Cheap ink: Will it cost you?

July 22, 2008

Buying replacement ink from a third-party vendor can save you big bucks. But will you pay with lousy-looking prints that fade in no time?

Razor-blade makers sell consumers the shaver at low prices and then make a killing selling replacement blades. Printer manufacturers do the same thing — selling their printers on the cheap and then making bank on expensive consumables like ink. It’s a time-tested practice that’s inspired a lively aftermarket of cheap ink from third-party suppliers.

The printer makers — the original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs — claim that their ink is worth the premium prices they charge for it. OEM ink, they say, creates images that are more accurate and color-rich and longer-lived. Third-party suppliers, on the other hand, say that their inks are just as good but cost a lot less. For example, HP charges $18 for a black ink cartridge for its Photosmart C5180 printer, but the same cartridge remanufactured by Cartridge World costs only $8.75.

Who’s telling the truth? To find out, PC World teamed up with the Rochester Institute of Technology, a respected research university known for its top-notch laboratory for testing imaging products. Using popular ink jet printers from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak and Lexmark, we ran side-by-side tests of brand-name and third-party inks to compare image quality and fade resistance. We also tracked how many pages each cartridge churned out before running dry.

Our tests show that all of the third-party inks in our test group yielded more prints per cartridge — on top of costing less — but that, with some notable exceptions, the printer manufacturers’ ink we evaluated usually produced better-quality prints and proved more resistant to fading. Of course, our conclusions apply only to the printers we tested. We couldn’t test all of the printers that are available (partly because you can’t get third-party ink for all of them), so we picked a set of mainstream ink-jet printers from recognized brands as a way of taking a snapshot view of the ink market.

The image quality face-off

The PC World Test Center created a number of different text and image printouts, pitting manufacturers’ inks against third-party inks in five different printers. Image samples included a motion shot of cars on a racetrack, a close-up of a butterfly, a photo of a group of people with different skin tones and a black-and-white photo of a boat. For text we created Word document samples on plain paper; for line art we designed a test document with closely grouped vertical and horizontal lines. Judges then rated the pages for qualities such as color accuracy and vibrancy, sharpness of text and of line art, and contrast levels in grayscale images.

In most matchups, brand-name inks outperformed third-party alternatives, but there were a few instances in which third-party inks fared just as well as the brand-name inks did. For example, in evaluations of output from the HP Photosmart C5180 printer, inks from third-party challengers Cartridge World and LD Products earned scores identical to those awarded to HP’s own ink, including an overall rating of Good, on almost all of our tests. Both the HP and the third-party inks printed color glossies quite well but were just so-so at producing color images on plain paper.

However, after RIT technicians submitted their fade and yield results — and returned the printers they had tested to us — they became concerned that some of the HP-brand ink might have remained in the HP 5180 printer when it was printing test images using third-party ink, because the printer has unusual, long ink tubes that connect the cartridges with the printer nozzles. RIT therefore recommended that we omit the HP and HP-compatible inks from the fade test results.

We subsequently conducted our own tests to determine how much ink could have remained in the HP printer’s tubes. To do so, we swapped the cyan and magenta inks (in a set of aftermarket cartridges) and printed a color composition. The image quality changed dramatically with the eighth print, indicating that the swapped ink had flushed the HP ink; if any difference in image quality were to occur, it would have to happen after the machine had printed eight pages. We then printed 20 pages from each set of cartridges — HP’s ink and three aftermarket inks — and saw no change in print quality, a result tending to support our earlier conclusion that the print quality of the third-party ink was equal to that of the HP ink.

In output from an Epson CX5000 printer, Epson’s and LD Products’ inks performed well overall, though the Epson ink scored higher for its color glossies and grayscale prints. Our judges didn’t care for the line-art output from either vendor’s ink, however; one judge commented: “Blech! Lots of overlapping lines. Horrible diagonals — jagged and feathery.”

Tested in a Canon Pixma MP830 printer, Canon ink produced samples that looked particularly sharp in our plain text, color glossy and grayscale print tests. A third-party competitor, TrueStar, was no slouch either, receiving an overall score of Good. The TrueStar ink excelled at color glossies but fell far short of Canon ink at printing on plain paper, whether the content consisted of color images, grayscale images, or text.

Lexmark’s house brand of ink (tested in a Lexmark X3470 printer) earned a Good overall score, and its color glossy output snagged the only superior rating our judges awarded. Meanwhile, the inks from Cartridge World, Overstock.com and Walgreens earned lower marks overall: For color glossies, the third-party inks earned scores of Good or Very Good (below the ratings for Lexmark’s own ink), and their grayscale output received a grade of Poor. Our panel criticized the third-party inks for banding (abrupt changes between shades of the same color) and for odd, greenish hues.

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