Ink cartridges can get very costly

Your Money


If you think gasoline is expensive these days, imagine the price for a gallon of ink for your home inkjet printer.

The price of printer ink may be the only liquid besides gasoline that infuriates consumers so much. It doesn't take long for the cost of ink-cartridge replacements to exceed the price of the printer.

You can choose among money-saving alternatives, and the best value is not clear-cut. But the decision is based on an age-old trade-off: price versus quality.

Studies show the printer's manufacturer makes the best-quality inks. But think about what quality you need. A child's grade-school project printed on regular copy paper doesn't need high-quality ink.

Or maybe you take lots of photos of a child to put on the refrigerator, only to replace them a month later with newer photos. "In that case, you might want to go with an aftermarket ink because you'll be chewing through the cartridges," said Charles Brewer, managing editor of The Hard Copy Supplies Journal.

If you're worried about a printed photo fading after a few years, ask yourself whether that's a big deal. After all, if it fades, you could print it again from the digital image on your computer.

Or if you seldom need superior quality, you could use cheap ink at home and just pay for commercial photo finishing for those few important photos. For snapshots, a commercial photo finisher online or at a retail discount store may be cheaper than doing it yourself anyway. Consumer Reports found photo finishers charge 15 to 25 cents per 4-by-6-inch print, while printing at home costs 25 to 40 cents.

If you will be printing at home, which choice of cheaper inks is right for you?

Brand names are costlier but are tops at rendering accurate colors and resisting fading. They include Hewlett-Packard, Canon and Lexmark.

Comparison shop for the best deals on name brands, but compare apples to apples. Some brand-name printer manufacturers are offering lower-priced cartridges that simply contain less ink and need to be replaced sooner, Brewer said.

Store-brand cartridges include Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot and Rhinotek. The print quality will likely be quite good, but they are more susceptible to fading, according to a recent study.

Refill shops are franchised retail stores, such as Cartridge World and Caboodle Cartridge. You bring in your old cartridge to be refilled or swapped with a different refilled cartridge. Because these are stores dedicated to only one task, they develop expertise and use a variety of different ink sets that will match your printer, Brewer said.

There are cartridge-refill machines in such stores as Walgreens and OfficeMax. Brewer said they use a limited number of inks that may or may not match your printer well, and the employee doing the refilling is likely to be less knowledgeable than someone at a store dedicated to refills.

The ink quality of some do-it-yourself refill kits can be good, but it's a messy chore to transfer ink from a container to your cartridge. Also, an ink cartridge can only be refilled four to 10 times with any of these refill methods. After that, the print head could burn out, Brewer said.

At the lowest end, if a generic replacement for your $45 cartridge costs $7 online, there's a reason, Brewer said. You just can't count on the quality of the ink and the cartridge, which may leak. Batches of the same cartridges might differ in quality.

But you might stumble on an online store selling generics that work well in your printer.

Don't overbuy on cartridges. Cheap printers break easily. If you have to replace it, you could be stuck with a lot of cartridges that won't fit current models.

Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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