Choosing Cheap Printer Ink
Replacing the ink in your printer is easy to do, but few things are as expensive as ink cartridges from the original equipment manufacturer, whether it be Canon, HP, Epson, or another printer brand. So-called OEM printer ink can cost $20 to $30 for a single color or black cartridge. If you print a lot of photos or own a particularly thirsty printer, you'll need to replace the ink cartridges fairly often. To save money, some consumers opt for remanufactured or compatible printer ink from an established online retailer or office supply store. Remanufactured cartridges are OEM components that have been cleaned, refilled, and tested. Compatible printer ink cartridges, on the other hand, are manufactured and marketed by third-party brands and not endorsed by the printer manufacturer. Either way, the prices are lower than OEM printer ink, but there are tradeoffs, consumers say.
Pricey vs. Cheap Printer Ink CartridgesPrices vary by brand and printer model, but generally speaking, you'll save about 25 percent to 40 percent on cheap replacement printer ink compared with the brand-name version. You can find cheap, no-name printer ink on eBay and Amazon for just a few dollars per cartridge. But reviewers say you often get what you pay for with this cheap ink and recommend going with an established retailer instead.
Online printer ink companies have been around since the late 1990s, but some consumers still worry that using third-party replacement ink will void their printer warranty. Federal law and a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling bar manufacturers from forcing consumers to use OEM ink and other components, but they can still refuse to honor a warranty if they can prove a malfunction was directly caused by a non-OEM cartridge.
Printer Ink RefillsAn alternative to buying replacement printer ink is to refill empty cartridges. You can find do-it-yourself kits online, but consumers who have tried them warn that they're very messy and not worth the hassle. The better option, reviewers say, is to take cartridges to a store like Fry's or Cartridge World; Costco also offers an inkjet-refill service to its members. Refill prices vary by printer but start around $7. That's about the same price as the online retailers we looked at, or slightly more, but still cheaper than buying OEM printer ink. The drawback: You have to go to the store to refill the cartridges, although the process itself doesn't take long and can be done while you wait.
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Printer Cartridge Reviews: What We Considered
There are no serious reviews of cheap printer ink online that evaluate its quality compared with name-brand ink. Top Ten Reviews is the only reputable site that "tests" online replacement ink services, and its recommendations are based largely on price, inventory, and customer service. Consumer Reports and PC World both have excellent buyers guides but focus mostly on ways to save ink. To assess how consumers feel about replacement printer ink ordered online, we consulted reviews on sites like Reseller Ratings and Bizrate Surveys, two e-commerce marketing and analytics firms. To get a sense of product quality, we also examined customer reviews of ink for a selection of popular inkjet printers on the retailers' websites.
Quality and CompatibilityIn general, most consumers seem relatively satisfied with the quality of the replacement printer ink they buy, but users make the same complaints no matter which retailer they choose. The most common gripes include colors that aren't consistent or saturated (especially yellow and magenta), inks that clog printer heads, and cartridges that either can't be read by the printer or trigger an "out of ink" warning when still full.
Site UsabilityWe tested the major sites by looking for remanufactured or compatible ink cartridges for three of Amazon's best-selling inkjet printers: the Canon Pixma MX922, the HP Envy 4520 All-in-One, and the Epson Expression ET-2750. Our biggest complaint is with the retailers' search functions, all of which failed to work at some point during our research. When that happened, we had to sift through entire inventories to find the ink we needed, a time-consuming process. The good news: There's no need to look up model numbers for the cartridges you need; just search for your printer to see the available ink.
SelectionSelection was not an issue in general, although a few of the sample cartridges we searched for were not sold at Staples or Office Depot. Online-only vendors offered more multipacks, which tend to be cheaper than buying cartridges individually. They also offered more high-yield or "XL" cartridges, which typically print about twice as many pages as standard cartridges and generally are a good deal for heavy-duty printing needs. For occasional print jobs, though, users are better off with standard-size cartridges, because ink can dry out if the printer isn't used regularly.
Prices and Shipping
|Canon Pixma MX922 (CLI-251, PGI-250)||HP Envy 4520 (HP 63XL)||Epson Expression ET-2750 (T502)||Standard Shipping|
|4inkjets||$20 for 5-pack (XL)||$19 for black, |
$23 for tricolor
|$29 for 4-pack||$4.95|
|123inkjets||$25 for 5-pack (XL)||$23 for black, |
$27 for tricolor
|$33 for 4-pack||$4.95|
|Carrot Ink||$18 for 5-pack (XL)||$20 for black, |
$23 for tricolor,
$38 for both
|$29 for 4-pack||$3.95|
|Office Depot||$29 for tricolor, $14.39 for pigment black; no regular black||$29 for black, |
$50 for both
(black XL, color standard)
|Staples||$38.19 for 4-pack; no pigment black||N/A||N/A||$9.95|
Prices and availability subject to change. Shipping rates apply within the contiguous United States.
Across the board, the dedicated printer-ink sites had lower prices and larger inventories. But office-supply stores have one big advantage over their online competitors: You can walk in and buy what you need without having to wait for an order to ship. That said, many remanufactured cartridges we looked at online at Staples were not available in stores, although there was the option of free shipping to a store.
Most printer ink vendors deliver within a few days and offer free shipping on orders over a certain amount, usually between $35 and $50. Although you may be tempted to overload your cart to qualify for free shipping, experts caution against stockpiling ink cartridges. Remember, they can dry out, so any extra cartridges should be stored in an airtight container and used within a few months of purchase.