Consumer Reports: ‘Third-Party Ink Cartridges Can Save You Money, But It Pays To Be Cautious’

Consumer Reports recently published the results of its annual printer survey, with 37 percent of respondents saying they’ve tried using third-party printer ink cartridges, which can cost much less than name-brand products, but which may not always be reliable. “They don’t always work well, ” say Consumer Reports’ testers, and third-party ink cartridges can also void printers’ warranties.

(Note that third-party aftermarket ink cartridges are cartridges not made by the maker of the printer, but by an unauthorized third party.)

In the Consumer Reports’ survey, 63 percent of respondents who used third-party cartridges said “they’re just as good as name-brand cartridges,” while 36 percent however said “they’re not up to par.”

 Consumer Reports’ also said its testers “found inconsistencies” with third-party cartridges.

Rich Sulin, who leads CR’s printer-testing program, says that some samples worked without any problems, but that other samples of the same products “set off warning messages from their printer or failed to print a test page.” He also said “some aftermarket inks worked initially but quickly clogged printer heads.” Sulin says to make sure the vendor provides a money-back guarantee, and he advises you to use the ink or toner as soon as possible after purchasing them.

Consumer Reports said it didn’t rate third-party ink cartridges “because the marketplace is so fractured—a large number of manufacturers offer a rapidly changing lineup of products for different printer models, making comparisons difficult.”

Sulin also noted that typical printer warranties issued by vendors such as Epson and Lexmark state that the printer warranty becomes invalid if non-OEM ink cartridges are used.

Our Take

Wirth Consulting recently tested numerous remanufactured/refilled ink cartridges and refill kits for a selection of the most popular inkjet printers. Though the test results are confidential, we can say that we experienced virtually no problems. However, we also knew up-front that we should not completely run-out the OEM ink cartridges, as alarming error messages may be displayed on the control panel when a remanufactured/refilled ink cartridge is subsequently installed. In the most extreme cases, a used, but not empty OEM ink cartridge must be swapped in-and-out in order to rectify the error message(s). So, it’s recommended that you keep a set of good OEM ink cartridges on hand if you decided to use remanufactured/refilled ink cartridges.

For those who opt not to use third-party ink cartridges and avoid any potential risks, there are still several ways to considerably save on ink costs. That’s because, in general over the last several years, printer makers such as HP Inc., Brother International, and Epson, have been working to lower their ink-cartridge costs in the face of competition from third-party ink cartridges.

HP Instant Ink Program – We’ve extensively reviewed this money-saving program that supplies ink cartridges on demand, so that you don’t have to run out of ink at the worst possible moment. Basically, you must own an HP printer that’s eligible for the Instant Ink program. Next, you subscribe to one of three Instant Ink monthly plans based on your expected printer usage (how many pages you expect to print per month). Once you subscribe, you receive special Instant Ink cartridges that hold far more ink than even HP’s XL high-yield ink cartridges.

Your printer communicates your usage over the Internet to HP’s servers that then determine when it’s necessary to mail you discounted replacement ink cartridges with free shipping. You’re billed each month for the plan you select, and of note is that you don’t pay a higher price when you purchase an HP Instant-Ink capable printer.

Three subscription programs are available: $2.99 per month for printing up to 50 pages per month; $4.99 for printing up to 100 pages per month; and $9.99 per month for printing up to 300 pages per month. Un-used pages are automatically rolled over to the next month, overage charges are extremely reasonable and you can cancel at any time.

HP also sells two Officejet All-in-Ones that come with pre-paid Instant Ink subscriptions – visit HP here for more info. Also see our reviews of the program here: Hands-On Review: HP Instant Ink, The HP Instant Ink Saga – Our First Billing Statement, and Our Continuing Adventures with HP’s Instant Ink Program.

CISS-Equipped Printers – Canon, Epson and HP have released a line of CISS (Continuous Ink Supply System) All-in-Ones and printers with high-capacity ink tanks instead of ink cartridges that cost significantly more than their cartridge-based counterparts. Ink is sold in bottles and you must top off each of the four ink tanks every once in a blue moon. While the system has more potential for ink spillage than cartridge-based printers, ink is extraordinarily inexpensive. If you’re concerned about the ability of your office users to add ink without muss or fuss, Epson sells high-end printers that are equipped with giant ink bags (or packs) that mitigates this concern – these however are mid-volume office copier/MFPs. Keep in mind that in general, CISS printers (and MFPs) tend to be more expensive (you pay more upfront in return for lower priced ink), so make sure you print enough pages every month to justify the initial purchase price of the printer.

Brother INKvestment Printers – Brother’s strategy is somewhat different. It sells two versions of its upper-end printers – one that uses INKvestment ink cartridges and one without INKvestment ink cartridges. The INKvestment printers cost more to buy, but ink cartridges cost considerably less than the comparable non INKvestment-equipped printer. More recently, Brother teamed up with Amazon for Amazon’s new Dash program, under which a host of qualified Brother printers (including toner-based printers) can receive automatic shipments of ink or toner cartridges, once again determined by remotely monitored usage patterns. However, cartridges are not highly discounted as they are with the HP Instant Ink Program.

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