The printer cartridge scam

Summary:Inkjet printers have been around for a while now, but the popularity of digital cameras has made them almost a requirement for a modern home PC set up. However, there's a growing feeling among inkjet printer owners that while printers themselves are cheap, the prices of inkjet cartridges are kept artificially elevated. Is there any truth to this belief? After taking a look at the numbers, I think that there is. But the problem goes way beyond genuine cartridges.

Inkjet printers have been around for a while now, but the popularity of digital cameras has made them almost a requirement for a modern home PC set up.  However, there's a growing feeling among inkjet printer owners that while printers themselves are cheap, the prices of inkjet cartridges are kept artificially elevated.  Is there any truth to this belief?  After taking a look at the numbers, I think that there is.  But the problem goes way beyond genuine cartridges.

New Cartridges

Let's take a look at two printers, chosen from random from the Newegg.com online catalog.  Along with their names I've also listed the current retail price of the printers.

Let's now take a look at the ink cartridges prices:

Lexmark Z611 cartridges

  • Lexmark 10N0016 Black Cartridge
    $23.99
    (410 pages)
  • Lexmark 10N0026 Color Cartridge
    $25.99
    (275 pages)
  • Lexmark 10N0217 Black Cartridge
    $15.99
    (205 pages) 
  • Lexmark  10N0227 CMY Inkjet Print Cartridge
    $17.99
    (140 pages)

HP DeskJet 5940 cartridges

  • HP C8767WN140 Black Cartridge
    $26.49
    (800 pages)
  • HP C8766WN140 3 Color Cartridge
    $22.99
    (260 pages)
  • HP C9363WN140 3 Color Inkjet Cartridge
    $29.99
    (450 pages)
  • HP C9369WN Color Photo Cartridge
    $21.49
    (240 pages)

Note:  Sometimes there is very little information about these cartridges in the Newegg catalog, but a little bit of searching on the web brings up manufacturer details for these cartridges.  However, I'm not making any claims as to the accuracy of this information.

Next, let's look at the cost per page for each of the printer cartridges:

Lexmark Z611 cartridges

  • Lexmark 10N0016 Black Cartridge
    $0.059/page
  • Lexmark 10N0026 Color Cartridge
    $0.095/page
  • Lexmark 10N0217 Black Cartridge
    $0.078/page
  • Lexmark 10N0227 CMY Inkjet Print Cartridge
    $0.129/page

HP DeskJet 5940 cartridges

  • HP C8767WN140 Black Cartridge
    $0.033/page
  • HP C8766WN140 3 Color Cartridge
    $0.088/page
  • HP C9363WN140 3 Color Inkjet Cartridge
    $0.067/page
  • HP C9369WN Color Photo Cartridge
    $0.090/page

Looking at this data we can come to some obvious conclusions:

  • The cost per page for text output from the HP printer is nearly half that of the Lexmark
  • The cost per page of color output for the HP printer is consistently cheaper than that from the Lexmark
  • Photo-quality output from the HP printer costs less per page than color output from the Lexmark

These three points can be summed up simply as follows: buy a cheap printer, and you'll pay more for running it.

Clearly, there are the hints of a scam, of sorts anyway.  In fact, the more you look at the prices of a printer and compare that to the cost per page of the output, the more examples of this pattern you see, irrespective of brand (although for some brands the difference is much smaller).  Pretty much across the board, what you gain on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts.  There's no such thing as a free lunch…

Before I move on and consider refilled cartridges and refill kits, let me cut the makers a little slack here. While the price is high for cartridges, and while there seems to be an inverse correlation between the cost of the printer and the cost of the cartridges, it's important to note that each time you replace an ink cartridge, you get a totally new print head.  It's possible to take a printer that's years old, replace the ink cartridge and get output as good as when the printer was new.  That's a pretty good deal.  Also, I'm impressed that I can go to a store or online retailer and still get print cartridges for a printer that’s 6+ years old or more.  I have an old HP 600c printer that's functionally obsolete, but I could put it into service today by buying a new set of cartridges for it.  The ultimate scam would be to stop making new cartridges after a few years, forcing the user to buy a new printer. 

Also, what I find staggering is the number of different cartridges out there.  Go to any PC store and there are racks stuffed with different types.  The price of the cartridges (and thus the profit for the store) has to be high enough to warrant devoting all this space to replacements. It's nice to be able to go to a store and know that you’ve a good chance of walking out with a replacement cartridge when you need it.  That's kind of peace of mind is worth paying for.

