It doesn't take long for the running costs of your printer to outweigh the price you paid for it. Replacing ink is an expensive exercise, especially if you buy the manufacturer's brand of cartridges, so you can definitely save a fair bit of money by buying generic, or compatible, ink cartridges. But are they worth it in the long run?
We look at the sort of quality you can expect from generic ink cartridges and the risks they could pose to your printer.
If you need the highest possible print quality, you probably should stick with genuine ink cartridges as they tend to perform a bit better. But for general document printing, generic compatible cartridges work pretty well – and it's hard to argue with the cost savings.
The performance quality will vary, depending on your printer and the generic ink brand you buy. Some printers can handle generic inks just fine, while others might give streaky results or get clogged.
There are two main quality issues that could be a problem with compatible ink cartridges:
Results from compatible ink cartridges can at first appear to be as good as using original inks but they may be far less durable and more likely to fade over time.
Colour accuracy is usually OK with generic ink cartridges, but true-to-life colour can be critical for some people. This is definitely the case with flesh tones, where even small colour variations can be very obvious.
Will a compatible cartridge damage my printer?
The jury is still out on whether a generic cartridge will damage your printer. During our past tests on ink cartridges none of the inkjet printers appeared to suffer head damage, but a more definite answer to this can't be found without long-term testing.
Printer warranty issues
Although compatible cartridges will save you money on ink, you do use them at your own risk. Compatible ink cartridges may come with a warranty, but it only covers the replacement of the cartridge, not any damage that happens to the printer itself. If the printer stops working, or if it's damaged, it may be hard to claim repairs under warranty if you've used a generic ink cartridge rather than the manufacturer's brand.
Buying generic printer ink cartridges
Not all printers on the market will accept generic cartridges, especially newer models. It takes time for printers to become popular enough for alternative inks to be worth producing. It's then up to third-party companies to either make or source compatible cartridges, often from cheap overseas markets like China. Choosing a less popular printer or relatively new model may mean you have fewer ink cartridges to choose from.
Refilling ink cartridges yourself
Refilling ink cartridges yourself can be much cheaper than buying them brand new. Many (but not all) models offer a refill kit. For the best results, use an ink refill kit specially designed for your model. Using the wrong ink in your printer could cause clogged heads and other problems.
Refilling your own cartridges with a bottle of ink fluid requires patience and a steady hand as it can be fiddly, messy and time-consuming (it takes around an hour). Overall print quality probably won't be as good as with original cartridges. That said, for general document printing, it should be fine.
In order for your refilled cartridge to work like new you may also need to buy a "chip resetter". This is because many ink cartridges have an electronic chip that detects when ink levels are low to prevent further printing. The chip resetter will make the printer treat the refilled cartridge like a new one.
Tips for refilling ink cartridges
- Use gloves and a syringe.
- Take your time and inject the ink very slowly, to avoid messy bubbling and leaking.
- Refill old genuine cartridges rather than a generic version. 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 need a chip resetter.
Continuous ink supply systems (CISS)
Another alternative, if you go through ink like there's no tomorrow, is a continuous ink supply system (CISS). A CISS replaces the original cartridge with a modified cartridge, linked via flexible tubes to external reservoirs of ink that can be topped up at any time. This effectively gives you a never-ending supply of cheap ink.
Continuous ink supply systems are available for many printer models and although they are initially expensive, you could save quite a lot of money in a relatively short time. The initial setup can take some fiddling and a fair few head cleans, but the end result is generally good.