.)
G&G told us that it tested three of its color cartridges--magenta, blue, and yellow--and found that the amount of residual ink ranged from 5.5 percent (for yellow) to 17 percent (for magenta). (Again, PC World limited its testing to black ink cartridges only.) Canon declined to comment on our test findings with the G&G print cartridge.
With an Epson black-ink cartridge installed, the Epson RX680 printer shut down with just over 8 percent of its ink remaining. The weight of the ink in the full cartridge was 11.700 grams; the weight of the residual ink at printer shutdown was 0.969 gram. In an e-mail response to PC World, an Epson spokesperson wrote: "Eight percent remaining ink measured in your testing is a normal amount. This reserve assures print quality and printer reliability."
But the story was quite different when we printed pages on the RX680 using an aftermarket cartridge from LD Products. This time the printer shut down with a whopping 41 percent of the ink still in the tank. The full quantity of ink weighed 12.293 grams; the unused ink weighed 5.0005 grams.
Why the huge gap between OEM and aftermarket? "Epson cartridges have an ink-level sensor to more accurately report ink levels, and to reduce the amount of ink in the safety reserve," the company spokesperson wrote. Third-party products don't have these sensors, according to Epson, and the printer manufacturer "cannot guarantee the performance, quality or longevity of these cartridges."
LD Products has a different theory. "The ink itself is cheap, so we refill to more than the original level," says Ben Chafetz, vice president of marketing for LD Products. The Epson printer bases its low-ink message on the printing capacity of the OEM cartridge, but since the LD cartridge contains considerably more ink than the OEM version, it is bound to have more ink remaining when the printer shuts down, according to Chafetz. In other words, if Epson supplies enough ink in its cartridge for 120 pages plus a margin of error, say, while LD adds enough ink to print 200 pages, and if the Epson printer shuts off at 120 pages anyway, the percentage of leftover ink in the LD cartridge will be considerably higher than in the Epson cartridge.
Chafetz points out that regardless of the percentage of unused (and unusable) ink in the nominally empty cartridges, the page yields of the LD Products cartridges and the high-capacity Epson cartridges should be the same. (Note: PC World didn't test page yields in this study.)
Testing the HP printer was difficult because HP takes an unusual approach toward diminishing ink supplies in its cartridges: The HP Photosmart C5280 multifunction printer we tested didn't shut down as ink levels approached exhaustion. With an OEM cartridge installed, the printer displayed warning messages as the ink level dropped, but it never forced us to replace the cartridge.
As a result, we continued printing until the pages began showing telltale signs of low ink, such as banded text. The HP printer will continue to print until the cartridge is completely dry--but since the print heads are part of the cartridge in HP's design, running out of ink does not damage other parts of the printer.
When using an aftermarket cartridge from LD Products, the C5280 failed to post any low-ink warnings--either on our test computer or on the printer console. Does that mean HP's warning system works only with house-brand cartridges? Not necessarily, but HP suggests that you are better off with its OEM cartridges. "Most aftermarket cartridges do not signal 'low-on-ink' alerts, giving customers no advance warning that ink is running low," wrote HP spokesperson Katie Neal in an e-mail message.
LD Products' Chafetz disagrees. He says that LD's Photosmart C5280-compatible products are actually refurbished and refilled HP cartridges. One possible explanation for the lack of a low-ink warning is that the printer wasn't reading the refurbished cartridge's chip code correctly, he says.
Chafetz says that the results from PC World's tests mark the first time that LD Products' technicians have heard of their cartridges' not posting a low-ink warning.
The Kodak EasyShare 5300 was the only printer that lasted longer with an aftermarket cartridge than it did with the manufacturer's cartridge. Equipped with a Kodak cartridge, this printer shut down with 43 percent of the ink remaining. Its full quantity of ink weighed 16.857 grams, and its unused ink after shutdown weighed 7.272 grams.
Kodak doesn't dispute our findings, but the company argues that our results don't tell the whole story. Roderick Eslinger, Kodak technical marketing manager, says that Kodak's in-house tests in 2007 indicated that 65 percent of its cartridge ink was used for consumer printing, while 35 percent was used to "protect/maintain optimal Kodak printer performance and document quality." Eslinger says that the remaining ink is "already factored into our industry advertising claims for consumers, and that Kodak cartridges offer "low costs and high quality yields as compared to competitors."
With a G&G cartridge, the Kodak printer shut down with 36 percent of the ink remaining in the tank. The leftover ink weighed 5.360 grams. Kodak chose not to comment on the aftermarket results.