Toner and Ink Alternatives
Cartridges Cost a LOT
One of the biggest costs in computer printing – often far greater than paper and the cost of the printer itself – is toner (for laser printers) or ink (for inkjet printers). Manufacturers are heading to the razor and blades model – sell the printer cheap and make money on the toner/ink. In some cases, a single set of black & color ink cartridges can cost much more than a new printer – even a combination printer/scanner/copier/fax machine. The actual ink & toner cost is very little – most of the cost is for the cartridge holding the ink/toner, and for the manufacturer’s profit.
Can you use what you want? YES!
Legally, the printer manufacturers can’t stop you from using 3rd-party new or refilled cartridges. There have been cases as high as the Supreme Court and the consumers have won this battle. However, manufacturers can, and do, post all kinds of dire warnings on the printers about the evils of 3rd-party cartridges. These range from the passive – stickers listing the part #s and how to order “genuine” parts – to the active – warnings requiring you to click “Yes, I really want to do such an awful thing to my lovel printer” when you install a 3rd-party cartridge. But the end result is that you can use any cartridges you want.
Keep in mind that while it is extremely unlikely that a 3rd-party ink/toner cartridge will void your warranty (in fact, it should never void your warranty unless a cartridge actually leaked all over the inside of the machine), if you have print quality issues then the manufacturer may, quite reasonably, ask you to test printing using an original printer manufacturer brand name cartridge in order to rule out any cartridge based problems.
Refill your own cartridges? Not recommended
There are plenty of kits available for refilling inkjet cartridges, as well as instructions and bulk toner available for refilling toner cartridges. I do not recommend any of them. If you mess up then you end up with ink or toner all over the place, and you risk ruining a cartridge when injecting ink or drilling a hole for toner.
New vs. Refilled vs. Refurbished
There are 3 categories of toner & ink cartridges:
- New – Properly designed new cartridges are just as good as the name brand, but cost less. They use all new components and top-quality ink/toner. Unfortunately, it is often hard to tell whether a cartridge is truly “new” or not. Even if a company claims that the cartridges are new, they may actually contain some recycled parts.
- Refilled – Refilled cartridges are exactly what they sound like – used cartridges that have been filled up with fresh ink or toner. Unfortunately, in most cases (see exceptions below for some toner cartridges), there really are parts that wear out in most ink and toner cartridges. It is likely that a typical cartridge could be professionally refilled once or twice, maybe more, and have everything work properly producing quality output. But at a certain point some of the other components will start to fail, resulting in poor print quality or leaking ink/toner.
- Refurbished – Refurbished cartridges CAN be the best of everything. Cheaper than new cartridges, refilled with ink/toner and with the all components checked for wear and replaced as needed. Unfortunately, there is quite a range of quality in refurbished cartridges, so buyer beware.
Toner vs. Drum/Toner
Most ink and toner cartridges are much more than just a plastic container holding ink or toner, so the issues of print quality, refill vs. refurbish, etc. are real questions. Most HP and many other toner cartridges are actually a combination toner/drum. This eliminates the need for a separate drum cartridge (easier for the user) but increases the cost of the toner cartridges significantly because the cartridge includes a lot of critical parts that wear out. Similarly, most ink cartridges for inkjet printers include some of the electronic components used to control ink output. Due to all the additional parts in each cartridge, reliability of refilled/refurbished cartridges may be lower than new cartridges, except from a top-notch refurbishing company that does extensive testing/quality control of their products.
There is an exception – toner cartridges that use a separate drum. Currently Brother and Okidata LED/laser printers use separate toner cartridges and dums. HP has started to do this too, with machines such as the M203dw. The M203dw uses toner cartridges that last from 1,000 (starter) to 3,500 (CF230X) pages and gets a new drum (CF232A) at 23,000 pages. The overall cost calculated per page over the life of the printer is similar to comparable HP printers with combination toner/drum cartridges, with a lower cost for the toner cartridges (which are little more than plastic containers for toner with a sliding window to release the toner into the drum) and an additional cost for a drum (typically every 12,000 to 30,000 pages). With these types of printers, refilled or refurbished toner cartridges make a lot of sense because they cartridges to NOT contain a significant amount of electronics, photosensitive drums or other items that wear out. In many cases, with moderate print volume the lifetime of the printer due to other causes will be less than the original drum!. For example, if you print 500 pages/month, a 12,000 page drum will last ~ 2 years and a 23,000 page drum will last almost 4 years.
What to buy?
If you want to buy a refilled or refurbished ink or toner cartridge, which one should you get? That is actually a tough question. My recommendation is to shop wisely as you would with anything else:
- Search on Amazon for your cartridge – e.g., for an HP 26X (M402, M426 series and others)
- Compare the price of the options – typically the original will be listed as well as several different alternative brands. Often the alternatives will be multi-packs, lowering the price per cartridge even more.
- Read the reviews – Nothing is perfect so you are looking for items/brands that are mostly positive with, hopefully, a good return/replacement policy in case there is a problem.
- Look for “new” intead of “refilled” or “refurbished”, if possible. The description is not always clear, but customer reviews and/or answered questions will often help.
Keep in mind that if a 2-pack alternative brand cartridge sells for 1/2 the cost of a single name brand cartridge, then the cartridges are actually 1/4 the price, so even if you get a bad cartridge once in a while you can still save a lot of money.