If you don't want to pay full price for your inkjet printer's official ink cartridges, experts say refilled ink cartridges are the next best thing. These are actually used OEM ink cartridges (from Canon, Epson, HP, etc.) that the store has collected and refilled with store-brand ink. You can find them on the shelf at stores like Cartridge World and Office Depot -- usually priced a few dollars less than the OEM cartridges on the next shelf; they're sometimes even cheaper from lesser-known online sellers. Some stores will refill your own cartridge while you wait. You'll almost always cut your per-page printing costs by using refilled cartridges, tests show. Some can slash your costs by 50 to 80 percent.
But watch out for the pitfalls. While OEM ink cartridges almost always print trouble-free in tests, that's only sometimes true for refilled cartridges because ink cartridges are really designed to be used just once. Testers at TrustedReviews.com and PC World say some of the refilled cartridges they've tried either leaked, printed mixed-up colors (because the color tanks leaked within the cartridge), wouldn't print at all, or had clogged jets and had to go through an ink-wasting cleaning cycle before they would print. When one British testing agency asked about 3,700 readers whether they had any problems with generic inkjet printer cartridges, about two-thirds reported no issues. The rest reported cartridges that failed to print; leaked ink in their printers; or produced grainy, washed-out, dotted or streaky printouts. And if a refilled cartridge damages your printer, it probably won't be covered under your printer's warranty.
Fading is another concern. Store-brand ink almost always fades more quickly than OEM ink. In fact, your photos may last from 16 to more than 100 years framed under glass if you print with OEM ink, according to a simulated fade test at Wilhelm Imaging Research, but refill inks last only a few months to a few years. In TrustedReviews.com's fade test, OEM inks rarely fade at all in the first year. Some refill inks hold up just as well, but others fade so badly within a year that the prints are unusable.
Finally, your prints probably won't look as sharp or vibrant with store-brand ink. OEM inks print at least slightly more beautifully in all but one of our top tests. One glaring exception: At TrustedReviews.com, refilled cartridges from Cartridge World actually print slightly better-looking photos, text and graphics than OEM inks.
Cartridge World inks (*Est. $8 to $19) also print just as handsomely as Epson, HP, Lexmark and Kodak inks (although Canon inks do print slightly better) in PC World's test, making them our Best Reviewed pick among store-brand inks. Cartridge World operates 650 retail stores in North America and 1,700 worldwide, and you can also buy refilled cartridges for all major printer brands on the Cartridge World website. Prices vary from store to store and online, but you'll usually save about $1 to $3 vs. OEM cartridges. Cartridge World inks cut per-page printing costs by 15 to 80 percent in tests on various printer models at both PC World and an independent consumer testing agency.
Yet even Cartridge World inks sometimes falter. One British test tries Cartridge World inks in Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark printers, with only poor to average results. And Cartridge World inks suffer from the same fading and malfunctioning problems as other ink refills. In PC World's test, two of the 20 Lexmark-compatible cartridges from Cartridge World were already leaking in the package, and testers who tried 40 Cartridge World cartridges in one Epson printer got only an "incompatible" error message. Cartridge World says it cleans and tests every refilled cartridge to make sure it works, and their warranty will repair or replace cartridges if they're faulty. If the cartridge damages your printer, though, Cartridge World promises only that it will "provide advice or a qualified service technician to address any issues."
Other store-brand inks aren't nearly as widely tested as Cartridge World's, although a few get a nod here and there from reviewers. PC World's Jeff Bertolucci actually prefers Costco ink refills (*Est. $8 to $10 each) for his HP printer, simply because they're cheaper than Cartridge World's (if you already possess the $50-or-more annual Costco membership, which Bertolucci does). Costco provides one-hour refills of HP, Canon, Lexmark and Dell cartridges while you wait. Cartridge World inks print "a little better than Costco's" in Bertolucci's test -- a little sharper and brighter -- but Costco's still look "adequate for everyday use" and printed a few more pages than the other cartridges did. This is the only test we found for Costco ink, however.
