Even the experts hate paying full price for printer ink. "I became a serial refiller when I realized that my printer's ink cartridges cost more per milliliter than human blood or Russian caviar," writes PC World's Jeff Bertolucci, who has been testing cheap, refilled ink cartridges (like the ones you can buy at Cartridge World or Office Depot) for years. But when print quality and durability really count -- say, when you're printing wedding-album photos or presentation documents for clients -- independent tests show that your printer's original-brand ink really does crank out the best-looking, most fade-resistant printouts.
Not that all manufacturers' inks are created equal. Our top sources -- including unbiased consumer-testing organizations such as ConsumerReports.org, the U.K.'s Which? magazine and Australia's Choice magazine -- test various brands of ink by printing page after page until the cartridges are exhausted, then scrutinizing printouts for flaws, and attacking them with high-intensity lights and ozone to see which ones fade. Overall, Canon printer inks hold the edge in most top tests, although HP and Epson inks win some, too. But no matter what brand of printer you have, tests show you'll almost always get the best results with that brand's ink. For instance, Lexmark ink doesn't print as beautifully as Canon's in tests, but it usually performs better than store-brand inks in Lexmark printers.
PC World partnered with the Rochester Institute of Technology to test printer inks from Canon, Epson, Lexmark and Kodak against cheaper cartridges from Cartridge World, Walgreens, Overstock.com and others. The result? In most cases, the OEM inks look better -- "more accurate and more color-rich" -- and fade less.
In fact, your photos may last years, even decades, longer if you print with OEM inks. In simulated fade tests at Wilhelm Imaging Research, photos printed with OEM inks last from 16 to more than 100 years framed under glass without fading (depending on the brand and variety of OEM ink you buy), while photos printed with some of the refilled cartridges from Office Depot, Staples, Cartridge World and elsewhere faded noticeably within a few months.
"If you want high-quality color photos that future generations will be able to enjoy, then OEM inks are usually a better choice," PC World concludes.
OEM cartridges are also less likely to malfunction, possibly because printer cartridges aren't really designed to be refilled and reused, PC World says. In its test, "brand-name cartridges consistently installed and ran without a hitch, whereas some third-party supplies worked poorly or not at all."
Users agree. At Amazon.com, hundreds of inkjet printer owners post ink reviews, awarding the best scores to official Canon, Brother, HP and Epson ink cartridges. With off-brand inks, users are more likely to complain that they just get error messages and the cartridge won't print. In some cases, the off-brand cartridges burst.
Still, refilled ink cartridges work fine in many cases. The inks themselves do fade faster, but tests show that the initial printouts often look good enough for everyday office printing and the like. If you can find an off-brand cartridge that works well in your printer and you're not too picky about quality, experts say it might be a good way to cut printing costs. But for the smoothest possible printing experience, reviews say, stick with OEM cartridges such as Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark printer ink (*Est. $10 to $20) .