Which Printer Ink Refills Can Save You the Most?

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Cheap ink: It's what every inkjet printer user wants. But although printer vendors' ink tends to be pricey, the alternatives--refilled or remanufactured cartridges--come with dire warnings about drips, disappointing print quality, or damage to your printer.

Are third-party inks worth the risk? There used to be only two ways to find out: Try it yourself--and possibly sacrifice your printer in the process--or commission a laboratory to run exhaustive tests. PCWorld did the latter three years ago for "Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?"

Birth of a Serial Refiller

Now we're trying a third way--the Serial Refiller way. PCWorld sent intrepid writer Jeff Bertolucci an HP Photosmart e-All-in-One inkjet multifunction printer, a model whose cartridges are popular among third-party ink vendors, and assigned him this mission: Try a bunch of refills and let us know what happens. For each test, he printed a variety of samples repeatedly until streaks began to appear in the output, at which point he could calculate the cost per page and also examine print quality.

The baseline: The HP 60 black and color cartridges that came with the Photosmart e-All-in-One produced 132 fully printed pages. At $35 for both cartridges (when purchased separately), the cost per page works out to a high 27 cents. (HP's 60 Ink Cartridge Combo Pack, priced at $32, saves a few bucks.)

Each of the options we've tried so far offers its own approach and its own array of supported printers--mostly older printer models, as third-party vendors need time to create their alternative cartridges and inks. Cartridge World's service tends to cater to older models. Among newer models supported, InkTec sells a do-it-yourself refill kit that works for numerous Lexmark models, such as the Lexmark Genesis, Lexmark Platinum Pro905, and Lexmark Pinnacle Pro901. Costco's in-store refilling service supports both the HP we've used as our test case and the HP Envy100 e-All-in-One. Office Depot's service supports newer printers such as the HP OfficeJet 6500A Plus e-All-In-One.

So far we've found that the bigger the hassle involved, the better the savings--but output quality varies. The best balance we've discovered has come from Costco: Its in-store refilling service is convenient, and it delivers acceptable print results for half the cost of HP's own inks.

What Are the Risks?

The risks of using third-party inks are unpredictable. Using such inks will not void your printer's warranty; however, the warranty won't cover any damage that might occur as
a result of that use.

Ink spillage during refill or use is probably the biggest risk, creating a mess at best and possibly damaging the cartridge or printer at worst. We have also had to endure a lot of pop-up dialog boxes and control-panel warnings. Such messages can be intimidating and persistent, but usually you can click OK to dismiss them.

The Serial Refiller's short-term experiences are anecdotal, and they do not test the durability or archivability of third-party inks, nor how the printer will fare after repeated use with them. Nevertheless, our hands-on tests offer a taste of what you can expect if you try a third-party alternative with your own printer. For more of the Serial Refiller's adventures, check out the following "Portrait of a Serial Refiller" articles.

* InkTec Ink Refilling Saves Money, Creates Mess

* Office Depot Ink Cartridges Save Money, Lose Quality

* Costco Ink Refills: Superlow Price, So-So Quality

* Cartridge World Printer Ink: A Good Bargain?

* Cheap 'Jumbo' Ink Refills: Too Messy to Recommend

* G&G Ink Refill Kit: Maximum Hassle, Poor Printouts

* Ink-O-Dem Refill Service: Good Quality, Modest Bargain

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