Compatible and remanufactured inkjet printer cartridges take the text test.
In our Cartridge Family feature back in February (Computeractive, issue 79), we tested the yield of original brand cartridges and investigated the issues and options surrounding inkjet refill kits. We also touched upon compatible and remanufactured cartridges.
After a stream of readers' letters on the subject, we're now going to look more closely at these types of inkjet cartridge. There is no doubt that they represent a saving on the original manufacturers' cartridges, but what exactly are they, what are the benefits, and should you dabble in them?
Compatible cartridges or 'clone' cartridges are physically identical to the original manufacturer's cartridges but made and sold by third-party companies. Undercutting prices of the printer manufacturers, they are available for most printers on the market.
With the printer manufacturers worried over manufacturing and ink quality, Rhiannon Williams, product manager at HP Supplies, believes that cheap imports from the Far East copying the designs don't factor-in the importance of a good print head to get good quality.
Mark Nicholson, the UK marketing manager at Canon, agrees with the concerns: "The ink in compatible cartridges is not necessarily bad, but it has a different make-up to Canon ink and therefore we can't guarantee that you will get results as good as Canon ink on Canon printers."
So are compatible cartridges up to the job of producing quality results? Computeractive believes that you notice the difference between official and unofficial cartridges by the quality of the print when printing pictures or photos, and not in day-to-day text-based printing.
Warranty no guarantee
As you start looking for alternatives, you'll find that the comforting arm of support they once offered soon retracts. Printer manufacturers warn that if your printer is damaged while using non-brand consumables, then the warranty becomes invalid. Printers that have a print head actually in the printer, as opposed to on the cartridge, are especially vulnerable.
Print head mechanisms, whether they are in printer or on cartridge, are complex and delicate, consisting of many microscopic nozzles through which ink is passed. Printer manufacturers argue that these nozzles are designed only for use with own-brand ink and that other inks might block them up.
In return, compatible cartridge manufacturers play down these risks; although System Insight offers a guarantee that if your printer is damaged by its ink, it will be repaired or replaced.
The paper chase
Another key issue is yield - how long the cartridges last. Printer manufacturers give yield figures for their cartridges measuring ink coverage per page.
An A4 page with five per cent coverage is roughly equal to that of a typical page of text. A manufacturer may quote a cartridge yield figure like "500 pages at five per cent coverage".
Yasbir Sihan, Epson business manager for consumer products, says: "We give guarantees on yield, quality and reliability. You don't get those guarantees with compatibles."
The yield from colour cartridges is more difficult to quantify. Epson's Yasbir Sihan continues: "The colour yield is difficult to pin down because of the varying amounts of ink put on paper. With some images, particularly photos, layer upon layer of ink is laid down to create realistic textures."
Epson's brochure illustrates the longevity of its ink by showing that the Epson 680 can print 175 10cm x 15cm (720dpi) colour photos with one cartridge.
The cycle of life
Remanufactured cartridges, sometimes called recycled cartridges, are just what you'd imagine them to be - used cartridges that have been bought off the consumer by third-party companies, cleaned, refilled with ink and sold back to the consumer again. These still cost more than an unbranded compatible but less than the real thing.
This is cause for concern for companies like HP and Lexmark because the printer head included in the cartridge is only designed to work once rather than repeatedly, and some companies don't even let the consumer know that the cartridge is heading onto its second, maybe third life.
As with compatibles, reliability, yield and cost all factor high in people's concerns. Voices doubting their reliability have even risen from outside the major printer companies and to the compatible manufacturers themselves.
David Hill, owner of Selectafont, which produces inkjet consumables, says: "Remanufactured cartridges are a waste of space - we don't use them because they have a relatively high failure rate."
Likewise, Steve Coates, general manager of HVS Direct, another inkjet consumables manufacturer, says: "Remanufactured cartridges can have radically different chances of success, ranging from 25 per cent to 90 per cent depending on how many times they have been recycled. Obviously the more times a cartridge goes through this process, the less reliable it becomes."
Aktiv Direct, a company that sells remanufactured cartridges, acknowledges that after being recycled four or five times, the cartridges are prone to failure. It has a cartridge analyser that it uses to determine the condition of the print head before recycling.
Aktiv Direct claims this minimises the risk of remanufactured cartridges failing, while both Aktiv Direct and System Insight offer money back or a new cartridge if one they sell you fails.
Just the facts, ma'am
It's true that third-party printer consumable sellers don't tend to advertise yield figures, but in our tests, all of their cartridges exceeded the claimed yield of the original cartridges they replaced.
The System Insight remanufactured HP cartridge managed to churn out an astonishing 1910 pages. This is about four times the claimed yield for the original cartridge and the highest yield produced from the cartridges tested. It's still quite expensive at £16, though still £10 cheaper than the HP original.
