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.
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.