Experts who test printer ink usually wind up complaining about the same thing: It's just so expensive. In fact, critics seem to relish calculating how much more inkjet printer ink costs, ounce for ounce, than various exotic fluids -- more than the party drug GHB, but not quite as much as Thailand cobra venom, points out ConsumerReports.org's affiliate blog The Consumerist.
Cheaper, off-brand inkjet printer cartridges can be pretty tempting. The ones you find at major office-supply stores like Cartridge World and Office Depot are typically just used original equipment manufacturer (OEM) cartridges from printer brands such as Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark that have been refilled with store-brand ink. But you can also find no-name cartridges even cheaper online. Do-it-yourself refill kits (consisting of bottles of ink and a syringe) are cheaper still.
But how cheap is too cheap when it comes to printer ink? We found plenty of expert sources that have run big-budget tests. Three consumer testing organizations -- ConsumerReports.org and its overseas counterparts, Which? magazine (U.K.) and Choice magazine (Australia) -- design scientific, unbiased tests that pit manufacturers' ink directly against refill inks. Tests at PC World and TrustedReviews.com are just as impressive. These tests judge not only the initial quality of the prints but also their fade resistance and cost per page. They form the backbone of our report.
Other reviews tend to echo what these experts have already found: Official manufacturers' inks such as Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark (*Est. $10 to $20) usually give the best, most consistent results. Documents and photos printed with OEM inks usually look sharper and brighter, and they resist fading better than aftermarket inks. Still, refilled cartridges from reputable suppliers like Cartridge World (*Est. $8 to $19) do a good enough job that most reviews say they're fine for printing everyday office documents or casual snapshots.
One alternative you'll probably want to skip? Do-it-yourself refill kits. True, you can save a lot of money by injecting ink into your own used printer cartridges, and you can find online forums (such as the Inkjet Printer Forum/Ink Jet Refill Forum at Nifty-Stuff.com) where refill enthusiasts discuss the intricacies and provide detailed tutorials for newbies if you're interested. But when expert testers try it, they usually find inkjet refill kits sloppy and frustrating.
PC World's Jeff Bertolucci -- a self-described "serial refiller" who has been reviewing printer ink cartridges for years -- still makes a mess when he tries refilling his own cartridges. In one refill kit review, he posts a photo of his ink-splattered face; turns out he shoved a little too hard on a syringe and the black ink exploded everywhere. He says he must have overfilled the color cartridge, too, because his printouts looked splotchy and terrible -- the colors had leaked into each other's chambers.
"Do-it-yourself ink refilling is an unpredictable and potentially very messy undertaking," Bertolucci concludes. ConsumerReports.org and Which? magazine advise against it as well, and Choice magazine cautions that DIY refilling will work only if you go slowly and take great care.
Prices for printer cartridges vary, depending on which model of printer you have and whether you buy regular or extra-large cartridges. For this report, price estimates are based on regular-sized, single-color cartridges for home-use printers.