A set of ink cartridges can cost almost as much a printer. We investigate the world of remanufactured and refilled supplies
Printers these days are better value than ever but, when the ink that comes with them runs dry, you may be in for a shock. Buying toner for a laser printer can cost more than filling up the car with petrol, while a set of inkjet cartridges can cost almost as much as getting a new printer. It’s no surprise then that there’s a booming industry in cheap, compatible alternatives.
Switching to compatible ink cartridges may seem like a sure-fire money saver but it’s not necessarily the case - these inks might be cheaper but are no use if the result is wishy-washy pictures or leaking ink.
So, can you trust cartridges made by someone other than your printer’s manufacturer? Read on as we examine the arguments for and against using compatibles, and find out whether they’ll leave you pounds better off, or just nursing a broken printer.
A nice drop
In this article we’re focusing on inkjets, so we’ll start with a quick explanation of how these work. As pages are fed through the machine, they pass under a set of print heads that move rapidly back and forth across the paper, spraying it with ink as they go. The ink comes from tanks that either sit directly above the heads and move with them, or are connected via flexible hoses down which ink must pass.
An inkjet’s heads need to be incredibly precise in order to fire ink droplets as small as one picolitre (a litre would contain a million million of these). Heads are made using the same processes used to build computer chips and may be designed to last the lifetime of the printer, remaining permanently in place while the ink tanks themselves might be replaced tens of times. In other designs, the heads are fixed on to the underside of the cartridges, so a new cartridge means a brand-new print head too.
Suppliers of compatible ink cartridges need to take a different approach depending which of these two cartridge types a printer has. With simple ink tanks, it’s possible to make a brand new tank that’s similar to one made by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), which fits the same printers. This is then filled with ink and sold as a ‘compatible’ cartridge - these are normally available for Epson printers and many Canon models. Generally, third-party manufacturers don’t have the facilities to build new print heads, so cartridges that incorporate them must be collected, cleaned, filled with ink and sold as ‘refilled’ or ‘remanufactured’ supplies. These are most commonly seen for HP and Lexmark printers. Sometimes even tanks without print heads are refilled; a common practice with HP cartridges.
Printer manufacturers invest millions in researching and manufacturing their supplies, and they insist that they are more reliable and produce better results than third-party inks as a result. The manufacturers of compatibles say otherwise, so what’s the truth of it all?
Some misconceptions are easy to debunk. Many users think using third-party ink will invalidate a printer’s warranty but this isn’t the case unless that ink causes damage to the printer - such as by leaking over its electronics. To counter this possibility, many reputable ink sellers offer to repair or replace a printer that’s been damaged by an ink they’ve sold. Stinky Ink, a reseller of original and third-party cartridges, has a six-month guarantee (see terms and conditions). We asked the company whether it often saw cartridge-related damage. Marketing manager Matt Bird said: “In the near-three years I have worked at this company, I’ve seen one complaint that was cartridge-related, [which] we resolved for the customer quickly.”
Even if damage is unlikely to occur, third-party inks may underperform in other ways, as we discovered in practical tests carried out for this article (see the next page). HP and Kodak told us prints made with non-original ink could be prone to fading quicker, and recent image-permanence testing by Wilhelm Imaging Research seems to back this up. Using prints made with an Epson printer, paper and inks, the independent testing laboratory calculated that glossy photos framed under glass would last for 40 years without fading. Among the 13 sets of third-party ink and paper tested, the next best result was just 3.9 years.
Martin Hurren, manager for ink supplies at HP, explained the quality and intensity of the dye colourant in an ink had a big impact on the quality of the prints it produced. “We’ve found that certain refill inks don’t use the same quality [processes] we use, and that’s why fading in third-party inks is often a big issue.”
The genuine article
We asked Mr Hurren to explain more about the considerations involved in making original cartridges. He told us that people often didn’t appreciate the science behind firing droplets of ink at a sheet of paper, and the required precision went some way to explaining why they cost more than, say, a simple ballpoint pen.
Mr Hurren pointed out that ink manufacturers spend time testing the way components of ink interact with paper, the print head itself and with the plastic and other components of the cartridge. He cited the example of how an ink’s surface tension controlled how much it would just “fall out of the nozzle”, explaining that, over time, volatile ink components are able to evaporate through the cartridge’s plastic, changing the composition of the ink and potentially affecting its behaviour.
“Liquid and electronics don’t usually go together very well, and we’ve become quite expert at making sure that these two interplay with each other,” said Mr Hurren. “There’s actually a tremendous amount of chemistry involved in making sure [cartridges] work to a high degree of reliability and precision. Things such as purity [of the ingredients] and the cleanliness of the manufacturing area are hugely important.”
If that suggests some third-party ink facilities are not maintained to the same standard, it certainly doesn’t apply to all of them, as the Lincolnshire home of www.jettec.com shows. Established in 1996, the company’s factory has the capacity to produce more than two million compatible cartridges, 700,000 remanufactured cartridges and 100,000 laser toner cartridges per month, and it operates to ISO 9001 quality and ISO 14001 environmental standards. Click here for more information.
