/ Technology

Is branded printer ink too pricey?

Printer ink

A hundred quid will buy you a decent printer, but when the ink runs dry you could splash out another fifty on new cartridges. A steep sum for four little pots of liquid, so is it worth it?

As a reader recently reminded us by getting in touch, branded printer ink is expensive, there’s no doubt about it.

If you switched to cheaper, non-branded refills you could save up to 70% on the price of the branded stuff.

But making the switch to third party ink is a bit of a gamble. Will the cartridges work? Will they damage the printer? Will the prints look any good?

It’s not just the high price of branded cartridges that’s so alarming. I’ve been tracking the price of these cartridges for the past six months and the price differences between retailers are astounding. I’ve seen some retailers charge twice as much as others for the same cartridge. How can that be? Who’s buying it at that price?

Not only that, but prices change month to month. So the cheapest retailer today may not be the cheapest tomorrow.

The thing is, who (apart from me) is going to spend time checking the price of their particular brand of cartridges on a regular basis? It’s not like shoes – there’s little pleasure to be had from ‘window shopping’ for ink.

And you’re unlikely to buy cartridges every week – thankfully, or you’d probably be bankrupt by now – so what are the chances of the average consumer knowing what a realistic price is for the cartridges their printer uses?

Maybe retailers are playing on this lack of knowledge. Maybe they’re hoping you’ll come running into the shop with an ink emergency and just pay the price.

Or maybe there’s a valid reason printer manufacturers charge so much for their ink and some retailers price it so much higher than their competitors – though I’m struggling to see it.

All I know is, if I need to print out my boarding pass, I’ll be doing it at work.

pickle says:
8 August 2010

I agree – well, WHY is printer ink so expensive. Seems a good subject for a Which report.

My H.P. printer decides for itself when it thinks the cartridges need replacing. There’s a chip inside that counts pages (or some kind of tally). On a few occasions, I have installed a new cartridge and then replaced the old one which is now, miraculously, half full and prints page after page. However, putting the new one in for a second time causes the printer to tell me it’s empty. They get you every way. Last December I could buy a batch of ink for my printer for just under £30. In January it increased to £40 and Tesco, last week were asking £49 for the same product. Is there some kind of precious ingredient in there that has suddenly become scarce or are we being ripped off? Trouble is, if you need to print then you need to print and they damn well know it. Who ,can do what, to alter this? I would really like to know.

P.S. I spent half an hour last night typing a speed camera reply. I forgot to tick the accept box and it all disappeared into the ether. My words of "wisdom" will never be read. What went wrong, Which?

If you don’t want to tick the accept box each time you comment, you can simply register for free with an email address, username and password. If you haven’t checked the box, there’s a warning reminding you to do so and you may have saved your comment by using your browser’s ‘back’ button. If you have any other problems, please use our Contact Us form: https://conversation.which.co.uk/contact-us/ Thanks.

I have found that although getting HP’s own cartridges is more expensive, they last much longer and the prints are of a higher quality (if only slightly). Most importantly though – I’ve found that using a refill kit results in prints that fade over a few months.

I use cheap generic inks, I have tried different makes. The prints look just as good and the printer runs fine. I have also tried a refill kit though this was less successful.

louise read says:
10 August 2010

I’m ignorant. What are “generic inks”? Thanks Louise Read

Generic inks are basically cheaper non-branded ink cartridges.

I use HP cartridges in preference to OEMs because they last longer and I’m able to get them on Ebay at up to a quarter of the price if they are close to sell by date. I use a lot. You do have to be careful as some are the low capacity ones normally supplied with the printer. So far for many years the ebay ones have worked properly. That said – I have used OEM and refilled myself with success for HP type cartridges.

However I have bought Canon OEM cartridges that were useless as colour rendition was appalling – the proper Canon ones were fine.

Because I print a lot I found the capacity of ink jet printers insufficient anyway – I use lasers instead which seems cheaper per page.

The other snag with ink jet is the sensitivity to UV causing the print to fade rapidly in sunlight and as I print a large number of posters I now reserve ink jets to print glossy photos.

Some manufactures sell cheap printers because they know they will make more on selling the refills for it afterwards so take care to check out the overall cost (including ink cost) before buying ,costs have risen recently this is due the cost of raw materials and a weaker pound.I prefer to buy original cartridges but I shop around for them to get the best price.

