Cheap ink: Will it cost you?

July 22, 2008

Third-party ink yields were higher

On the other hand, printing with the third-party cartridges in our tests will save you anywhere from 3% to nearly 70% per page, depending on what kind of printing you’re doing. For example, a set of remanufactured Epson Stylus CX5000 color cartridges (cyan, magenta and yellow) from 123Inkjets.com printed nearly 70% more pages than the Epson ink, at a cost of about 9 cents per page of color printing and 2.6 cents per page for black. In contrast, Epson’s ink cost 30 cents per page of color printing and about 10 cents per page for black. Epson’s Web site says that a set of its color cartridges for the CX5000 should print about 350 pages, but the Epson cartridges we tested averaged only about 190 pages. In contrast 123Inkjets’ remanufactured color cartridges averaged just over 320 pages.

Third-party ink cartridges outlasted HP ink cartridges by an even greater margin. 123Inkjets’ black cartridge for the HP Photosmart C5180 printed at a cost-per-page of 0.6 cents, while its brand-name HP counterpart printed at 2.2 cents per page. The 123Inkjets cartridge yielded 72% more pages than the HP before needing replacement. 123Inkjet’s color cartridges (cyan, magenta and yellow) did even better, yielding an average of 99% more pages than the HP cartridges. Cartridge World cartridges, which cost less than HP’s OEM versions on all counts, produced impressive page yield numbers, too: Its black, cyan and magenta cartridges generated about 70% more pages than the HP cartridges, and its yellow cartridge churned out 80% more.

The overall disparity between Canon inks and Cartridge World inks was smaller. Both cartridge sets produced reasonably good page yields and costs per page for black and color prints. For high-quality photo prints, however, the Cartridge World cartridges were a bargain, printing at 17 cents per page versus the Canon ink’s 26 cents per page.

Manufacturers’ inks aged gracefully

Several factors determine how well a color print withstands the effects of aging. Heat, light and pollution play major roles, as do the inks’ chemical composition and the type of paper they’re printed on. To test the inks’ resistance to these sources of image fading, RIT technicians placed print samples in an image-durability chamber, which speeds up the aging process by exposing the prints to concentrated levels of ozone and ultraviolet light. In the end, all of the inks tested suffered some loss of optical density, but the OEM inks generally resisted fading better than their third-party competitors did.

In RIT’s study, Epson’s inks, on average, showed by far the greatest resistance to fading. Test prints created using Epson ink lost only 0.5% of image density in the ultraviolet light test, and only about 1.6% of image density in the ozone exposure test. So slight a degree of degradation is hard for the human eye to detect. Images created using Epson-compatible 123Inkjet inks, the lone Epson competitor tested by RIT, lost an average of 36% of their image density under UV exposure and 29% under ozone exposure.

The Kodak inks (tested with a Kodak Easyshare 5300 printer) averaged 5% fade after 80 hours in the UV chamber, while fading only 1.45% under ozone exposure. (At the time of our testing, no compatible third-party ink had yet emerged to compete with Kodak’s ink; LD Products has since brought out cartridges for the 5300.)

The Canon brand ink faded 28% under exposure to ozone and 10% under UV light. Canon-compatible Cartridge World inks faded about twice that much — roughly 66% in the ozone test and 22% in the UV test.

In RIT’s UV test, the Lexmark ink proved far more fade-resistant than the Walgreens ink and marginally better on average than the Cartridge World and OverStock.com inks. None of the Lexmark or compatible inks faded substantially in the ozone test. Canon supplies — particularly the black and green inks — faded noticeably, but Cartridge World ink faded even more in all colors except black.

Kodak asserts that its cartridges have more going for them than a low price: It says prints made with its inks are as vivid, colorful and accurate as those made with any other manufacturers’ inks on the market. 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 they rated especially highly in color glossy print jobs. And Kodak inks were second only to Epson in resisting ozone and UV light.

Printer vendors say that their ink cartridges are more reliable and pose fewer technical problems in their own printers than third-party products 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 two 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."

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