• Third Party Printer Cartridges Revisited

    October 22nd, 2005

    A few months ago, a client called and begged for help with his Canon inkjet. Seems the colors were all off, and he needed it to print photos for his wife’s real estate business. I rushed over to have a look, at first figuring that perhaps his printer had either taken its last gasp. The answer was something altogether different, but not unexpected.

    On arrival, he showed me the cause of his grief. The sand colored exterior of homes would have a deep blue cast, not a particularly inviting prospect for folks who crave the traditional southwest design of Arizona homes. Yes, he’d changed the ink cartridges. In fact, he’d changed them twice and then run the printer through several cleaning cycles without any improvement.

    He asked if he needed a new printer, but before I responded, I opened the top cover and had a look. Virtually all of the ink tanks bore an unknown label rather than the Canon brand. “How long have you been using that brand?” “Well, it was cheaper than Canon, and isn’t ink just ink?”

    Clearly, the answer was no. Fortunately, he had some genuine Canon consumables at hand, and I promptly replaced the off-brand variety. It took a few more cleaning cycles to set things right, but I left with his printer functioning perfectly. The client had learned a lesson, but I can understand his reasoning.

    You see, printer makers take the so-called “Gillette razor” approach in selling printers. You pay a small price for the hardware and it’s sometimes free after a rebate two, but you keeping paying and paying for the ink or the toner. Some feel the printer makers are greedy, charging extremely high prices for their consumables, and there’s a big market for third party products. But do you give up anything in choosing “Brand X?” Well, the printer makers will tell you that they spend millions and millions of dollars in research developing the inks and the toner that will deliver the highest output quality. At the same time, you spend lots of money for just a few precious drops of ink. Is that fair?

    Well, unfortunately, the answer is usually yes, if you want to make sure your printer delivers the best possible quality, without undue side effects. From time to time I’ve tried third party products for my HP and Canon inkjets, and even text quality suffers. Where text is reasonably crisp and clean, suddenly it becomes smudged, and cartridge life never seems to match that of the original equipment maker.

    Now this is probably the reason why I got caught off guard recently, but a recent issue of Consumer Reports reported that Carrot ink would deliver reasonably high quality output on a Canon inkjet. Oh well, nothing wrong with saving a few dollars per ink tank if the magazine was right. So I ordered up a set of consumables in black and some other colors that were near depleted on my Canon PIXMA iP4000R.

    The first tank to go was Cyan, and the Carrot replacement wasn’t recognized by the printer until I removed and reinserted twice. Quality seemed all right, but I found I had to run cleaning cycles about once a week to remove the smudgy cast from the output. Now for an inkjet, the iP4000R has extremely good text quality even in the Normal quality print mode. It’s not as good as a laser, regardless of what they tell you, but it’s fairly close.

    But after I installed a black Carrot ink tank, the text became thicker, with lots of noticeable smearing. Now I needed to run clean cycles every three days or so to keep things looking acceptable. Understand that a clean cycle uses extra ink, which means the tanks have to be replaced more frequently. I’m not claiming this requirement is a conspiracy on the part of the makers of this ink to sell more product, by the way.

    Well, I’m back to genuine Canon ink, and a renewed scan of pricing from various online merchants shows that I can enough on each tank to reduce the price penalty to a more acceptable level. I am not about to suggest that CR’s editors need to clean their glasses or wear stronger contact lenses. It’s also true that quality of third party consumables is usually not as consistent as that of the original manufacturer.

    My feeling from these encounters remains the same. For an inkjet printer, pay extra and use the original equipment version, but don’t hesitate to shop around for the best price. Some printers use separate print heads, and if they become clogged, you end up paying a lot extra for your efforts to save money. Better to be safe than sorry.

    As to laser printers, if you just want something that’s readable, you’ll probably do all right if you don’t buy the OEM variety. I’ve not heard of any serious problems with using third party cartridges, recycled or otherwise. But don’t expect consistent print quality, although some folks tell me they’ve found companies that deliver good products. Usually these are small local shops, and it may involve lots of trial and error before you find a place you can trust.

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