CarrotInk.com (*Est. $8 to $16) earned a mention in a prominent test a few years ago, after it managed to match Epson ink for quality and still save money. This online ink-cartridge refiller is still a favorite at TechSupportAlert.com, where blogger Ian Richards whittles 47 Internet ink sellers down to the four best. CarrotInk.com makes the cut: It not only sells a wide range of cartridges and delivers promptly but also boasts a one-year money-back guarantee and "no-questions-asked" return policy. "To test this claim, we returned some cartridges in a used condition and, yes indeed, they gave us a full refund," Richards says. "Only a few suppliers offer this level of guarantee and I must say we were impressed." CarrotInk.com cartridges don't show up in any more recent tests, though.
The three national office-supply chains -- Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax (*Est. $7 to $20 at each store) -- all offer their own brands of ink, either in cartridges or as refills. When an independent testing agency reviewed all three a few years ago, it found the Staples and Office Depot inks to be just as good as OEM inks in some cases, but not others. For example, photos printed with Staples ink match those printed with Canon ink, but Staples' text and color graphics aren't as good. Office Depot ink matches HP ink for photos and graphics, but not text. In Wilhelm Imaging Research's fade test, photos printed with all three store brands fade within half a year to two and a half years -- about the same as other aftermarket inks.
Office Depot ink shows up in a recent test at PC World. Tester Jeff Bertolucci tries refilled Office Depot cartridges in his HP printer and says the results look "pretty good…however, I noticed visible differences in print quality. Overall, HP's black output was noticeably darker, and text appeared bolder and sharper. Skin tones were smoother and colors seemed more vibrant." Prices vary by printer model, but for Bertolucci's HP, the Office Depot ink cost 22 cents per page to print vs. 27 cents for new HP cartridges -- not a very big savings.
If you really want to slash your printing costs, you can cut out the middleman and refill your inkjet cartridges yourself. You can buy kits for this, which include bottles of ink (enough to refill each cartridge several times) and a syringe. But testers say you need a steady hand and a lot of patience, and you might have to play MacGyver with your cartridges to get them to work.
For example, PC World profiles an anonymous guy -- a "serial refiller" -- who has been refilling the same HP and Canon cartridges for years.
"The kit for the HP included a small hex wrench and screw," PC World's Melissa Riofrio writes. "The hex screw replaces the ball bearing that originally sealed the fill hole in the cartridge. My refiller removed the ball bearing by forcing it into the cartridge using the tip of a ballpoint pen. He then finagled the filled syringe into the hole and added more ink.…
"To refill the Canon unit, he had to drill a small hole into the top of each of its five tanks so he could fill them via syringe; then he sealed each hole with a screw. The kit provided a small, manual drill, but he said it was easier to use his electric drill. Occasionally, he switched to a slightly larger screw, as a tank's access hole expanded with reuse. He covered the tank's ink spout with electrical tape during a refill to prevent ink from leaking. He removed the tape carefully afterward and kept tissue ready to dab away any ink."
In another review, PC World's Jeff Bertolucci -- a self-described serial refiller -- tries three different refill kits with his HP printer and makes a mess with all three. The worst is when he presses too hard on the G&G Refill Kit's (*Est. $15 to $24) syringe and black ink explodes all over his face. The generic "Jumbo" refill kit he bought on Amazon.com overflows, and "a river of ink began seeping from the bottom of the cartridges." The best of the lot, the InkTec refill kit (*Est. $10 to $17) , overflows too, but by the time Bertolucci's finished (about an hour and a half later) it does at least deliver great-looking prints. The others cranked out smudges, cockeyed colors and splotchy prints. The InkTec kit saves 90 percent over the cost of new cartridges, and Bertolucci guesses he could cut the refill time to half an hour or less with practice, so he judges the InkTec kit a good buy for patient penny-pinchers.
Other experts, however -- including ConsumerReports.org and its British counterpart, Which? magazine -- find DIY refill kits too messy to recommend. They say most people will probably prefer to let a reputable supplier do the dirty work when it comes time to refill their inkjet printer cartridges.