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Does cheap printer ink mean cheaper prints?

Printer ink cartridges on a photo of a child

If you’re looking to save money when using your home printer, you may have considered using third-party ink. We’ve been testing third-party cartridges to find out if they can really save you cash.

Printer ink can be expensive – more so than petrol, vintage port or Dom Perignon, measure for measure – but the price of a set of cartridges doesn’t tell you a thing about the cost of printing. And even when it comes to buying cheap ink cartridges from a different brand than your printer, prints don’t always work out cheap.

The cost of printer ink is a common cause for complaint. Almost half of Which? members surveyed said they considered the price of the cartridges before buying their printer, so it clearly has an influence on which printers people buy.

But the price of a set of cartridges tells you nothing about the cost of your prints and this isn’t only an issue with printer branded inks, as we’ve recently discovered.

In our latest tests of third-party ink – that’s ink from a brand that’s different from the brand of your printer – we found that printer-branded ink isn’t always the most expensive ink around.

Print cost mystery

The true cost of printing is about the cost of the cartridges and how many prints you can get from them. The amount of ink in the cartridge and how the printer uses it will make a difference.

When we’ve previously asked members about the ink they use in their printers, we received a raft of responses from people happily using cheap ink and getting great prints. And our tests have found that you can indeed get great prints from some third-party ink brands.

However, the difference in printing costs with third-party inks in our latest tests ranged from a saving of 90% for 10 pages of black text to costing 19% more than with the printer-branded ink. And the cheapest ink overall when printing text wasn’t the cheapest set of inks we bought.

You can’t rely on the cost of a set of cartridges to find the best deal on home printing, but on average, we saved around 50% on the cost of printing by switching from printer-branded ink to third-party ink, so pricier prints weren’t the norm.

Even if we needed to run a head clean on the printer to get the inks flowing properly, many third parties still produced cheaper prints when factoring in this extra ink use.

Printer tips and tricks

Using third-party ink isn’t always a smooth process though. Some third-party ink cartridges in our tests occasionally had problems being recognised. A lot of the time this was fixable by taking the cartridge out and just putting it straight back in again.

We also had to trick a Canon MG4250 printer into accepting some cartridges by holding down the ‘stop’ button on the printer for a few seconds when it displayed early warnings that our third-party cartridges were empty. This let us keep printing.

The third-party ink market is huge. We’re only able to test a small sample and our Canon printer isn’t the only one that required intervention to get the cheap inks flowing.

If you’ve discovered any clever tricks to get your printer working with third-party ink, if your printer’s started refusing alternative inks, or if there’s a brand of ink you use on your printer that’s saving you a fortune, we would love to hear from you.

Do you use third-party ink in your home printer?

Yes (52%, 539 Votes)

No (45%, 468 Votes)

I'm not sure (4%, 38 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,045

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Comments
Member

I haven’t used 3rd party inks for my Canon MP600R – partly because I don’t use large quantities but mainly because I’m happy with the quality (colour of photos and non-fading are my criteria more than cost) and concerned about printer damage. However, I do find that the printer shows “ink out” well before a cartridge is empty; overriding this and continuing to print produces a lot more copies with no dire consequences. I wonder whether Which had this happen and whether their costs took this into account?
Photo quality is not just about ink, but the combination with photo paper. Some paper produces poor results with Canon ink, others particularly good – I’ve used Tesco finest successfully.

Member

Hi Malcolm,
When we test printers we carry on printing past the ink low warnings. We keep going until either the printer refuses to print any more or the quality drops due to the lack of ink in the drained cartridges.
You make a very good point about paper. We’ve tested photo paper in the past with some great and other dire results. It’s the printing holy trinity – good printer, ink and paper.

Member

Thanks Katie.
Personally, I find relatively inexpensive printers generally give such good results – professional-looking documents and photos – that I am quite prepared to forgive the cost of ink. Unless, that is, I were printing large numbers of documents. I accept that the low cost of the printer is subsidised by the higher cost of ink.

Member

I always buy Asda’s own brand ink cartridges. My Epson printer uses 4 seperate cartridges, and they sell their compatible ones for £5 each or 2 for £8. I’ve never had an issue with them. I suppose if there was a problem I would have the convenience of being able to take it back to the store for a refund (hopefully!).

As for paper, I’ll use any cheap A4 paper, I don’t print glossy photos or anything like that, i’ve found doing that to be far too problematic and better to send off for photo prints if I ever want them.

Member

As an alternative to buying third party cartridges, have you considered refilling?

You use the same volume of ink (or toner), but at a lower cost, so you save money. However, it’s best to have refills done professionally.

Refilling also has the environmental benefit of reusing the same cartridge over and over again (won’t last forever, but should do for many years).

I have used Cartridge World for many years, with various printers. The print quality of the refills is the same as the original. CW will clean the cartridge and, if there is a problem, I have always encountered first class customer service. On one occasion, I was even given a free replacement of an OEM cartridge.

On another point raised in the article, I remember reading that there are tricks to fool the software in printers when using third party cartridges. Alas, I cannot remember what. Perhaps someone has the time to do an Internet search?

Member

You’re our Commenter of the Week and your comment will feature on our homepage for 7 days 🙂 https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/your-view-home-computing-printer-ink-hard-drive-problems/

Member

Thank you for the compliment and the honour.

Member
IvoryS says:
24 July 2013

Cheap inks do not give good photo results and mess up the printer as well.For photos it is much better to go to a local Photo printer shop.

[We don’t allow advertising on Which? Conversation. Sorry, mods.]

Member