IT for Donuts: are cheap printer cartridges any good?

By: John McGarvey

Date: 7 February 2014

Printer cartridges

IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

This week, we look at printer cartridges. There are plenty of 'unofficial' printer cartridges on the market and they can be significantly cheaper than the versions from your printer manufacturer. But do they represent value for money?

Cheap printers, expensive ink

The printer market is weird. You can buy a whole printer for £35 (and it'll print stuff out just fine), but then replacement cartridges can set you back nearly as much.

That's because printer manufacturers follow the 'razor model'. They flog printers cheap, then make the real money from selling consumables like ink and toner cartridges.

That's created an opportunity for other companies to undercut the price of official cartridges with their own versions. Often, these are 'remanufactured' cartridges, which means the supplier has refurbished and refilled a previously-used cartridge before selling it on. So it's a kind of recycling, too.

Not all cartridges are equal

The main advantage to sticking to official cartridges is that you know what you're getting. Printer manufacturers generally use high-quality ink and toner, so you can be sure your printouts will be decent.

On the other hand, the quality of unofficial cartridges can vary. Some are just as reliable as official models, produce prints that are every bit as good and last just as long.

However, others produce smeared text and blurry graphics, run out faster, or are prone to clogging with ink and becoming useless. This means it's wise to be a bit picky about which unofficial cartridges you use.

Finding the best cartridges

Despite the dire warnings from printer manufacturers, unofficial cartridges are unlikely to damage your printer. So there's nothing to stop you trying one out to see what you think.

As it can be hard to tell the good unofficial cartridges from the bad ones, try and buy from reputable retailers, like Staples or StinkyInk.

It's also wise to avoid the very cheapest cartridges. These are less likely to have been manufactured to high standards or may skimp on the volume or quality of ink.

You can also Google for reviews of the brand of cartridge you're buying. However, it's quite hard to find unbiased opinions because information is typically posted either by printer manufacturers or unofficial sellers. Both groups have obvious vested interests, so you're best off trying them for yourself.

If you have more than one printer in your office, a good strategy can be to keep one on official cartridges, guaranteeing you reliable printing for important documents. You can then try alternative cartridges in the others to see if it saves you any money.

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