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.

And Now a Kodak Moment . . .

Kodak asserts that its cartridges have more going for them than a low price: Prints made with its inks are as vivid, colorful, and accurate as those made with any other manufacturers' inks on the market, the manufacturer says. We confirmed Kodak's claims on both counts: Kodak inks were as economical as the third-party inks, selling at $10 for black and $15 for color cartridges, the same price as cartridge refills at Walgreens. The Kodak inks' cost per page is fairly good, too, at 2 cents for black printing, 8 cents for color, and 12 cents for photo. Kodak inks earned scores on a par with those of the other manufacturers' inks in our print-quality tests, and rated especially highly in color glossy print jobs. And Kodak inks were second only to Epson in resisting ozone and UV light.

Brand-Name Cartridges Were More Reliable

Printer vendors say that their ink cartridges are more reliable and pose fewer technical problems in their own printers than third-party inks do. Most third-party ink sellers remanufacture (that is, they buy, clean, and refill) used brand-name cartridges or resell cartridges that they buy from another manufacturer.

Our research tended to corroborate the printer manufacturers' claims. In the RIT tests, brand-name cartridges consistently installed and ran without a hitch, whereas some third-party supplies worked poorly or not at all.

For instance, a few Walgreens and OverStock.com cartridges designed for the Lexmark X3470 printer suffered from color mixing (in which ink from one cartridge leaks into another inside the printer) and from print-quality defects. supposedly compatible Cartridge World cartridges--40 of them, in fact--failed to work in the Epson Stylus CX5000 printer and could not be tested. (The Epson unit's ink-replacement software utility reported, "The installed ink cartridge is incompatible with this printer," but didn't provide details.) And 2 of 20 Lexmark-compatible cartridges from Cartridge World arrived at RIT with ink leaking into the packaging prior to installation.

These reliability problems are not entirely the fault of the third-party ink sellers. Some manufacturers put microchips in their cartridges and printers, thus making it harder for third-party suppliers to design compatible supplies. "They'll put in a chip to keep third parties from being able to reverse-engineer" the product, says IDC printer analyst Keith Kmetz.

For instance, Canon ink cartridges include a computer chip that thwarts third-party competitors. "Nobody's been able to replicate it, figure it out, figure out how to reset it, get around it," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California. "Printer manufacturers roll out new printers every six to eight months, and it's a struggle to keep up with all the new technologies," Eaton says.

Vendors also use scare tactics to discredit third-party products. "We see vendors saying your warranty could be affected if you're not using their genuine supplies," says IDC's Kmetz.

"Usage [of a third-party ink cartridge] alone does not void the warranty," says Tricia Judge, executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council, a trade group for toner and ink suppliers. The only way the warranty can be voided, according to Judge, is if a third-party product damages the printer. And if you're dealing with a legitimate aftermarket vendor, "They're going to repair or replace the printer for you if their cartridge damages it."

The Bottom Line on Printer Inks

Depending on your printer, you may be able to find cheaper, third-party inks that perform as well as or better than the brand-name stuff. In our study we found that third-party ink cartridges usually cost less and often yielded more prints than their manufacturer-made rivals. On the other hand, in most cases, we confirmed the printer manufacturers' claims that their own inks produce better-looking images.

Deciding between brand-name and third-party alternatives depends in part on how you plan to use your prints. If you want high-quality color photos that future generations will be able to enjoy, then OEM inks are usually a better choice.

Many of us, however, don't need the best ink supplies that money can buy. If your prints tend to be for one-time-only office presentations, text documents for school, or temporary color images (such as plain-paper photos), inks from third-party supplies may be a reasonable cost-saving option. And over the lifetime of your printer, cost savings from buying third-party inks can be considerable.

An Ink Aftermarket in Flux

Finding suitable third-party cartridges for a particular printer isn't always easy, and may be getting harder. That's because selling third-party ink, we're told, is a tough business.

