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Cheap printer ink – is it worth the gamble?

Row of printer ink

Branded printer ink is expensive, so opting for third party alternatives can save you money. But since many of you have contacted us about your negative third party experiences, are such cheaper substitutes worth it?

You know the cheap ink that isn’t the same brand as your printer? That’s third party ink.

Although we’ve heard experiences of them producing sub-standard prints or not working in certain printers, some of you are still willing to try another brand to reduce printing costs.

And while three-quarters of the people who contacted us were reasonably happy with their alternative inks, there are still questions over the compatibility, quality and cost of these inks.

Third party inks aren’t always compatible

Compatibility depends on the printer you own and the ink supplier you try. Third party ink isn’t available for every printer and sometimes cartridges don’t work due to simple bad luck.

Which? Convo commenter Peter was one of the unlucky ones, ‘I haven’t used [third party] cartridges since I found that an HP printer didn’t even recognise that a cartridge had been inserted. So that cartridge may have been cheap – but it was a complete waste of money.’

We’ve also experienced failure from some cartridges here at Which? HQ and it’s something that some third party ink suppliers actually admit to.

Do we always need good quality prints?

We tested a small handful of third party cartridges and although the prints produced weren’t better than branded inks, in some cases quality was actually on a par. Even so, is getting the best print quality always essential?

If you want a good quality photo print to keep or display, a photo processing service is likely to be cheaper than printing at home. But how often do you really need top quality, long lasting prints? If I’m honest, I don’t.

In our survey of over a thousand people, respondents on average printed 72 black and white text pages and 24 colour pages per month. This is in comparison to just 33 photos per year.

Perhaps we need to compromise

I reckon using third party ink boils down to three things: being brave enough to give them a try; not being overly concerned about having long-lasting top notch prints; and accepting it may take a little time and effort to get your money back if they don’t work.

In our previous printer ink Conversation, Stella said that her ‘prints look just as good and the printer runs fine.’ So if your biggest priority is saving money, surely third party ink is worth a shot?


Did I read somewhere that printer ink is much dearer than some vintage wines? Compare the price per milliletre of ink to the price per litre of fuel. Ouch. Yeah, OUCH!

Making us, the poor consumer, believe that using a compatible ink will invalidate the warranty/produce inferior results is clearly a ploy by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to scare us in to forking out more for their expensive ink.A practice made even easier for the OEM by the incorporation of chips on cartridges that are only truly compatible with their printers. Surely this restricts the rights of consumers and narrows choice? Should the European Commission be investigating this practice. Imagine if Ford were in cahoots with BP so that their fuel tanks were only compatible with BP nozzles? Imagine an operating system that forced you only to use the Internet Explorer browser. Or an MP3 player that only let you buy MP3s from their own store…:) . Isn’t that the same thing?

Ultimately, it’s our choice. Thankfully, many compatible cartridges do work for everyday results but how many people are too afraid to try? I had a Lexmark printer once. The OEM cartridges were so dear that I contacted Lexmark to ask why. I was told that buying their cartridges was like buying a new printer. So I did – and I made sure it wasn’t a Lexmark.

Having said that why spend so much time and effort printing high quality photos at home? Leave it to the photo experts. It’s much cheaper, the results are often better (obviously choose a Best Buy!) and it just takes out the hassle of cropping, adjusting, measuring and spending time and money purchasing specialist paper and printing using OEM cartridges.

I’ve had hit and miss experiences with non-branded cartridges. The first few I got were fine. The last few were absolutely terrible. I’m all for printing draft quality, not necessarily needing top quality. But when both cartridges are new and your black is pink and your red is blue (or something like that) things really aren’t right at all!

G L Attaway says:
29 October 2010

I have never had any problems with “Cartridge World” refills currently at £7.50. I get excellent quality from my Canon Pixma printer. Why should I pay £18 + for originals which last no longer than the refills?

Is that per cartridge or per set (of 5)? I’ve just bought 3 sets of 5 cartridges (i.e. 15 in total) for my Pixma MP640 (Canon) from Badger Inks for about £32 inc P&P. I’ll let you know how they get on. I accept that refilling is prob more landfill-friendly though.

Well, I would tell you but I’ve just been told by UPS that they’ve been delayed at the airport.

I have had poor results from refilled ink cartridges and toner cartridges, however, I have recently refilled my own toner cartridge and found that it be a very satisfactory process at 1/3rd the cost of a new cartridge.

I’ve not really compared the print quality from my original manufacturer ink versus the refilled ink closely, on my printer, but they appear to be roughly the same – I’ve not noticed a decline in quality anyway.

I’d be keen to go back to the same shop again for another refill when the time comes. I guess it’s less of a ‘gamble’ if you’ve found a shop, cartridge and printer already that combined together seem to give good results.

I’d also like to avoid paying the extortionate prices that the original manufactuers charge.

Never had any problems with Refresh Cartridges for my Canon MX850 and being buying non branded cartridges for many years. I couldnt notice the difference in quality anyway and I doubt if many would.

I think that buying own manufactured printer cartridges are a complete rip off! After spending a fortune on these, I decided to start refilling my printer cartridges and have been doing so now for years. One of the best stores I have used for this is Cartridge World. They are really helpful and are far more economical.
There is no need to buy from the printer manufacturers as I have never had a problem using Cartridge World refills and it saves me quite a substantial amount of money when you work out it out annually.

I use Cartridge World. One of their shops is local to me. Quality, price and advice has always been good from there. (I’m on my third Epson.)

