How to beat the high price of printer ink
May 17, 1999
by Carla Thornton
(IDG) -- Nothing takes the shine off a new ink jet printer faster than paying for replacement ink cartridges. With each cartridge costing between $18 and $40 and producing at most a few hundred pages (versus the thousands of pages that a laser toner cartridge yields), it's easy to spend more on ink during your first year of ownership than you paid for the printer itself. Suddenly that $199 color ink jet doesn't look like such a great bargain.
Just ask San Francisco middle-school substitute teacher Patricia Skidmore. The busy Skidmore family was spending more than $100 a month on ink cartridges for its three ink jets. "We use our printers a lot for work and school," she explains. "My daughter prints weekly lesson plans and color handouts for the class she teaches, and my husband and I print about 100 pages a week for work projects. My son regularly prints drafts of his 400-page master's thesis. We generate anywhere from a few pages a day to as many as 700."
Skidmore slashed her ink costs radically by purchasing refill kits from Repeat-O-Type, one of several third-party companies that sell kits for ink jet printers from Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, and other companies. The savings vary depending on the printer, but a typical kit costs about the same as a name-brand ink cartridge while offering about five times the amount of ink, lowering the cost of a new ink supply to under $4.
Using kits, Skidmore estimates, she's saved $325 so far. Recently she decided to step up her discount by purchasing Repeat-O-Type ink in bulk. "I bought a one-pint, $27 bottle of black ink that I figure will give me over 70 refills," she says. "That's 39 cents per refill versus the $18 I used to pay for a cartridge at the local office supplies store."
Refilling ink cartridges can reduce an ink jet's cost per page to a fraction of a penny, but the process isn't hazard-free. For one thing, it can be messy--typically, you puncture a hole in an empty cartridge, then squirt it full of ink using a syringe included with the kit. You'll want to wear gloves and cover your work surface with newspapers before you start.
And printer companies, which pocket more profit from ink cartridges than from the printers themselves, predictably frown on the use of refill kits. Vendors maintain that the kits can't match the print quality provided by a fresh cartridge containing the manufacturer's own ink.
Worse, they say that refills could damage your printer by leaking ink. If you're a cautious person, even a slight possibility of poor print quality or hardware damage might be enough to scare you away from refills. But Patricia Skidmore says she's seen no difference in the quality of either her black-text or color documents. Nor have her refilled cartridges ever spilled ink.
Furthermore, some printer companies have led consumers to believe that using refill kits will void printer warranties, but Hewlett-Packard, Epson, and other vendors with whom we spoke say that simply isn't true. A company may legally charge for any printer repairs caused by a leaky refilled cartridge, but it must honor the warranty for other types of repairs.
Damage from third-party ink leakage is unlikely as long as you follow the kit's instructions, says Jim Lundy, a research director at research firm The Gartner Group. You can minimize your risk by buying refills from a company such as Repeat-O-Type that promises to repair your printer if it's damaged by one of its products.
In addition to marketing ink refill kits, third-party vendors also sell compatible cartridges for some printer models (mostly Canon and Epson units) that snap into place just like the name-brand variety but cost considerably less. For instance, Repeat-O-Type's black ink cartridge for Epson's Stylus Color 400 ink jet printer sells for $9, less than half what you'd pay for Epson's official cartridge.
Compatible cartridges should provide at least the same level of quality that refill kits do, says The Gartner Group's Lundy. However, he adds, "It takes a while to design a good compatible ink, so if you've just bought a new printer, I would recommend waiting a few months until companies have had some time to fine-tune their products."
You can also save money simply by printing in draft or economy mode--you'll use 50 percent less ink. The print quality of these pages will suffer, but the resulting documents make suitable copies for filing or informal distribution.
You can also conserve ink by avoiding unneeded graphics. For example, instead of printing a Web page--banner ads and all--cut and paste the text into a word processing document. Finally, if you don't need color, print in gray scale. You can make black the default color in all your documents by setting the preference globally in your printer's driver software.
Even if you elect not to use refill kits and alternative cartridges, the preceding tips can help you cut your printing costs. But to get the most dramatic savings, go with third-party ink. "I will never go back to buying individual cartridges," says Skidmore. "[Purchasing Repeat-O-Type ink in bulk] is almost like getting ink for free."
Carla Thornton is a contributing editor for PC World.
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