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Printers< Ink and Toner<

Printers: Refills or new cartridges?


Erin Bell
April 3, 2007
Generic brand and refill cartridges offer cheap alternatives to expensive brand name ink. But do you get what you pay for?

Ink cartridges are a sore spot for many printer owners. While printers have plummeted in price over the last few years, their accompanying ink cartridges haven't, and it can be a rude awakening when customers find themselves paying more for the ink than they did for the printer itself.

The often-used analogy is that printer companies behave the same way that razor companies do, by selling the receptacle (printer or razor) cheap, then raking in the profits with the consumables (ink cartridges or razor blades).

It's not surprising, then, that many consumers are turning to cheaper aftermarket solutions to satisfy their ink needs. (For information on printers read How to buy a printer and Top inkjet multifunction printers.)

No-name and drill-and-fill
Office Depot and Grand & Toy are two examples of companies that sell store-branded ink for significantly cheaper than the brand-name equivalent. (For example, the Epson Stylus Color 880 brand name cartridge sells for $34.94 at Office Depot, while the equivalent in-house brand is only $19.96.)

The second aftermarket solution is companies known as "refillers" or "remanufacturers." These businesses operate by taking an empty cartridge, drilling a hole in it, pumping in new ink, and then resealing it. The process takes around 30 minutes, and a cartridge can often be refilled multiple times.

The question consumers have to ask themselves is whether the short term monetary savings from buying refills are worth it in the long run.

Big picture costs
For Edwin Leong, Vancouver-based amateur photographer and editor of CameraHobby.com, the answer to this question is no.

"The main brand printers from Epson, Canon and HP all produce outstanding results that are borne from a large amount of research and development," Leong explains. "The inks are formulated to work with the specific print heads used by the main brands, and I'd rather not take a chance in running third-party ink of questionable quality and origin in printers that cost me a fair bit of money for capital outlay."

Customers also need to look at big picture costs, and not just the cost of the cartridges themselves. On average, refills have higher failure rates, offer a lower print yield (fewer pages) than brand new cartridges, and demonstrate more on-page problems like streaking, curling, and colour bleed. These issues result in more prints having to be made, and more paper used.

As a serious photographer, Leong is also sensitive to colour balance and consistency with his prints, which is another reason he is reluctant to consider third-party inks. He notes that printer manufacturers supply what he refers to as "canned" profiles for use with their specific brand of consumables that are designed to optimize quality. However, "when you throw in a new variable, such as a third-party ink or paper, the canned profiles are useless, and you cannot achieve consistent quality unless you create new custom profiles. In order to save on ink costs, a user really has to spend money on a colour management suite [such as X-Rite's One Photo, which costs around $1,600], which seems to me like a false economy." (For more on printing for less, read Easy and cheap printing or visit our Online Shopping section.)

A question of quality
Longevity is another factor to consider. Part of the research and development that companies like HP and Epson put into their products goes to developing ink and paper that can last for hundreds of years. "Use third party inks," Leong warns, "and all bets are off for how long the prints will last."

According to HP, it's a misconception that ink is merely the "gas in the car" when it comes to printing. In actual fact, about 70 percent of the technology of printing is contained within the ink cartridge itself.

Ink manufacturers spend millions of dollars on research and development, fine-tuning the chemistry of their inks so that it's optimized to work with brand name printer and brand name paper.

PCworld.ca was privy to a firsthand demonstration of active chemistry at work courtesy of Fiona Coyle, a chemist who works at HP's ink manufacturing plant in Leixlip, Ireland. The key, according to Coyle, is that inks have to "like each other, but not too much".

Using third-party yellow and black ink, she demonstrated two examples of what can happen to a print when the chemistry between inks is off. In the first example, the two colours were too attracted to each other and actually merged, creating an undesirable muddy brown. With active chemistry, the colours would have remained side by side. In the second example, the inks "hated" each other and actually repelled, creating a thin white line or "halo" between the two colours.

"One does not use any brand of printer, with any brand of ink, and any brand of paper and then expect long lasting, high quality prints," says Leong. "The manner in which the print heads spray out the ink, the type of ink used, and the paper, all combine to produce a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. Change one of the factors and the results will no longer be consistent."

Crunching the numbers
These conclusions are supported by independent testing. In Sept. 2005, Quality Logic compared HP toner cartridges with remanufactured brands in the areas of reliability, print quality and colour accuracy by putting HP Color LaserJet 4650 printer ink against 12 remanufactured brands, including Office Depot, OfficeMax brands and six overseas brands. The study revealed that there was a much higher volume of "problem cartridges" among the remanufactured brands (1.93 percent for HP versus a range of 34.4 percent to 100 percent for the refillables), whose issues included severe toner leakage, broken drums, air bubbles, excessive lines and fading on pages, and smudges, splotches and specks.

These results are somewhat similar to other industry findings, in which the quality of aftermarket plain black and white text print-outs was comparable to that of brand name cartridges, but that quality dropped off noticeably when it came to printing photos and high-res images in both black and white and colour.

Businesses and homes
While testing has demonstrated that name brand inks are far superior when it comes to high-res imagery, the same testing also suggests that certain aftermarket inks are suitable for business and home users who are primarily printing documents in black and white.

Julian Fisher, principal of the Toronto School for Strings, is happy with the generic brand cartridges he purchases from Grand & Toy and uses to print letters, invoices and sheet music in black and white. "As a business, brand new seems a waste of money and packaging," he explains.

While Fisher is still "a little bit suspicious" of refilled cartridges, having tried it once and finding it messy, he has found a happy middle ground with store-brand ink, and is impressed by Grand & Toy's money back quality guarantee and postage-paid envelope for sending back the empty cartridge for recycling. So far, he has had no quality or performance issues.

If quality is of the utmost importance, tests show that brand name cartridges are consistently able to deliver the goods. For the home user who simply wants to print the odd map, grocery list or recipe in black and white, however, refills offer significant short-term savings. Business users might consider balancing quality and price with store-brand cartridges from reputable retailers. Ultimately, of course, the decision about what ink to buy is based on the customer's individual needs and expectations.
Related content:
How to buy a printer
Top inkjet multifunction printers
50 tech secrets: Easy and cheap printing

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