I have come across a printer priced at around £70 that came with free ink cartridges – buying the refills separately cost the same amount of money as the printer itself. In the end, buying a new printer with free cartridges each time was a better deal (not very eco friendly).

Richard L says:
14 June 2013

For me that is kind of an indication that their ink is just overpriced. BT usually cartridges that comes with the printer are either half or one third full…read the fine prints on the printer boxes.

I remember 30 years ago you had to pay 70$ for the printer and 40$ for the cable.

I’m not saying that Original ink is not better…but for sure if you use original inks you are largely subsisiding the printer cost of those who run on generic inks

louise read says:
10 August 2010

Whatever we try, we are losers. Where’s the Monopoly Commission in all that? Why no control of prices? At least a feeble attempt? I got fed up being ripped off, specially when PC World told me that for £10 more I could replace my Dell printer for a better model. What they forgot to mention is that it only accepted new cartridges, as opposed to recycled ones. Went to Selfridges to buy a laser printer. Which needed a new cartridge after 200-300 pages. There, too, they forgot to mention it costs £75 ! In North America a friend prints 1000 pages. He shops around for new cartridges best price. Something wrong somewhere.

My early HP ink jet printer only prints 200-300 pages when printing large graphics pages – It is better at 5% coverage.

All of my HP lasers – I have a few – all produce around 2000 – 3000 pages at 5% coverage.

My earlier mono lasers did not use a chip and were easy to refill – but the cost of the printers were around £800 and very slow – My newer ones still cost over a £1000 AND have a chip – but print at around 25 ppm -. but it is possible to buy the chip separately so refilling is possible – I tend to print 12000 pages duplex monthly.

The real problem as far as I’m concerned is too many colour laser printers are not colour fast. enough – much to my surprise-

I also have a wax dye printer – but it has the worse printing protocol and is useless with my software – and help was not forthcoming from the manufactures.

Jonathan Curry says:
10 August 2010

People might want to try using generic and manufacturer ink in rotation. I tend to use generic at 25% of the cost but periodically put through a set of manufacturer cartridges to keep the machine in spec. This is based on a belief that manufacturer ink is better for the machine as being fully specced for the product. May not be correct but it keeps me happy and no printer faults.

The other “problem” is expensive ink jet cartridges have the printer head incorporated in the cartridge itself – whereas other manufactures “cheaper” cartridges do not.

Which means the chances of malfunction replacing “print head” carts is very low. Whereas the other manufacture’s “cheaper” carts mean the printer will require a very expensive new complete printer head.

It tends to be swings and roundabouts.

Jay Gee says:
10 August 2010

I had problems with some compatible inks in my Epson printer – atrocious colours or just would not work, but have found a truly reliable company and the quality of printing and photos is excellent. I now pay less than £2 per cartridge, compared to Epson’s ridiculous charges. The main advantage with Epson is that one can replace one colour at a time, not all of them when one ink runs out.

louise read says:
15 August 2010

Email to Jay Gee. Hello. Are you allowed to tell us who’s “your truly reliable company”? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know. I’m vastly interested. Louise Read

Name the ‘truly reliable company’ so we can all benefit.

Toneboy says:
20 August 2010

I have purchased all of my ink jet cartridges for many years from Choice Stationary using now their Think brand cartridges and get good results with first class no quibble service.

At present I have a Canon Pixma iP6000D because it uses separate cartridges for each colour, but previously I had used HP products with built in print heads on each cartridge and also had no problem with the Choice equivalent product.

If you do a lot of Black only printing it may pay to get a Black only Laser printer.

I use nothing but compatible inks and have always been very satisfied with the results for photographic printing; the cost being far less than for Epson’s branded types.
One tip I would give is to attend the many Computer Markets that take place over the country, usually, but not always, on Sundays. There you can buy compatible inks at prices even lower than those offered on Internet sites, together with a range of printing papers, well below normal shop prices. Other components for computers are also for sale, far below shop prices.
One advantage of buying in this way is that you can afford to experiment with printing without it costing you an arm and a leg to do so.
I am a bit dubious about printer manufacturers’ claims which state that their own inks have been specially formulated to function with their printers and that “inferior” inks will damage them. Imagine what would happen if this principle was applied to, say, petrol, where “inferior fuel will damage your engine”, or washing machines which must only be used with manufacturer’s own powders – at a manufacturer’s own price of course!
I have a theory that somewhere in China there is a vast factory producing printing inks, some of which are labelled Epson, others Canon, still others Hewlett-Packard etc. They then stop the production runs, change labels to compatible types and restart.