It is no gamble! Cheap compatible cartridges can be excellent. Buy carefully and thoroughly understand your printer’s instructions AND those that come with the ink. In 10 years of quality printing (family photos) I’ve seen printers and paper improve greatly, but inks have always been simple and satisfactory. For 18 months I’ve been delighted with a Which? recommendation, a Canon Pixma IP3500 for which I buy very cheap ink from inkredible.co.uk, who provide overnight service and a full guarantee. It uses 4 separate cartridges – cheaper than any 2-cartridge printer – and when one runs dry I immediately transfer the inkredible electronic chip (in its non-Canon portable chip-holder) to the next cartridge and carry on printing. Simple! Of course I have applied the instructions on how to by-pass the printer’s warnings about low ink or non-recognised carrtidges. Those are merely the manufacturer’s way of persuading you to buy their absurdly overpriced ink. Top quality in colour printing comes, not from expensive ink, but from a good printer, suitable paper, and a little patience from the user.

I use Epson Stylus Photo 750.
Non chipped inks. When I get the warning “inks low” I remove cartridge, and give it a sharp bump onto a piece of paper, to produce an ink droplet. Replace and it carries on for quite awhile!

Papatya says:
11 February 2011

I am wanting to buy a new multi-function printer HP Photosmart C410 – one of Which? recommended brands – and before I do I need to find out if it has these so called chips on thier cartiridges therefore preventing me from buying compatible cartiridges. How can I found out? I do not want to be forced into having to buy very expensive original ink cartridges. Can any one help me please?

marmaladecat says:
27 August 2011

marmaladeca tI have a similar HP Photosmart printer and am about to replace it, partly as it’s always getting paper jams and partly because HP inks are ridiculously expensive and third party inks have a) not sown up on screen b) used colour so fast they must be using it for my 90% black/white printing c) the arguments I’ve had with faulty third party ink suppliers, esp one called Britannia Inks, just are too stressful. You are right to re consider.

Heathen says:
9 September 2011

Running into big problems with cheap printer cartridges for my Epson R300 and SX300 printers.

Have bought these for some time from Cartridge World and with recent batches I am having colour delivery and cartridge recognition problems.

Home Officer says:
27 October 2011

I bought my present printer (Epson R300 photo) specifically because I knew that 3rd party ink cartridges were readily available. Occasionally I’ve had to persuade the printer into recognising a new cartridge, but I’ve six years happy printing and never ever used a manufacturers’ own brand.

I started using non-branded ink because of the very high cost if OEM ink cartridges. However, I have to tell everyone they should stick to the OEM cartridges as I found out the hard way that buying cheap can work out to be very expensive in the end. I owned a top of the range Canon “all in one” printer/fax machine and enjoyed its high quality colour print results even using non-branded ink. One day the printer stopped working and giving an error message. I discovered that one of the non-branded ink cartridges had leak its contents into the bottom of the printer in an area that was inaccessible and that a return to Canon would be required to fix it at a cost of £120. Knowing this I decided to cut my losses and purchase a new Which? recommend Canon printer for a similar price. I will never use the cheaper non-branded cartridges again and now look on line for the cheapest OEM ink. I think WHICH? Magazine should really highlight this major issue in their next report on inks. Maybe if we all bought the OEM inks the prices would fall with the additional demand in supply. By the way, the new Canon MG6250 Printer is very good.

Helen says:
12 July 2012

Re: problems using non-branded inks. I too bought a new canon printer some years ago and being fed up with the extortionate prices of new ink cartridges, decided to try out a non-branded set. This was a disaster – the print heads were ruined by one of the cartridges leaking into the printer somewhere and the printer never worked properly again, despite all my attempts to clean it, using the reference information shown within the printer’s manual etc. I had to throw it out and buy a new one. As I had been very happy with the printer prior to all of this, I wished I had left well alone and just bought the expensive manufacturer’s cartridges. Having purchased a new printer, I will not risk using anything other than manufacturer’s cartridges again, even though they cost nearly as much as the printer!

Mike says:
2 March 2012

I always buy third party catridges for my Canon iX5000 from Tonik, I have been doing it for several years now and they work perfectly every time and they are about the same price as refills, about a third the cost of the Canon Catridges. I get perfect prints everytime.

Oliver says:
2 March 2012

I currently use the excellent Epson Stylus Photo PX710 and have tried a number of third party inks, all of which seem to work just as well as the Epson branded cartridges (including level indicators etc). This is a stark contrast to my previous experience with a Lexmark machine where third party inks were a real problem, with the ink level indicators constantly inaccurate and the cartridges often not working at all.

I guess some manufacturers make it more difficult than others, unless it simply depends on whether you are lucky with your particular model. In any case, I would consider third party cartridge compatibility an essential element in choosing a new printer and think it is something which should ideally be included in tests.

Maurice says:
7 October 2012

After buying only genuine Canon cartridges for some time, costing about 2/3 of the cost of the printer for a full set of five, I decided to take the gamble of getting them refilled at a CartridgeUK shop, thinking that as long as the printer lasted for about another three sets I would be better off. Well, I have now used at least that many of their refills and have had no problems. Scares about not using original cartridges are not necessarily justified.

I regularly use third party cartridges from “Stinkyink.com” for my Canon Pixma 4160. Text documents and homework quality photos on plain paper are excellent. The only problem comes with printing decent photos onto glossy paper where the finish has an odd matt look when viewed at an angle. Other than that, the colours are pretty good. I pay just over £19 for a full set of 5 cartridges whereas I reckon original Canon ones would cost at least three times that much and last no longer.