Refill ‘er Up


Q: The prices for brand-name ink cartridges are absolutely outrageous. I’d love to use cheaper generic ones, but my printer’s manual warns that off-brand ink can lead to a warranty-voiding disaster. Should I risk it?

Take your manual’s admonitions with the proverbial grain of salt. Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Lexmark—the Big Four of ink jets—are notorious for using scare tactics to cajole customers into buying overpriced supplies. Stop the insanity and go the second-tier route, but only if you can live with less-than-perfect printouts and the occasional ink-stained shirt.

Printerdom’s Big Four have a nifty con going. Ink-jet printers cost next to nothing nowadays, with even above-average models going for a piddling $150 or less. The companies aim to compensate for these loss leaders by screwing you on the cartridges, which run upward of $40 per—a sweet return on a palm-sized box of plastic and ink that costs less than $3 to make. Forty percent of HP’s annual profits, for example, come from printer supplies alone.

It’d all work like a charm but for those pesky antitrust laws. It’s illegal for any company to configure products in such a way as to exclude rivals’ replacement parts. Sure, General Motors can run commercials encouraging you to trust only genuine ACDelco spark plugs, but nothing’s preventing you from sticking cheaper Paraguayan knockoffs in your engine. Same goes for printers: The Big Four can wheedle and plead, but don’t be a sucker.

Doomsaying is a favorite ploy—Mr. Roboto’s Epson bombards him with on-screen warnings about generic cartridges voiding the warranty. This is a linguistic sleight of hand, as the mere use of off-brand ink can never justify the voiding of a warranty. Sure, if you use an adulterated cartridge that somehow leaks pollutants onto the print heads, causing them to explode, you’ll have a tough time coaxing the Big Four into providing a replacement. But the odds of such a catastrophe are slim to none, so don’t sweat it too much.

There are two types of bargain cartridges to be had—remanufactured and generic. The former usually come from small companies that gather up old brand-name cartridges and refill them with low-grade ink. The Big Four are feeling major heat from these recyclers, who’ve captured 15 percent of the market, so they’re doing everything possible to frustrate the upstarts. The brand names have started outfitting their cartridges with “killer chips,” which prevent reuse. The chips have attracted the regulatory scrutiny of European Union officials; no word yet on any stateside action.

Remanufactured cartridges generally work fine, though they tend to skimp—if the fresh brand-namer lasted for 1000 pages, the resurrected version will churn out closer to 900. You may also have to use your printer’s nozzle-cleaning function more, as the cheap ink tends to clot (especially during the winter). And the Big Four squawk, correctly, that the recycleds can’t turn out Louvre-ready colors. But no self-respecting graphics fetishist uses an ink-jet printer in the first place—that’s what lasers are for—so the point is sort of moot.

Generic cartridges, on the other hand, are slapdash contraptions. They can cost even less than their recycled kin—typically a third of what a brand-name will go for—but they’re a crapshoot. Mr. Roboto’s last generic cyan cartridge from cracked during installation (and he was gentle! Honest!), leading to an annoying bluish tint on all printouts since.

A third, most unsavory option is do-it-yourself refill kits, which must be avoided. Ever the penny-pinching journalist, Mr. Roboto once invested in one, hoping to make his factory-installed cartridges last until the Second Coming. The sole reward was a ruined T-shirt; the cartridges pumped out a dozen more pages before giving up the ghost. Learn from Mr. Roboto’s suffering.

You can find reputable vendors of both generics and recycleds; simply Yahoo! the phrase “ink cartridges” and you’ll get a copious list of possibilities. Just promise you’ll never do business with an e-merchant who doesn’t offer a money-back guarantee in writing, or who lacks a fixed address and phone number. It’d be a shame if your humble quest for cheaper ink wound up enriching a Vladivostok fraudster, now, wouldn’t it?

Input questions at

Archive Highlights