Refilled cartridges and refill kits

When it comes to refilled cartridges, I'm forced to be honest and say that my experience with them has been far from positive.  In fact, I'm going to go as far as to say that every refilled cartridge that I have bought has been a massive disappointment.  The times that I have felt scammed at having to pay for a new cartridge pale when compared to how I've felt about refilled cartridges.  I've never actually gone to a store with the idea of buying a refilled inkjet cartridge, but there have been times when a cartridge has run out when I'm in a rush and couldn't wait a day or so to get one delivered and I've gone to a local store to find that they were out of the genuine article and the only choice I had was to go for a third-party refilled unit. 

Why have I been disappointed?  Well, if I start with the cartridges that actually gave a decent output, the problem here is that none last anywhere near as long as the genuine item.  I wouldn't mind this so much if I was paying say half price for a cartridge that lasted half as long as a genuine one, but what I found was that I was paying about 75% of the price of a genuine item for a cartridge that lasted for about half the output.  Not only that, but I've yet to find a single third-party where the ink colors matched the original inks or where the colors didn't look muddy.  Inks also smudged easily and took a lot longer to dry.  That seems to me like a bad deal.

But it gets worse.

I'd say that of the dozen or so third-party cartridges I've bought in the last couple of years, only three or four have actually given me an output that came anywhere close to acceptable, and that's when new.  Of the rest, most either suffered from blocked nozzles or had leaks.  To top all that off, it's not easy to take a defective cartridge back to the store because they think that you're trying to pull a fast one by switching cartridges on them. 

I'm not going to say that I believe that all refilled cartridges are a scam, only the ones that I've come across.  I'd gladly save a little cash in exchange for a decent product, but I've yet to find a reliable product. 

Finally, consider the economics of refilled cartridges.  Of course they are going to be cheaper than the genuine item - after all, I could refill an Evian bottle and sell it cheaper than the real thing. 

I've not tried refill kits.  I remember the early ones where there was a syringe filled with ink and I was put off because they gave me an uneasy "Pulp Fiction" feeling.  Nowadays these needles have been replaced by safer systems.  Still, the saving doesn't make up for the uncertainty.   Is the procedure messy?  Is the filled cartridge going to spill out ink over my printer?  Is the output going to be good (or at least acceptable)?  Maybe I'm being overly negative, but I can't see myself getting results that are worth the effort.

Continuous ink systems

As well are refilled cartridges and refill kits, there are continuous ink systems (CIS).  These systems feed ink into the cartridge from bottles through a system of pipes.   On the face of it these systems seem interesting but the price is high and they are only available for certain printers.  If you go through a lot of ink then this could be something worth looking into.

Final thoughts

  • I'd like to see the big names bring out higher capacity cartridges for heavy users.  Doubling or trebling the current ink capacity would be good for everyone
  • Manufacturers should make the cost of consumables clearer to buyers
  • I'd like to see all cartridges (genuine and refilled) come labeled with an estimated yield based on say 15% ink coverage.  How many milliliters of ink in the cartridge is meaningless
  • Refilled cartridges need better guarantees and a much easier returns policy

Buying tips

The last thing that I want to do is leave you with a few printer/cartridge buying tips that might help you save a few bucks.  I know I've been scathing about refilled ink cartridges and that I'm skeptical about refill kits, but I also think that, for some people, they might be worth a look.

  • Business users - buy genuine.  It's a business expense so get over it.
  • Printing out photos?  Stick with genuine cartridges.  Since you're going to be paying for the paper you want quality output that will last!
  • If you think your printer isn't going to have a huge workload, then;
    - buying a cheap printer might be for you.  Yes, you'll be faced with more expensive cartridges but chances are that you'll only need to buy one or two a year
    - know the costs before you buy - find out how much consumables are going to cost before you buy a printer
    - try refilled cartridges or refill kits, especially if you don't need high-quality output.  If you are going to go down the "refill yourself" path, then refill them before they hit empty as you seem to get better results
    - change cartridges yearly because they do deteriorate with age (the ink dries out and clogs the print head)
  • If your printer is going to be worked hard, then;
    - be wary of buying a cheap printer as running costs could be high
    - know the costs before you buy - find out how much consumables are going to cost before you buy a printer
  • Why not experiment with refilled cartridges or refill kits?  If you print a lot of document that quickly end up in the trash or the shredder, and quality doesn't matter an awful lot, then you can get to a point where you can have one set of genuine cartridges for best output and another set (refilled) for the rest.
  • If your current printer takes cartridges that are expensive, then you might be able to save money by buying a new printer.

Topics: Printers

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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