Inkjet printers can be cheap to buy, but not necessarily cheap to run. Our 2010 tests of inkjet printers showed the ownership cost of some printers over three years can be many times the purchase price, simply due to the exorbitant cost of ink replacement. But do you have to pay through the nozzle for new, original ink cartridges every time, or can you save yourself a bundle by buying non-genuine ink alternatives?
Third-party replacements seem much cheaper at face value, but what is the real cost of going your own way with refilled or non-genuine “compatible” cartridges, do-it-yourself refills or even continuous ink systems? What sort of quality can you expect and what are the risks?
We took five popular inkjet printer models from the top brands – Brother, Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark – and fitted them with refilled and non-genuine replacement ink cartridges to see how well they fared. We also looked at two other alternatives – a do-it-yourself refill kit and a continuous ink system – designed to really keep you “in the black”.
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How we test
Performance Using new standard capacity cartridges, we print test pages until the ink runs out, both for black-only (mono) and colour pages. The number of pages is recorded and all cartridges weighed before and after printing and the amount of ink use calculated. Standard text pages are A4 with 5% black ink coverage. Colour pages are 100% coverage, using 25% of each colour (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Head cleans are performed as necessary.
Quality For quality assessment a full-colour print on A4 glossy photo paper (matched to each printer brand) is produced using each type of ink and compared to a print produced with original (OEM) inks. The quality assessment takes into account colour balance, skin tones, darkness and contrast.
Fade testing Using smaller, 10x15cm samples, we expose half of each print to high-intensity unfiltered halogen light (including UV and infrared) for three weeks to simulate much longer exposure in normal lighting conditions, then compare the two halves of each image. The results show quite clearly that brands of non-genuine inks vary greatly in their durability.
Implications for your printer warranty
If your printer has a print head separate from the ink cartridge itself, the head is generally more durable and is designed to last the life of the printer, with normal use. If used heavily, the print head may eventually need replacement and cost will determine whether to do that or simply replace the whole printer.
Printer cartridges with a print head built-in are designed to be disposable, intended to last only the life of the cartridge, and are often less suitable for refilling. The risks include: lower quality printouts, faster fading output, print head clogging and ink leakage.
Non-original replacement cartridges, whether refills or compatibles, may come with a warranty but only for the replacement of the cartridge, not any damage that may occur to the printer itself. In fact, if the printer stops working, it may be hard to claim repairs under warranty.