This, however, was not enough to top our pages per pound (ppp) league. That title went to the HVS Direct Canon compatible cartridge, which managed an impressive 333ppp.
At the other end of the scale, Selectafont's Epson 680 compatible cartridge struggled in at 18ppp, although this figure was affected by the cartridge being part of a starter kit that also included an ink chip reprogramming device and a colour cartridge.
The Epson 680's original cartridges have an on-board chip that interacts with the printer and prevents any alternative to an original cartridge being used with it. However, companies like Selectafont have found a way around this by buying a new compatible cartridge with an independently made chip on it.
We tested three of these and the Ansa-supplied cartridge achieved the highest yield - 87ppp, 867 pages in all - doubling the output of the original Epson cartridge.
Although most of the third-party cartridges produced better yields than the original cartridges, the HP-specific one from Aktiv Direct actually under-performed compared with the original HP cartridge, showing that cheapest doesn't always beat quality and warranty safety.
On the flipside, Atkiv Direct's Lexmark Z12 cartridge had the opposite effect and produced a decent yield of 638 pages, which was considerably more than Lexmark's claimed yield for its original cartridge.
Although we can get some big clues to the quality of output from the compatibles and remanufactured cartridges, our tests only focused on mono output rather than the full picture. On the whole, print quality was good but not brilliant, and certainly not as good as from original cartridges.
The text wasn't the crispest or sharpest we've seen. We got uneven ink coverage with the Aktiv Direct remanufactured HP cartridge, with some lines appearing too light and others too dark.
If you're typing to impress, there's no better option than using original cartridges and high-quality paper.
If your output is to be read and then discarded, the third-party consumables are adequate. We can't make a definitive statement on the reliability of compatible and remanufactured cartridges, but no cartridge or printer malfunctioned during our tests.
The final draft
So, are compatible and remanufactured cartridges a better bet than printer manufacturers' cartridges?
The likes of HP, Epson, Canon and Lexmark certainly don't think so. Epson's Yasbir Sihan just doesn't like people using them: "We spend millions of pounds on research and development and use the same purified water, no matter where in the world the ink is manufactured. The same can't be said of third-party consumable sellers - they buy their ink on the open market," he says.
Canon's Mark Nicholson adds: "There will always be a minority who will go for the cheapest option. If we make high-quality products for a fair price, people will buy them."
The insistence of manufacturers that own-brand consumables guarantee quality is all very well, but if original cartridges represented the value for money claimed by Canon's Mark Nicholson, surely there would be no room for the alternatives to flourish.
We feel that those who buy alternatives to original cartridges like inkjet refills, compatibles and remanufactured cartridges are not simply trying to save a few pennies. By balancing cost, quality and reliability over the risks involved, they're making an informed decision about their ongoing printing expenses.
That said, in the final reading, although alternatives to original cartridges are valid as far as they go, there is no doubt they are limited in what they can achieve. The superior investment made by printer companies in the development and manufacture of consumables produces better quality prints, but whether or not they justify the expense, is another matter.
Rhiannon Williams of HP claims: "Consumables make up only 14 per cent of the overall cost of printer ownership, according to our figures."
We wouldn't want to cast doubt on the integrity of HP's figures, but this must be balanced by the fact that in many cases, the cost of cartridges very quickly outstrips the cost of the printer.
Don't underestimate how big the printer consumables market is. The major printer manufacturers will make hundreds of millions of pounds in sales this year - that's a lot of cartridges.
But when you consider the number of people who have taken to home printing, it adds up. Not only has virtually everyone who outputs text switched from typewriter to PC and printer, there's also been an explosion in photo printing in recent years.
This is why the cartridge issue is such a hot potato. Rhiannon Williams adds that HP decreased its consumable prices in March. While this is true, the cut followed three consecutive price rises in the space of a single year.
These price changes are a response to currency changes - in other words, big companies such as HP adjust their prices due to the pressures of financial markets. It is almost unthinkable that they will accept a lower profit in this lucrative market, even though high consumable prices are almost as emotive an issue for PC users as high petrol price increases are for motorists.
Canon 0121 680 8062 www.canon.co.uk
Hewlett Packard 08705 474747 www.hp.com/uk
Epson 0800 220546 www.epson.co.uk
Lexmark 01628 481500 www.lexmark.co.uk
Inkjet supply sellers
Aktiv Direct 01159 308200 www.aktivdirect.co.uk
System Insight 01329 835500 www.systeminsight.co.uk
Ansa 0800 015 4466 www.ansacart.com
Selectafont 01189 885643 www.selectafont.co.uk
HVS Direct 0800 804 666 www.hvs-direct.fsbusiness.co.uk
Cartridge Express 01765 690790 www.cartex.co.uk
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