Inkjet refill alternatives

Can you save money by using cheaper ink alternatives, and are they as good as the manufacturer’s own inks?
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01 .Introduction

Inkjet refill

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.  


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How much will I save?

We found that savings of 50% or more can be achieved with replacement cartridges and savings of up to 90% were found when printing black only. Colour images occasionally displayed savings of up to 75%, compared to using OEM cartridges.

However, this is not a blanket rule. Performance was sometimes very uneven, with the added nuisance of printers requiring multiple head-cleans at fairly regular intervals to produce acceptable printouts. The quality and durability (lightfastness) of ink from various suppliers is not consistent and some printers handle non-genuine inks better than others (though this may be a reflection of the quality of the inks supplied).

For example, the Canon printer proved very reliable, with none of the six inks causing any problems, while the Epson had problems with inks sourced from three out of seven suppliers. Similarly, the Brother required very regular head-cleaning when using inks from four suppliers.

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Fading is a problem with some inks and a critical issue if you’re looking to print glossy photos. For example, the continuous ink system we tested demonstrated serious fading in our durability testing.

This is particularly disappointing given the potentially high cost-savings that could be obtained with this system. Also, refilling your own cartridges can be time-consuming and messy, especially at first. On the other hand, if you mainly print reams of black text documents, DIY refilling or a CISS could save you a small fortune over time.

Colour accuracy

Colour accuracy in photo-quality pictures was generally quite good across the range in our testing, compared to the original inks. However, true-to-life colour can be critical for some people. This is particularly the case with flesh tones, where even small colour balance variations can be very noticeable.

The key is to try to find the best replacement inks for your particular printer, not necessarily the cheapest, and for this you may have to try different suppliers.
Our test results don’t provide a clear correlation between cost and quality. In some cases, results from replacement inks can at first appear to be as good as using original inks. However, the downside is they may be far less durable and more likely to fade over time.

Will it damage my printer?

As for possibly damaging your printer, the jury is still out on this one. We can’t say one way or the other. Although none of our test printers appeared to suffer head damage in our testing, being able to assess this accurately would require much longer-term testing, using multiple printers of each brand and model. Unfortunately, this was beyond the scope of this test.

03.Alternative inks: what to consider


Part of the problem with alternative inks is that not all printers on the market have non-genuine cartridges on offer, especially newer models. It takes time for printers to become popular and worth making alternative inks for. It is then up to third-party companies to either manufacture or source compatible cartridges, often from cheap overseas markets such as China. Less-popular printers or relatively new models may not have as much to choose from. It may be that do-it-yourself refilling is an alternative, but only if a refill kit is available for your model (see DIY, or Don’t?).
And this is an important point: not all printer ink is the same. For best results each ink must be formulated for a specific printer model. Use of the wrong ink in your printer could cause head-clogging and other problems. You need to find an ink refill kit specially designed for your model.

Ink costs

Coping with non-genuine inks

Not all printers seem to handle non-genuine inks with the same degree of aplomb. Some may give streaky results, or suffer frequent head clogging. Others may be fine. This largely depends on the type of inks being used. Our tests utilised five different brands of popular printers to show what you might expect when using ink alternatives.  We found that results can vary markedly depending on the make and model of printer.

For example, we found the Canon MX870 had very good print quality and reliability across all the brands of inks tested, but fared badly in the durability test, with very noticeable fading evident across the board compared to using original inks.

DIY, or don’t?

We bought and tested a well known brand of do-it-yourself (DIY) refill kit to see how difficult it is to do your own refills and get an idea of cost savings. Refilling your own cartridges with a bottle of ink fluid and a syringe can be fiddly and messy (you’ll need gloves) but has great money-saving potential.
How would you like to be paying $4 per cartridge refill instead of $20, for example? DIY ink refills can be much cheaper than original cartridges when measured on a cost per millilitre (mL) basis.

We tried out a do-it-yourself refill kit from Calidad, for the Epson Stylus Office TX510N and cut black ink cost per page to a fifth and four-colour page costs to less than half that of an original cartridge.

Refilling both cartridges took about an hour. It takes some patience and a steady hand, and overall quality wasn’t quite on par, and some fading occurred in our lightfastness testing, but it’s hard to argue with those savings for general text document printing.

We found it’s important to take your time and inject the ink very slowly, to avoid messy bubbling and leaking. The cartridges you refill should be original genuine cartridges. Third-party compatible cartridges may not be built exactly the same as the original, due to copyright issues, and may not be refillable.

You may also need to buy a “chip resetter” device (“chipper”),  because onboard cartridge electronics can prevent further printing when it detects low ink levels. The chipper “flashes” (resets) the electronic chip to make the printer treat the refilled cartridge like a new, full cartridge.

Continuous ink supply systems (CISS)

A common complaint is that printer cartridges need replacing so frequently. Even if you do-it-yourself (see DIY, or don’t?), you can only refill a cartridge to its previous level. A continuous ink supply system (CISS), on the other hand, replaces the original cartridges with modified cartridges that link via flexible tubes to a far larger reservoir of ink, which can be topped up at any time. This effectively gives you a never-ending supply of cheap ink.

Continuous ink systems are available for many, but not all, printer models and though initially expensive can produce significant cost savings in a relatively short time. We bought and fitted a Rihac continuous ink system to the Brother MFC-6890cdw to see how it would perform. The initial setup took some fiddling and numerous head cleans, but the end result was an excellent colour match to the original ink sample, though some very fine lines were noticed.

Due to the volume of ink in each tank we didn’t do a cost-per-page analysis on this model. However, Rihac claims cost savings of up to 95% compared to using original cartridges.  However, we found significant print fading in our durability testing.

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