Save Money on Inkjet Cartridges

May 17, 2009

But that’s chilly tech comfort if you’re handing over your credit
card for a three-digit charge to replace a handful of cartridges. And
considering the times, consumers faced with the usual outlay for inkjet
cartridges are feeling the pinch more acutely than ever. The question
crossing their minds: Is there any way around paying $40 for that
three-color ink tank?

The answer is yes—and no. More accurately:
It depends. We rounded up our top 15 ways you can save on ink, as well
as on the often-pricey paper that you may need to use if you’re making
photo prints. Some strategies stress conservation; others involve
weighing your quality needs against the compromises of printing in
draft mode or using cheaper cartridges. Others strategies are more
radical. And one is just plain weird—but has merit.

The answer to saving money on inkjet ink is to buy a
second printer? Indeed, depending on your printing habits, that could
be the best ink- and money-saving move you could make.

That’s because one of the keys to printing cost-effectively is to pay careful attention to the cost per page for the printer you’re currently using,in light of the ways you typically print. The two main types of
personal printer on the market today are inkjets and lasers, with
lasers coming in monochrome-only and color varieties. The very
lowest-end inkjets tend to be a bit cheaper in initial purchase price
than entry-level lasers (the cheapest of which are always
monochrome-only). This pricing dynamic is what leads some users to buy
an inkjet without looking further.

Refilled or third-party cartridges.

It’s the biggest inkjet temptation of all: With many ink cartridges running $30 or $40 a pop—and, often, several of them required for a
full refresh—the temptation to use less-costly third-party ink cartridges can be almost irrepressible. After all, a savings of $10 to
$20 (sometimes even more) per cartridge is no trifle if you print a lot. But what are you giving up by using third-party ink?

There’s no easy answer to that question. The short version is that it depends
on the particular ink tank you’re holding in your hand, because not all
third-party ink is created equal. Far from it: At one end of the scale,
some aftermarket ink is premium-priced and designed for specific
purposes, such as to exceed the archival longevity of the branded
original equipment manufacturer (OEM) ink. At the other extreme, ink is
priced to appeal to those seeking the lowest possible cost (with,
predictably, the quality to match), well earning the moniker “knockoff
ink.” Between the two extremes is a vast swamp of cartridges that might
as well have question marks festooned all over their packaging. Their
quality is all over the map. There’s also a further wrinkle: Some
third-party cartridges are refilled cartridges (the cartridge shells
may be of OEM or third-party origin), while others are simply new
cartridges from third-party manufacturers.

Selling empty cartridges back.

If you toss your empty ink cartridges in the trash, you’re not only
adding unsafe elements into the environment, but you’re also throwing
away cold, hard cash. There are a number of ways to recycle your empty
ink containers, depending on what your priorities are, and any of them
are far better than chucking your cartridges into a landfill. Cartridges for Kids and freerecycling.com’s

Buy a printer with separate color cartridges.

It used to be that only the best photo printers came with four or
more discrete cartridges, typically for cyan, magenta, yellow, and
black inks (CMYK). And if you were really serious about photo quality,
you could get a printer equipped with an extra two or four cartridges;
the additional cartridges would contain photo inks that were finer
shades of the standard CMYK, for enhanced photo output.

This dynamic still exists in the inkjet market, but these
days, while some printers focus more on photos than others, the
industry has made the general assumption that everyone will print at
least some photos, and more important, that no matter what you print,
it’s more economical for a printer to have separate cartridges for
separate colors.

There are still printers on the market, however,
that offer just two cartridges: one for black ink, plus one tricolor
cartridge for cyan, magenta, and yellow. The problem with this
arrangement—whether you’re a photo junkie or not—is that once you run
out of one of the three colors in the tricolor cartridge, you need to
replace the whole cartridge. That’s wasteful for both the environment
and your wallet.

Use draft quality for disposable printouts

Using a printer’s draft-quality setting to save ink might be second
nature for some, but a lot of people (particularly those less
technically inclined) never take the time to examine their printer
settings and may not even know the setting exists. If they tend to
print documents that are disposable or for which quality isn’t
important, ignoring draft mode is simply costing them ink and money.

Just about every printer these days has a draft mode, and activating it will
extend the life of your ink cartridges significantly. Plus, an added
bonus: Your documents and images will print faster. You won’t want to
use the mode when printing photos you plan to frame or keep, but for
many other printing tasks, draft will suffice. The ink won’t look as
dark, but you’ll probably barely notice the difference. (And when you
realize how much longer your ink cartridges last, you may stop seeing
the difference altogether!)

Use Ecofont for nonessential text prints, and pare down your Web-page printing with handy utilities.

While this may seem like a no-brainer, it’s easy to get a little
print-happy when you think you’ve got a great shot, or when you just
want to rush through the process. And while (we hope) most people have
the basics of removing red-eye down, we’re still surprised to find
friends distributing digital photos with red-eye and a whole slew of
other fixable imperfections.

Also, some people don’t see the
flaws—or don’t start looking for them—until the images have been
printed. Save yourself a step and some money by printing it right the
first time.

Look beyond the cost of the cartridge and focus on page yield.

We mentioned that, depending on how you print, buying a laser printer
to augment your inkjet could be the smartest cost-saving move you make.
That savings is rooted largely in the concept of “page yield,” or the
cost per page to print, considered separately from the initial purchase
price of the printer.That same strategy applies when comparing
inkjets with one another, too, if you’re replacing a broken inkjet
printer or considering a newer model that uses less-costly consumables.
Think long-term: An inkjet printer that costs you more up front may end
up saving you cash in the long run if you print enough pages to make up
the savings in print volume. So when buying a printer, always consider
the cost in ink per page, because paying a few cents more for every
page can really add up over time.