I have an excellent Brother ink jet printer which takes four separate cartridges, the Black one bigger than the others. They run out at different rates but I find that by buying the cheaper 4-packs of the manufacturer’s ink I don’t end up with an excess of any one colour over time. I also disregard the notices that come up on the screen telling me to change the ink – I seem to be able to carry on printing until they are completely empty at which point the machine will stop, but changing one cartridge only takes a minute at most [if you keep one handy as soon as the warning appears]. On the question of price this has always semed unfair and I do a little bit of shopping around. The last supply came via Amazon – from another company whose name escapes me now – and their price was very favourable and gave next day delivery at no extra cost. My biggest gripe with computer printing is the appalling layout of so many websites that compel you to print far more pages than are occupied by the text you want and then give you a bonus page containing only the header and footer!

There’s an easy way to print just a selected bit from a web page. Your PC may have a new screen snipping shortcut (“Window-key” + S) or older machines may find the same as part of Windows One-Note program. Mac users have had screen clipping for years, the shortcut was “Apple-key” + shift + 4. You then ‘paste’ the clipping in a new page for say Wordpad (PC) or Text-edit (Mac), both of which are simple word-processors which accept mixtures of text, pictures and all.

I haven’t used compatible 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.
So now my Canon printer (which uses 6 separate inks) always gets Canon cartridges and if you shop around you can save a huge amount on RRP.

….and you’ll save a lot more by using compatible cartridges with your Canon. Just be sure to follow the instructions which come with the ink as well as with the printer. See also the new Conversation about cheap-printer-ink-is-it-worth-the-gamble. Every reply says it is.

Following this Conversation, we’ve carried out some research into the cheaper third party alternatives, using comments from Peter and Stella above. Are cheaper ink substitutes worth it? Join the Conversation here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/cheap-printer-ink-is-it-worth-the-gamble/

Stephen Round says:
18 January 2011

Why do you use the word “gamble” there is no gamble element … if a compatible print cartridge is not up to scratch you just take it or send it back to the counter where it came from and they have to react to that or take a gamble on you being a prole!
Are we men or mice, so much I have gleaned from a few hours browsing on the which website appears to be so bland as to be pasteurised beyond the utterly banal. We have to be extremely wary of words thay take from us just as much or even more than they give – look at them p-residing over our own domain like cuckoos shifting us imperceptibly towards the edge. Why accept any terms and conditions why should we sub-mit??????????? Remember …. Civilisation isn’t CIVILISED why live in a plastic bubble

Paul Fisher says:
5 May 2011


Please remember that there are well known tips for saving on ink.

Most of what we print does not need top quality printing and therefore set your computer to draft quality and only print premium quality when absolutely necessary.

Matthew Pollock says:
16 May 2011

Of course everyone should use remanufactured ink. There is little or no quality difference with branded ink, the whole idea being a makers’ scare tactic to push their most profitable product, branded printer ink.

Therefore, when reviewing printers, Which? should clearly separate them into two classes – those for which remanufactured ink is available, and those for which only branded ink is. Because over the lifetime of the printer, the ink cost is much more important than the printer cost.

Second issue, in the US it is illegal for manufacturers to void printer warranties because clients are using non-branded ink cartridges, under the MAGNUSON-MOSS

Which? should be campaigning to make this happen in the UK too.

Mark says:
30 July 2011

When Which next looks at printers, please could you make a point of considering:
how easy it is to refill cartridges? and does the printer work properly afterwards?

My limited experience is with a HP Photosmart C4380. Refilling sometimes succeeds.
At other times, it displays an error “cartridge not recognised” or “empty” and then
it completely refuses to work. Usually I have to fit a new cartridge.

I would very much like to find an ethical manufacturer.

graham derrick says:
2 March 2012

its about time ” which” got involved into inks. I have had three Epson printers all quite expensive ones the first one a three in one printer 620 every year I had to take it to a repair man because a code came up to tell me it needed servicing,i believe i had that one 3-4 years .I then bought the px720 which gave me lots of problems ,so then I exchanged that one for a px830fwd which up to now has performed very well all have been running on Pro-jet inks about £5 a set of six for all that time with no problem at all
The problem I have now is photo paper why is it so difficult to find 7 x 5 paper don`t say epson do it I used to get plenty from Tescos Boots which was very good quality and at half the price of Epson someone out there must know of a good product to tell me about I live in hope G D