If you opt to buy printer ink online, keep in mind that the cartridges offered by the cheapest places typically are not branded ink from the company that made your printer (known in the industry as the original equipment manufacturer).
- Remanufactured cartridges are OEM components that have been cleaned, refilled, and tested.
- Compatible cartridges 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 Cartridges
Prices vary by brand and printer model, but generally speaking, you'll save about 25% to 40% on aftermarket 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 Refills
An alternative to buying replacement printer ink cartridges is to refill the empty ones you already have. You can buy do-it-yourself kits online, but consumers who have tried them warn that they're very messy and not worth the hassle. A few years ago, you could just go to a store like Cartridge World, Costco, or Fry's to have your cartridges refilled, but Costco no longer offers that service, Fry's is no longer in business, and Cartridge World has shifted its focus to business customers. We recommend saving yourself the hassle and just buying replacement ink cartridges, rather than trying to refill your empties.
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, but its recommendations are based largely on price, inventory, and customer service. Consumer Reports and PC World both have excellent buying 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 Compatibility
In 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.
Warranties, Shipping, and Returns
All the replacement printer ink retailers that we review back their products with money-back guarantees, although warranty length varies from brand to brand. The best retailers offer a one- or two-year warranty, plus a grace period of 15 to 30 days to return unopened products for a refund. However, few of them reimburse customers for the cost of return shipping unless there is a clear defect, a sore spot for some reviewers. Most printer ink vendors deliver within a few days and offer free ground shipping on orders over a certain amount, usually between $40 and $55. 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.
We tested each of the major sites by looking for remanufactured or compatible ink cartridges for seven common inkjet and laser printers: Epson 220XL, HP 564XL, Canon PGI250XL, Samsung Xpress SL-C410W, HP Envy 6055e, HP DeskJet 4155e, Canon Pixma TS6420, and the Brother HL-L2350DW. In general, all the sites looked and functioned similarly and reliably — a far cry from a few years ago, when searching for ink tended to be a tedious process. There's no need to look up model numbers for the cartridges you need; just search for by brand, printer family and model.
Price and Selection
Selection was not an issue in general, although a few of the sample cartridges we searched for were not sold at all the retailers in our survey. Often, buyers have the option of buying multipacks, which tend to be cheaper than buying cartridges individually, as well as 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.
All of the retailers that we surveyed offer phone, email, and online chat support for customers, usually five or six days a week. Complaints about customer service are infrequent, but common issues include slow delivery, incorrect orders, failure to issue refunds, charging for return shipping, slow responses to email queries, rude customer service agents, and long waits on phone lines.