Let’s say you started working from home at the beginning of the pandemic and needed to buy your own printer. A savvy shopper, you consulted the Strategist’s list of the best printers and chose this compact HP laser model. At just over $100, it’s a good deal for a printer that’ll reliably churn out documents, forms, shipping labels, and anything else you need to print at home. The sticker shock only sets in when you run out of toner and realize a replacement HP cartridge costs $50 — or nearly half the price of the printer itself.
Whether you have a laser printer that uses toner (a fine powder that’s melted onto the page) or an inkjet printer that uses ink (liquid that’s sprayed onto the page through tiny nozzles), you’ll likely find that replacement cartridges are fairly expensive, especially compared to the cost of printers. “Printer companies spend billions of dollars on research and development — developing the technology that goes into printers, designing them, and putting them to market,” says Aaron Leon, founder of printer supply retailer LD Products. These companies, including HP, Epson, and Brother, sell their printers at a loss and recoup their investment in ink and toner sales. “That’s why original brand cartridges are so expensive,” he says.
These name-brand (also known as original equipment manufacturer or OEM) cartridges aren’t your only options, though. If you do some more digging, you’ll learn that you can also purchase third-party cartridges, often for a fraction of the cost. These fall into two categories: remanufactured cartridges, which are recycled OEM cartridges that have been emptied, cleaned, and refilled with new ink or toner; and compatible cartridges which are made from scratch and designed to work with name-brand printers. These will save you a good deal of cash, but how does the quality compare to OEM ones? And how do you know if the third-party ones you’re buying are any good?
George Lemus, a senior manager at NYC-based ABC Computer Services, a company that provides printer repairs and IT services and sells printer supplies, says his customers tend to prefer OEM when it comes to ink, but are more open to buying third-party toner. Ink itself is a proprietary product, so even when OEM cartridges are refilled by third parties, the colors and physical properties (like drying time) may not match the originals. With subpar ink, Lemus says, “you can get smudging, you can run into problems with your printhead [the printer component that ink passes through to reach the page], and you can actually have really severe problems with your printer.”
As a professional fine-art printer (who shares tips and tricks on his YouTube channel), Jose Rodriguez, also cautious when it comes to third-party ink cartridges. “These types of products are almost universally inferior in quality and in performance,” he says. “The cartridges come loaded with different volumes of ink compared to what they are supposed to hold, and they do not fit well in the printers they are supposedly designed for.” If you’re willing to put in the work, Rodriguez recommends buying empty compatible cartridges and third-party ink from reputable sellers and filling the cartridges on your own. He says this is the best way to ensure you’re getting good quality ink while saving money. He sticks with just four ink sellers that he’s had good experiences with: Precision Colors, InkOwl, InkProducts.com, and Inkjet Mall.
However, if you’re not printing photos professionally or seeking museum-quality prints, Rodriguez says you can probably get away with third-party ink cartridges to save money. Lemus agrees that it’s possible to find quality third-party sellers but you’ll have to do your research. As Lemus says, “There are a lot of fly-by-night companies out there,” so make sure to look for third-party retailers that have excellent reviews, offer extensive warranties — in case their cartridges don’t work in your printer, or stop working after a while — and quality test all of their products. You can contact a supplier, like ABC Computer Services, directly to order cartridges from companies that they’ve already vetted.
Toner is a slightly different story. Because it’s often used in black-and-white printing and in high-volume situations like office printers, exact color match is less of a concern. Lemus says the quality of third-party toners has also come a long way in the past two decades. “Ten or 15 years ago, there was no way that we would tell you to buy a recycled or remanufactured toner, but now it’s totally different,” he says. “The technology now is incredible. These remanufactured cartridges are just as good as the OEM cartridges but you’re paying a lot less.”
It’s important to note that compatible and aftermarket cartridges are different from counterfeit cartridges that are labeled as OEM products but are actually fraudulent. As long as your third-party ink cartridges are labeled as such, they’re totally legal to buy and use. Printer companies have tried to challenge third-party sellers in court, but so far haven’t been successful. In a 2017 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the printer company Lexmark’s patents do not apply to cartridges that have already been sold, so third parties are free to sell refilled ones. Compatible cartridges are usually designed differently enough from OEM versions so as not to infringe on their patents.
That doesn’t mean the big printer companies are happy with you using third-party ink and toner. One way they work to regulate this is by introducing firmware updates that essentially tell your printer to no longer recognize third-party cartridges. If you’re trying to use these cartridges, Leon and Rodriguez say to disable auto-updates on your printer or make sure you always decline or ignore an update when given the choice.
It turns out printer ink is a rather complicated issue, but here’s the tl;dr version: If you don’t mind spending the extra money, OEM cartridges are your best bet. They contain all of the brand’s proprietary technology and are less likely to malfunction or be rejected by your printer than third-party ones. You also won’t have to worry about firmware updates rendering them useless. However, if you don’t need museum-quality colors and don’t mind doing the legwork of finding reputable sellers and avoiding updates, you can probably get away with going third-party — especially if you’re shopping for toner.
Leon’s company, LD Products, sells ink and toner cartridges that are compatible with many popular printer models. If you have the HP LaserJet mentioned above, for example, LD’s toner retails for far less than the $50 OEM cartridge. Leon says they provide a lifetime warranty on all of their products so you can get a replacement if your printer suddenly stops accepting your cartridge.
If you have a color ink printer, like the HP OfficeJet 200 (our top pick for a portable printer), you can get a set of remanufactured black and color cartridges for just $55. If you went with the HP brand, you’d pay around $64 for the set. The remanufactured cartridges from Valuetoner have over 1,200 five-star reviews on Amazon.
For DIY-types looking to try refilling, you can get this refill kit (that will work with the HP OfficeJet above and other similar models) from one of Rodriguez’s approved retailers. It includes everything you need to refill your black cartridge at least 20 times and your color cartridge 25 times per color. That breaks down to less than $4 per refill.
Big office-supply stores like Staples and Office Depot also sell remanufactured and compatible cartridges. Since they offer satisfaction guarantees and have dedicated customer service departments, you’re less likely to get stuck with a malfunctioning cartridge than you might be if you went with a random online seller. Here’s a version of the black and color cartridges for the HP OfficeJet from Staples.
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