Inkjet Wars: Cheap Ink vs. Expensive

Everybody always talks about the price of inkjet cartridges, but nobody ever does anything about it -- or do they?
Everybody always talks about the price of inkjet cartridges, but nobody ever does anything about it -- or do they?

With more and more businesses relying on inkjet printers for their hard-copy needs, and more and more photos produced using computer printouts instead of traditional photochemical paper, the high cost of brand-name ink affects an ever-larger audience.

Some people are doing something about the price of ink -- but you need to know both the ups and the downs of the alternatives.

Excellent Prints, Widely Varying Prices

Today's inkjet printers (and competing technologies, such as dye-sublimation) can deliver excellent quality for almost any business need. Take the Canon i9900, a $499 printer that uses eight separate ink cartridges to provide accurate color reproduction. It's been top-rated by Wired, PC World, PC Magazine, and other reviewers for everything from its tabloid-size capability (up to 13 by 19 inches, borderless) to its fast and impressive 4-by-6-inch snapshot prints.

The prices of ink cartridges for this SUV of printers, however, are all over the map. Here's what I found in a recent price check for a single i9900 black ink cartridge (in U.S. dollars, not including shipping or taxes):

Canon USA Web site: $11.95. The official Canon site sells each i9900 ink cartridge for almost $12. And, remember, the printer requires eight different cartridges, adding up to more than $95 for a complete set.

Amazon.com (genuine Canon): $8.15. The exact same black ink cartridge, a genuine Canon product in Canon-logo packaging, is discounted about one-third by Amazon.

Amazon.com (third-party alternative): $4.00. When I investigated Amazon's "New & Used" link, which leads to the e-tailer's partners, a vendor named Inkfair was promoting a black i9900 cartridge for two-thirds off. This, however, is clearly a look-alike cartridge that's not manufactured by Canon.

I even found numerous offers made by Amazon partners advertising black cartridges for a mere $0.01 (one cent). These listings, being easily the lowest price, tended to sort to the top of the page. Most of these links led to an Amazon-affiliated seller named SkyTechStore, which wasn't actually selling cartridges for a penny, considering that the fine print said "buy 3 get 1 free."

(I guess Amazon doesn't allow its partners to enter a price of $0.00 for the fourth, "free" cartridge. I never found out why Amazon allows a price as low as one cent to be entered, though, since it's hardly possible to order just one cartridge for that little.)

Surprisingly, it was quite difficult for me to find listings of genuine Canon products when I searched Amazon.com and several other price-comparison sites. Overwhelmingly, the search results I saw were stacked with third-party offers prominently pushing the Canon name. In every case, however, the term "Canon Compatible" appeared somewhere. Whenever you see the word "compatible," be aware that you're not being offered the brand-name product.

How To Choose Between Brand-Name and Third-Party

If there's no trickery involved, and it's clear that you're buying an alternative to the printer manufacturer's official ink, my research indicates that third-party cartridges can truly offer bargains and deliver high-quality output. Not all third-party cartridges are the same, unfortunately.

Many corporations insist on using brand-name inks from the original printer maker because of the following concerns:

Will third-party inks damage my printer?

If the printer will be OK, will third-party inks produce poor color quality?

Even if the colors match, will third-party inks produce prints that rapidly fade?

Even if all the above is fine, are the lower prices due to less ink in each cartridge?

In a widely quoted study, third-party inks tended to produce poorer color fidelity and fade much more quickly than brand-name Canon, Epson, and HP inks, in a review published by PC World. That finding, however, came out in September 2003, which is two years ago. A lot has happened in ink technology since then.

With brand-name cartridges listing for at least triple the cost of third-party alternatives, I can understand why heavy ink users don't feel like handing over the manufacturer's asking price. After all, why pay the $12 cartridge price at Canon's site when you could instead use that money to, say, buy yourself a cup of coffee at Starbucks?

In my next few columns, I'm going to take you behind the scenes of the inkjet business. There's good ink and bad ink, as well as excellent and questionable inkjet paper. It's about time you learned how to tell the difference -- and how to protect yourself from shoddy and faded-looking prints.

If you yourself have insider information on printer ink, toner, or paper, e-mail it to me using my contact page. I'll send you a gift certificate for a free book, CD, or DVD of your choice if your tip is one that I print.






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