Jet Tec is confident of the quality of its products, guaranteeing them and offering to collect, inspect and repair or replace a customer’s printer if they believe it’s been damaged by a Jet Tec cartridge. The company quotes a return rate of fewer than one in 200 cartridges for 2011.
It’s often said compatible inks have inferior print quality, and the cartridges can leak or cause problems such as clogged print heads, so we tested a few. We asked three big inkjet manufacturers to provide printers for us to use: Epson declined, HP sent a Photosmart 6510 multifunction device (printer, scanner, copier), while Canon supplied a Pixma MG6250, which has a six-ink setup involving two different black inks, a cyan, magenta and yellow ink plus a grey tank.
HP and Canon provided their own inks and papers, while Stinky Ink sent a set of unbranded black, cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges for our Pixma, and an Inkrite-branded grey cartridge. Jet Tec doesn’t make a compatible grey cartridge for the Canon, so we bought a set of two black tanks, cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges, and tested these with Canon’s grey cartridge. We also bought Jet Tec’s refilled cartridges for the HP printer.
Jet Tec ink, Pixma MG6250
Jet Tec’s compatibles didn’t leak a drop but we found their fit a little reluctant. Design differences to the OEM cartridges mean it’s not easy to see the printer’s ink status lights. Once inserted there were no error messages and the printer correctly displayed the tanks’ ink levels but things didn’t go so well once we started printing. Photos looked almost as good as the OEM results, but on plain paper, black text had a spidery outline rather than the crisp characters formed with Canon’s ink. After printing about 60 colour pages the cyan ink failed. We reseated the cartridge and performed cleaning cycles on the colour heads, but the cyan remained intermittent until we inserted Canon cartridges, which worked perfectly.
Unbranded/Inkrite ink, Pixma MG6250
After thoroughly flushing the MG6250 through with Canon inks we fitted the Inkrite grey cartridge, and the remaining five unbranded cartridges. The grey and yellow cartridges leaked a drop of ink as we unpacked them, but they fitted the printer well and didn’t block its ink status lights. There were no error messages and the printer correctly displayed the ink level in each cartridge. Our initial plain-paper prints (more than 45 pages) were fine but the print quality declined midway through the first photo - a nozzle check showed the grey ink was blocked. After flushing this we repeated the plain paper and photo tests without further issues. The photo results exhibited a slightly different colour balance to those of Canon’s inks but, in one case, the result was enhanced by greater contrast. Plain paper prints weren’t quite a match for the OEM inks, but were fine.
Jet Tec ink, Photosmart 6510
As remanufactured OEM cartridges, these fitted perfectly in the printer, which unfortunately then displayed an error and refused to print. After some research we discovered we needed a scalpel to prise the small microchip from the HP cartridges we’d removed, fitting these to all but the cyan tank, which already worked fine. Though difficult, the trick worked, but the printer warned us the cartridges were ‘previously installed’ and, because the chips belonged to a used set of cartridges, it continued to warn us their ink levels were low. Document print quality was good but, after 60 colour pages, we saw streaks in areas of yellow and black. Over repeated cleaning cycles the results became worse, so we fitted new HP inks and flushed the printer before refitting the Jet Tec cartridges and trying again. However, within just a couple of colour pages it became evident that either all the colour print heads had clogged, the cartridges had run out of ink, or the printer - which continued to warn us that the consumables were old or non-genuine - was refusing to co-operate.
On the face of it, there’s no doubt refilled and compatible cartridges can save you money. Using the printer manufacturers’ own inks, calculated with their claimed yields (the number of printed pages expected to be produced by an ink cartridge in normal conditions) and the cheapest prices we could find at the time of writing, our Canon Pixma MG6250 would cost 9.7p per page of mixed black and colour printing - that’s £101 a year if printing 20 pages a week. Manufacturers of compatible cartridges rarely state yields, making reliable comparisons difficult but, using estimated yields based on the ink content of the compatibles, each page would cost around 6.8p - a saving of about £30 per year. The savings using Jet Tec’s Canon compatibles, for example, would be about £33 per year.
Interestingly, using HP’s XL (high-yield) ink cartridges, the Photosmart 6510 would cost about 6.8p per page, while our estimates suggest the costs from using Jet Tec’s refilled cartridges would be no more than 6.2p per page, offering an annual saving of just £6.
For documents that don’t need to last long, third-party inks have an obvious appeal. It’s difficult to give an authoritative conclusion as the experience of readers on the previous page shows. If you want reliability and the best possible print quality, though, we’d stick with original supplies and shop around for the best prices.
It’s surprising how much you can save on original ink cartridges simply by shopping around online. For example, at the time of writing the cost of Canon’s PGI-525BK black tank, used by the Pixma MG6250, varied from £10 on Amazon to £14 on some specialist ink resellers. Multipacks, available for the most popular printers, may be a cheaper option, but do check; the cheapest we could find the PGI-525BK twin-pack for was £20.33, more than buying two tanks separately.
Our advice for those sticking with original ink is to check which cartridges your printer supports and, where there’s a choice, always buy the highest-capacity versions. Shop around for the cheapest price on these, remembering that delivery costs can add several pounds. Look for shops that offer free delivery, or minimise the cost by buying several cartridges at once.
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