If you don’t need prints instantly, go with drug-store or online photo prints; they’re cheaper.

Yeah, it may be annoying to have to take your photos to the drug
store, upload them to the machine or kiosk, and wait an hour
or—gasp—overnight for them to be printed. And uploading your prints to
an online service and waiting for the postal service to deliver them
means an even longer wait. But, on all counts, either option is likely
to be cheaper—and frankly, less troublesome—than printing your images
yourself. The drug-store or online options exist for those willing to
cede a little time and roll the dice a bit over the final output
quality.

Bear in mind, in-store or online photo services have
some added advantages that you may or may not care about. You can do
everything from adding borders to specifying different finishes, and
most in-store machines and online photo finishers let you do simple
editing before placing your order. (Of course, you can also pre-edit
your shots in your own software before uploading them or schlepping
them into the store.) And let’s face it, most retail locations that
offer digital photo finishing nowadays will have those prints ready for
you in about an hour.

If you print color photos or graphics in bulk, consider an aftermarket continuous ink system.

Very few users have seen, or for that matter even heard of,
aftermarket continuous ink (CI) systems for inkjets. Think of them as
an ink IV drip for your inkjet printer: a set of external bottles of
ink that feed directly into the printer via a set of special inkjet
cartridges and tubing. CI systems are generally manufactured by third
parties, and you’ll definitely need some minor DIY skills to get them
running, as well as the willingness to have an unsightly array of ink
tanks or bottles tethered to your inkjet at all times.

Due to the
initial setup cost, CI is only a viable option if you constantly print
a very large amount of color inkjet prints—say, for a small
graphic-arts business. That’s because you’ll have to shell out for the
CI system hardware, as well as ink bottles to get you started. As a
result, you’ll only recoup your investment over the long run. A CI
setup is not worth it if you drain cartridges only every few months;
the printer will probably be past its prime before you’ll ever make
back your money. But if you swap out color cartridges on a weekly or
even more frequent basis, CI can offer big savings.

If you’re daring (and quality isn’t your top concern), experiment with ink refill kits.

This tip is open to lots of debate. Inkjet makers will certainly
tell you that home refilling is a bad idea, and they may go so far as
to not honor a warranty if a damaged printer is proven to have been
used with user-refilled cartridges. And the shopping arena for refill
ink is a real Wild West, with some aftermarket ink suppliers selling
reasonable quality ink, and others essentially hawking tinted water.

In
the end, the only real pro surrounding DIY ink refills is the cost;
often, you can buy bottles of ostensibly matching ink (“good” for many
refills) for much less than the cost of a single cartridge. And the
cons are many.

First, until you’re a practiced refiller, the
process can be messy. You inject fresh ink into the cartridge using a
provided syringe, usually through a hole you need to drill in the top
of the cartridge. Intuitively, most first-time refillers will overfill
a cartridge and learn the hard way, in the form of an ink stain on
their desk or kitchen sink.

If the situation calls for it, experiment with N-up printing.

As much as we’d all like to avoid it, there are some times when you
really have to print out reams of text. Maybe you need a paper-based
manual for reference, you’ve just finished filing your taxes, or you’re
a student who’s just been assigned a whole heap of reading from an
online class-management site like Blackboard. Whatever the reason, if
you’re facing a mega print job, the easiest way to cut down on page
count, ink use, and paper consumption is with “N-up” printing, or
printing more than one page on one sheet of paper.

Be aware of “starter” cartridges.

An ultra-cheap $40 printer may seem like a steal if it comes with ink;
after all, a full set of replacement cartridges alone probably sells
for more than that. But recognize that not all “official” ink
cartridges are alike. Many printer makers include “starter” cartridges
with their printers, which often contain less than half the ink of a
standard replacement cartridge you buy separately. You may not realize
that the ink you’re getting with that printer will have you running
back for more within days or weeks.

If quality really matters in photo prints, grit your teeth and use the vendor’s suggested paper.

It’s not just marketing: Modern inkjets are designed to accept special
paper—usually branded by the printer manufacturer—for best results,
especially with photo prints. Each company’s inkjet drivers have
settings for specific kinds (and often, brands) of paper. The driver
will typically have a paper-type selector that lists exact varieties of
the printer maker’s paper (“Epson Premium Photo Paper: Glossy,” for
example) in addition to generic categories of paper. Matching the
paper, the ink, and settings is the right move, even though the paper
might cost more. Printer makers manufacture their ink and paper to
complement each other, and you can burn up a lot of pricey ink
experimenting with generic or third-party papers. Some are fine
substitutes; others—not so much.

Print a trial run for special photo projects

Many of us print photos only when we have a new frame to fill or
want to send prints to family far away. And even if we get our photos
taken at a studio, we just buy the CD, so we can print some or all of
the photos ourselves. While this is certainly a smart way to skirt
professional printing costs, it’s easy to waste a lot of paper and ink
trying to get the odd paper and photo sizes (which often don’t match)
to work out how we want them to.

Whether you’re printing a 4×6
photo on 4×6 paper or trying to do a sheet of wallets on a single
8.5×11 page, getting the images to print just so can be tricky. The
biggest hurdle is knowing your software and knowing which applications
work best with your printer. We like Adobe’s Photoshop Album, which is
now rolled into Photoshop Elements.
It makes easy work of setting up complex pages and offers a preview
mode, as well, so you can be pretty certain of what you’re going to
get.

But even with the easiest software, missing a step in the page or
printer setup could mean a wasted print. So even if everything looks
good onscreen, do yourself a favor and print a black-and-white
draft-mode print on plain paper—especially if your intended media is
premium 8.5×11-inch photo paper, which can cost as much as $1 a page.
You might save yourself some ink and some expensive paper this way. If
you’re using smaller, specially sized paper, the savings might be a
wash, depending on how often you make a mistake.

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