Cheap ink: Will it cost you?

July 22, 2008

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 suppliers may be a reasonable cost-saving option. And over the lifetime of your printer, cost savings from buying third-party inks can be considerable.

Where and how to buy cheap ink

The aftermarket for printer ink can be a tricky place to shop. Third-party cartridges cost less than the manufacturers’ brands — which is why people buy them. But it can be a lot harder to tell whether a third-party vendor sells high-quality ink products.

One time-tested method is to shop at an established retailer (online or brick-and-mortar) that guarantees the quality of its products. Obvious examples include office supply chains such as 123Inkjets, Cartridge World, Office Depot, Office Max and Staples, all of which carry third-party ink cartridges.

But finding third-party ink for your specific printer model can be a challenge, particularly if your unit is very new, very old or not very popular. Before driving around town to find the right cartridge, do a little homework online. At today’s insane gas prices, you could end up spending $20 on fuel just to save $10 on an ink cartridge.

Like the online arms of other major retailers, Staples.com has an ink and toner finder. Click the link for to find a decent assortment of third-party supplies for Brother, Canon and Lexmark printers. If you find compatible ink, you can buy it online or check with your local outlet to see whether it has the product in stock.

If you’re dealing with a vendor that you haven’t used before, ask questions. A reputable online ink retailer will provide names and contact information for the ink manufacturers that it buys its supplies from.

When shopping for remanufactured cartridges, ask the third-party supplier how thoroughly it inspects used cartridges before refilling them. "Do they look for cracks? Do they test the electrical characteristics of the cartridge? A cartridge can look fine but have a broken electrical component, and then it won’t work," says Tricia Judge of the International Imaging Technology Council. The vendor should also test the cartridge after the refill, Judge adds.

How we tested the longevity of inks

All photographs fade over time, as sunlight and pollution take their toll. But to determine whether printer manufacturers’ inks last longer than those of third-party suppliers, researchers need to condense years of image fading into just a few days. How do they do it?

Technicians in the Imaging Products Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) place color prints in environmental chambers where they can accelerate the prints’ exposure to ultraviolet light and ozone — the atmospheric pollutants responsible for sapping the color from graphics as years go by.

For this feature, RIT tested print samples from manufacturers’ inks and from third-party aftermarket inks. Altogether, it tested 10 cartridges per color, per vendor.

For the light-fastness tests, RIT technicians placed the print samples in a Xenon-arc chamber for 80 hours at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, exposing the samples to an increased level of ultraviolet light. In the chamber, brief bursts of high-intensity light mimic the effects of a low-intensity exposure over a period of many years.

The laboratory also ran tests to determine how well a print resisted the effects of ozone or pollution in the real world. In this test, RIT researchers measured the image’s color values before and after a seven-day exposure to air containing five parts per million of ozone.

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