/ Technology

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

Loading ... Loading ...

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.

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.

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.

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?

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/

Thank you for the compliment and the honour.

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.]

There is an article about third party inks and another on the variation in ‘wastage’ of ink by printers in the August issue of Which? magazine. The first of these articles mentions third party inks can fade more rapidly than manufacturers’ inks. This is one of the reasons I pay for original ink, but I still have problems with laminated posters fading when displayed outdoors.

At present I am using an HP printer but have asked friends using different brands of printer to print samples, which have also faded. I have had the same problem with output from a professional roll printer and with posters printed by a commercial service.

I don’t know whether I should be looking for fade-resistant ink or lamination pouches that filter UV light, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money on finding a solution since it is not difficult to replace faded posters. When I see faded photo prints in friends’ homes I suspect that fading is a considerable problem.

I always print my own photos – for choosing the area to print, and for the immediacy and convenience – but using a standard inkjet and inks. So far no fading problems – but most are kept in albums or behind glass. Posters on ordinary paper do fade outdoors behind glass after a couple of years.
I wonder how much better photo printers with, presumably, different inks, are in regard to fading? Epsom produce(d) some “Archival Pigmented” ink assessed as lasting 100 years, but on a fairly expensive printer. Were there specific photo printers and inks used in your tests, Which? Photos would be the area where longevity, as well as quality, would be the main criteria I would have thought, rather than cost.

I have not had any problems with fading of printed photos behind glass, presumably because this protects the ink from UV radiation.

Epson developed fade-resistant ink after their ordinary printer inks were heavily criticised for fading in the late 90s. As far as I know, using these inks and a compatible printer is too expensive for anything other than specialist use.

UV-resistant lamination pouches are available for outdoor use, but they still seem to be an expensive, specialist product in the UK.

Thanks Katie. If you do find any major differences in fading in future, some of us would be keen to know which brands of ink are best.

I am not surprised that most people are printing few photos these days, since many people use phones, tablets, laptops and digital photo frames. I would not be surprised if the majority of people are using more ink printing information from websites than printing photos.

David Dowdell says:
26 July 2013

I recently bought a new printer – a Canon MG5350 – which is virtually the same as my previous printer and uses the same inks. I’ll stick with Canon’s originals until the initial first year’s guarantee has expired. I’ll then move on to those supplied by ChoiceComputers (as before).
However, I don’t do all that much printing these days and although it’s true that printer inks are expensive in absolute terms, their cost bears no comparison with my food bill!

Roy King says:
26 July 2013

Well I have only once used non manufactures printer ink on a printer that was still under warranty. Guess what the printer ended up in the bin, £400 down the tubes……never again.

I use the manufacturers ink on the basis that the printer should last longer.

But I do resent the cost of inks. So, it is because of the low cost of the printer? Over 5 years, how many times do you pay for the printer through the very high cost of ink?

A few years ago, I had a Canon printer that just ate ink. It kept self-cleaning using the ink up very quickly. I now have an HP Photosmart that also gets through ink at a fair rate of knots. It also does too much self-cleaning. I probably print between 3 – 8 A4 sheets of text a week and most of what I do print is in draft quality.

The cost of printer ink is a con. They don’t even contain the same amount of ink as they used to. I would rather pay the proper cost of the printer and the proper cost of the ink. Why should I subsidise people who use third-party ink?

Brian Newman says:
27 July 2013

If anybody wants to try 3rd party cartridges, I have been purchasing chipped cartridges from Happy Printer (happyprinter.co.uk) since November 2009 for my Canon Pixma MP970 printer and find them to be reliable and excellent value for money. Although my own printer is no longer available to buy, I’m sure it’s worth trying Happy Printer for any printer for which they have ink cartridges available.

I’ve always used original Canon ink cartridges for my printer only because they claim that using any other non-original cartridges invalidates the guarantee of the printer. But now that I’ve been using this printer for at least three years, maybe it’s about time that I tried the refilled ones. I only have the basic Canon Pixma Series MP190.

I did find out that there’s no point taking notice of their warning of ‘low ink’ while it’s printing because it could last at least a month or two afterwards !

Cartridges can contain print heads or just be ink tanks, with the print head included in the printer. If a print head becomes permanently blocked by unsuitable ink, it is not reasonable for a manufacturer to take responsibility for fixing it. If the print head is included in the cartridge, then refilling it might wreck the cartridge but it should not damage the printer and the manufacturer should not attempt to deny warranty claims, and the customer has additional rights under the Sale of Goods Act.

The low ink warning provides a useful reminder to purchase more ink. It is not an indicator that cartridges should be replaced.

Of course Canon would tell you that; the company wants you to buy their cartridges. I’ve owned various Lexmark and HP printers for many years and refills have never done any damage.

My current Lexmark printer continued to print high quality copies for a long time after the low ink warning. I had to refill only after the printer stopped responding completely.

Depending on how much printing you do, and on how easily you can get supplies, it may be worth keeping a set of spare cartridges. I don’t need to, as I can get mine with twenty-four hours’ advance notice and I have a shop that is convenient for me to get to.

My Canon printer gives a low ink warning and, after a lot more prints, eventually stops printing warning that ink may have run out and continuing to print could damage the printer. Pressing OK overrides this until the ink actually does run out – lots of prints later. No damage.
I always keep one spare set of OEM cartridges bought online – but when comparing prices what a fraud p&p can be, some with around £4.50 a cartridge and if you order more than one, delivered in the same package, still pay the same p&p per cartridge.

My Epson stylus PHOTO RX425 has an error message ‘Out of Ink; even when ink refilled?
Is there a re-set trick?