Inkjet Wars 4: Value For Your Money

Should you buy the cheapest ink you can find for your particular printer? Or is there is a better way to get both value and quality for your printouts?
A new vendor of off-brand inkjet ink seemingly pops up every day. Should you buy the cheapest ink you can find for your particular printer? Or is there is a better way to get both value and quality for your printouts?

The truth is that you may be unhappy with some of the cheap inks that are being advertised as "100% compatible." Fortunately, I've found that you can save money while still getting reliable results for your printed documents and photos.

I reported on Sept. 20 that brand-name inkjet ink can cost three times as much as "compatible" inks. And I wrote on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 that Wilhelm Imaging Research, an independent testing lab, had proved that inkjet printouts can have real permanence. Wilhelm says HP and Epson printers can produce prints that won't noticeably fade even after 80 to 100 years -- if you use these makers' top-quality supplies.

Can other brands of ink and paper perform as well for less money? The answer is yes -- if you know exactly what you're looking for.

Beating The Major Manufacturers To The Punch

One third-party ink manufacturer that has a long track record is MIS Associates Inc. of Lake Orion, Michigan, which operates a Web site named MIS claims several firsts in the industry, including developing archival Epson-compatible inks for museum-quality black-and-white photographic prints back in 1999. "We actually beat Epson to market with archival inks by about a year," says Marc Hornung, general manager of MIS.

Unlike many other independent ink makers, MIS has a history of testing its inks for permanence, contracting with outside labs for additional testing, and publishing the results. Back in September 1999, MIS released its own data as well as figures from the neutral Rochester Institute of Technology. At the time, these tests showed that MIS's archival inks faded much less than Epson's brand-name inks when subjected to the harsh lamps that are used to simulate decades of exposure to light.

Since those days, Epson has greatly improved its best inks. Hornung, to his credit, has strong praise for his giant competitor. "Epson has just completely blown away the industry with the permanence of their pigment ink sets," he says. This is borne out by recent Wilhelm tests, which showed in a July 2005 PDF report that Epson's PictureMate printers, ink, and photo paper would suffer no perceptible fading until 104 years had passed.

Printers and supplies from other manufacturers can also produce good results, but with a difference. "Canon and HP primarily use pigment-based ink only in the Black position," Hornung says. The dye-based inks that are used for the various other inkjet colors can't match the permanence of pigments, he explains.

Printouts That Will Probably Outlive You

Faced with the new pigment-based inks from Epson, MIS went to work to develop even more long-lasting formulations. In 2004, MIS replaced its older, Quadtone inks with a special line called Ultra-Tone inks. The company published new stress tests showing that its black and grey Epson-compatible inks (used to produce museum-quality black-and-white prints) faded only imperceptibly after a simulated 90 years of exposure to light.

For companies that need to ensure their printouts will last for decades, MIS produces several lines of Ultra-Tone inks for different printers. The Easy B&W Ultra-Tone series can be used to produce black-and-white images on, for example, Epson C86 and C88 printers (under $100 street) with no special software. The black and grey ink cartridges are simply placed in the usual Black, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow positions. Quality black-and-white printouts are the result, instead of color output.

Different Ultra-Tone lines are produced for Epson's newer 4-color, 6-color, and 7-color printers. These models can benefit from Photoshop software or adjustments to the settings in the standard Epson printer driver to produce an extended color range.

Price Wars Rage For Rock-Bottom Inks

For a man in such a competitive industry, Hornung is surprisingly open when explaining the third-party ink market. A few years ago, there were only a handful of specialized inkjet ink makers, he says. "I'd venture to say there are now hundreds of different distributors."

The globalization of ink sources is radically changing the market. "The massive quantity of low-quality Chinese inks is severely impacting our operations," Hornung says. To change with the times, MIS now sells brand-name inks as well as cheap imported inks alongside its own high-quality product lines.

If you visit MIS's Epson ink cartridge page, for example, you'll see the company selling everything from genuine, $11 Epson cartridges to "aftermarket" (Chinese) cartridges as low as $5 each. Ultra-Tone ink prices run slightly below Epson's, in cases where an Ultra-Tone cartridge is available for a given printer.

Aside from ink cartridges, MIS also competes by developing products that major printer makers haven't and probably never will. For example, by far the least expensive method to operate an inkjet printer is to use MIS's Continuous Flow System. This contraption feeds a printer's ink cartridges using tiny hoses from palm-sized bottles of liquid ink. This method can cost as little as 1/10th the price of individual cartridges. It's also relatively clean and trouble-free, unlike kits that allow you to "refill" spent cartridges.

MIS warns that the print nozzles in Epson printers tend to clog in dry climates or when using inferior ink unless at least one print is made every 24 hours. The company gives away free Autoprint software that automatically produces a page of output daily so you don't have to remember. 

Paper Makes A Difference In Printouts

When it comes to quality ink, even the most frugal independents can't charge very much less than the major manufacturers. "There are some materials that go into high-quality inks that don't have much competition and the prices haven't gone down," Hornung says. MIS, therefore, sells inks in all price ranges and lets the customer decide which to choose.

It comes as a surprise to many consumers to learn that the paper you select can have a huge effect on the quality of your inkjet printouts. MIS executives are particularly impressed with a relatively new kind of paper called Viastone.

"I can print using the poorest quality ink on the best quality paper, which is Viastone, and submerge it in water and it won't run at all," Hornung says. The material uses no wood fibers, consisting entirely of mineral powders that are formed into sheets of paper, according to the manufacturer's Web site,

For other quality papers, see MIS's paper comparison and sample page and read the test results for different papers that are shown for Epson and HP printers in column 5 of Wilhelm's home page.

Getting The Best Value For Your Money

Having said all of the above, what's the bottom line to get the best results for your buying dollar? My conclusions come down to the following:

Quality inks and papers. To get accurate colors and lasting printouts, buy the best inks and papers you can. Select products that are offered by the manufacturer of your printer or by reputable third-party makers, such as MIS, that publish independent permanence tests. If you don't look for trustworthy test results, the inks you buy may produce off-color prints today and look faded tomorrow.

Genuine products at bargain prices. If you do choose to buy name-brand inks and papers, don't buy them at list prices directly from the manufacturer. I've found discounts of as much as 1/3 on genuine printer manufacturer supplies at e-tailers like If you see the word "compatible" in the description, however, be aware that the ink is only an imitation.

Cheap ink when quality doesn't matter. Perhaps your business prints only internal memos that will be looked at once and immediately tossed. If you use a dye-based printer, such as HP or Canon, you can buy the cheapest ink you can find at MIS or other legitimate online sites. The colors may be off, but who cares? In fact, with the price of inkjet printers approaching zero, you should consider buying one printer to churn out memos and another printer -- with high-quality ink and paper -- to print documents that have to look good and stay looking good.

Until inkjet inks and papers are routinely tested by some government agency, you can't tell the good inks without checking with a private test lab. If quality doesn't count, you can buy whatever ink costs you the least. If your documents are worth something, however, buy only inks and papers with longevity ratings that are publicly posted at Wilhelm, MIS, or elsewhere.

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