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  • Off-Brand Ink Cartridges: Don’t Waste Your Time!

    July 2nd, 2005

    It’s no secret that the manufacturers of printers do not make the lion’s share of their profits from selling the printer itself. In fact, some of the low end inkjet models are free, assuming you’re one of the lucky few to receive your factory rebate; or would you rather regard that as the short-term low interest loan you made to those companies. But, seriously, when you buy a printer, you know you’ll keep on paying for as long as you use it, whether it requires toner or ink.

    Unfortunately, consumables don’t come cheap. If you print a lot of documents, you will soon pay more for consumables than you paid for the printer itself, except for the more expensive models. So it’s natural to seek alternatives, third party suppliers who promise to deliver quality equal to or superior to the manufacturer’s own product.

    I’ve tried the alternatives from time to time. Years ago, when I bought my first laser printer, one of those famous Apple LaserWriter II’s, I tried recycled toner from a couple of suppliers. One cartridge would work fine, the next would deliver perfectly awful print quality. No, it didn’t damage the printer, just my sense of quality. More recently, I tested a third party black ink cartridge for an HP multifunction printer. With HP’s own product, text quality was pretty decent. Not so with the imitation, which delivered smudgy text and developed occasional streaking effects that were only cleared after running a clean cycle (which wastes extra ink).

    Perhaps I just picked the wrong suppliers. But then I read tests in Consumer Reports and elsewhere with similarly uncertain results. I suppose if you can put up with uncertain, inconsistent print quality, it may not matter. After all, it can’t do any harm, other than to your standards of quality, right? But read on.

    The other day, a client called about a problem with his Canon i960, a workhorse text and photo printer. Seems his latest prints had developed a deep bluish cast, and he needed to make some photo prints for his wife’s real estate office. Yes, he’d replaced several of the offending ink tanks a couple of times, and even ran a print head cleaning cycle with no success. Did he need a new printer?

    Well, he did have a few issues with his Macs, which justified the price of a house call, but the malfunctioning printer was first on the agenda. I quickly confirmed the problem, and then examined the ink tanks, and, sure enough, none were empty, or even close. The i960 uses six ink tanks, two of which are “photo” versions. The latter pair, unlike the rest, didn’t bear the Canon label. The client protested that he didn’t have any trouble with the off-brand variety, but I was skeptical.

    I also noticed that one of the third party tanks didn’t quite “fit” in its slot properly, although it did seem to snap in as it’s supposed to do. I removed all the tanks and then the print head, which is a separate unit easily unlatched on most Canon ink jets. Sure enough, the print head was clogged with excess ink, and I used a soft cloth to clean it as best I could. I reassembled everything, but placed the third party tanks aside. Fortunately, he had a couple of genuine Canon versions at hand, which were quickly installed. As a precaution, I ran a “deep clean” process, which is supposed to clean the print head far more thoroughly than the basic “clean” procedure.

    Now it was time to test my theory and, sure enough, the photo print outputted crisp and bright, with all colors intact.

    I then consulted that Consumer Reports article and noticed this telling paragraph: “Various off-brand inks gave us more maintenance problems than the brand-name cartridges did; the off-brand cartridges tended to clog the print head, requiring us to run the printer/head-cleaning routine more often than normal. Some off-brand inks for Canon printers were messier to install.” The magazine also noted that “A few delivered incorrect colors.” That says it all.

    Understand that most Canon ink tanks are, in the scheme of things, fairly inexpensive. Figure $12 or $13, depending on the color, and you can save a fair amount if you buy a special package of three or more colors at one of those warehouse outlets, such as Costco or Sam’s Club. But the imitation product can often cost less than half as much, as you have to wonder why a fraction of an ounce of ink is so expensive. Maybe the print makers are cleaning up, laughing at you all the way to the bank.

    I don’t pretend to have all the inside information on the economics of developing printer consumables, but I do know this: If there’s any danger that the low cost brand can clog your printer or even damage the unit, it’s just not worth it. I want to save money as much as the next person, but I buy printers with a reasonable set of expectations about performance. I expect consistent print quality, and I expect reasonable longevity. Now maybe there are third party consumables that closely match the original equipment variety in output quality and won’t clog the innards. In fact, I know a few people who actually claim not to be able to tell the difference and if the printer cost little or no money to begin with, maybe it doesn’t matter if its usable life is reduced. Just toss it and buy another. After all, aren’t those things disposable anyway?

    Setting environmental considerations aside for the moment, I want to suggest caution. If you want to try an off-brand product, so be it. But if you see any change for the worse in the way your printer operates, you’ll have a good clue as to why.



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