According to imaging industry forecaster Lyra Research, parent company of The Hard Copy Supplies Journal (a printer industry trade publication), printer manufacturers control about 80 percent of the market for replacement printer ink cartridges. Total worldwide revenue from inkjet cartridge sales will be about $31.5 billion this year--$25.1 billion of it going to printer makers and the other $6.4 billion going to third-party cartridge sellers and refill shops or kiosks.

And experts say that third-party vendors' market share may be falling. "Overall, the OEMs are gaining back a little share, maybe a point or two over the next several years worldwide," says Charlie Brewer, managing editor of The Journal.

One key factor in the printer manufacturers' dominance of the replacement cartridge market is a landmark 2007 ruling by the International Trade Commission (a U.S. government agency) that barred the importation of Epson-compatible ink cartridges into the United States. The immediate result for U.S. consumers is a big drop in the availability of third-party inks for Epson printers.

Another factor is the printer makers' aggressive and persistent effort to take third-party vendors to court for infringement of their ink cartridge patents. "A handful of OEMs have a dominant share of the market, and they are laden with patents," says patent attorney Edward O'Connor, who has been arguing printer industry patent-infringement cases for nearly 20 years. "They're very litigious, they're very threatening, and they go after people." O'Connor is helping Ninestar Image, a large China-based ink cartridge vendor, appeal the 2007 ITC ruling mentioned earlier.

Aftermarket lawsuits are nothing new, says IDC's Kmetz. The printer manufacturers "are not making as much money on the hardware as they are on the supplies, so any supply revenue that gets threatened is of great concern."

Printer vendors say they're just protecting their turf, not trying to mortally wound their aftermarket rivals. "We believe in fair competition," says HP's Brown.

Critics, however, charge that printer makers engage in bullying third-party vendors, most of which lack the resources to fight long legal battles. The resulting chilling effect discourages aftermarket competitors from selling ink, which in turn hurts consumers by keeping ink prices artificially high.

The ITC's Epson ruling is just one reason why third-party ink makers may be losing ground in the United States. Another factor is the falling price of replacement ink cartridges from printer manufacturers. Five years ago, the average printer manufacturer's ink cartridge sold for between $30 and $35, Brewer estimates; today, the average price is between $15 and $20.

But the lower prices don't mean consumers are getting more ink for their buck. Rather, the printer makers are offering cartridges with less ink in them and selling them at a reduced price. High-yield tanks sell for around $35, while the lower-yield cartridges go for nearly half that. For instance, the HP 88XL Black Officejet ink cartridge costs $35 and prints an estimated 2450 pages, which works out to a price per page of roughly 1.43 cents. The lower-capacity HP 88 cartridge sells for $20 but prints only 850 pages, or about 2.35 cents per page. So despite their higher cost per page, printer manufacturers' cartridges that carry relatively modest sticker prices can lure consumers away from third-party inks.

And for people who print only a page or two a week, the higher-priced third-party cartridge may indeed be overkill.

"Overall, the OEMs are gaining back a little share, maybe a point or two over the next several years worldwide," says Brewer, although the shift is too new to be reflected in the research numbers. Brewer predicts that the market-share gains by printer manufacturers in some regions, including North America, will be significant. For instance, the 2007 ITC ruling will help Epson. And Canon ink cartridges include a computer chip that thwarts third-party competitors. "Nobody's been able to replicate it, figure it out, figure out how to reset it, get around it," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California. The challenge for third-party vendors is to keep up with the changing ink needs of consumers. "Printer manufacturers roll out new printers every six to eight months, and it's a struggle to keep up with all the new technologies," says Steven Eaton, store manager of Cartridge World in Folsom, California.

Our Ink-Stained Conclusion

For the best inkjet experience--including crisp, colorful, long-lasting print output--ink from the printer's manufacturer tends to be a better bet than third-party ink. That said, if you're willing to compromise a bit on print quality and longevity, you can save considerable money over the life of your printer by using aftermarket inks from reputable third-party vendors.

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PC World (US online)

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