Cheap ink: will it cost you?

Buying replacement ink from a third-party vendor can save you big bucks. But will you pay with lousy-looking prints that fade in no time? We did months of testing to find out.

Razor-blade makers sell consumers the shaver at low prices and then make a killing selling replacement blades. Printer manufacturers do the same thing — selling their printers on the cheap and then making bank on expensive consumables like ink. It's a time-tested practice that's inspired a lively aftermarket of cheap ink from third-party suppliers.

The printer makers — the original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs — claim that their ink is worth the premium prices they charge for it. OEM ink, they say, creates images that are more accurate and colour-rich, and longer-lived. Third-party suppliers, on the other hand, say that their inks are just as good but cost a lot less. For example, HP charges US$18 for a black ink cartridge for its Photosmart C5180 printer, but the same cartridge remanufactured by Cartridge World costs only $8.75.

Who's telling the truth? To find out, PC World teamed up with the Rochester Institute of Technology, a respected research university known for its top-notch laboratory for testing imaging products. Using popular ink jet printers from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, and Lexmark, we ran side-by-side tests of brand-name and third-party inks to compare image quality and fade resistance. We also tracked how many pages each cartridge churned out before running dry.

Our tests show that all of the third-party inks in our test group yielded more prints per cartridge — on top of costing less — but that, with some notable exceptions, the printer manufacturers' ink we evaluated usually produced better-quality prints and proved more resistant to fading. Of course, our conclusions apply only to the printers we tested. We couldn't test all of the printers that are available (partly because you can't get third-party ink for all of them), so we picked a set of mainstream inkjet printers from recognised brands as a way of taking a snapshot view of the ink market.

The PC World Test Center created a number of different text and image printouts, pitting manufacturers' inks against third-party inks in five different printers. Image samples included a motion shot of cars on a racetrack, a close-up of a butterfly, a photo of a group of people with different skin tones, and a black-and-white photo of a boat. For text we created Word document samples on plain paper; for line art we designed a test document with closely grouped vertical and horizontal lines. Judges then rated the pages for qualities such as colour accuracy and vibrancy, sharpness of text and of line art, and contrast levels in greyscale images.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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