Cheap Printer Ink Buying Guide
While affordable inkjet and multifunction printers abound, "cheap printer ink cartridges" may seem like an oxymoron. Prices for replacement cartridges vary by brand and model, but you can easily spend $30 or more on OEM ink cartridges. (OEM refers to the original equipment manufacturer, or the brand behind your printer, like HP or Canon.) If you print a lot of photos or color documents, you'll need replacement cartridges fairly often -- and the cost mounts quickly. Fortunately there are alternatives to OEM cartridges.
Best Budget Printer Ink Cartridges
Ink refill kits save lots of money, but the refilling process can be quite messy. (Costco provides the service in-store for members at a starting price of $7.49.) Cheap off-brand, non-OEM ink cartridges are probably the best option.
That said, plenty of online retailers sell no-name ink cartridges for all the major printer brands at significant savings. Based on our research, the top two online retailers of cheap printer ink are 4inkjets and 123inkjets. Both offer a large catalog of high-quality replacement ink cartridges at prices as low as $6 and deliver responsive customer service. Carrot Ink, our second-tier pick, also posts starting prices of $6 and likewise offers a wide array of cheap ink cartridges; online reviews, however, indicate that product performance and customer support lag behind the category leaders. Then there's Inkgrabber, a budget printer ink retailer you may want to scroll past given the comparative barrage of complaints about problem-plagued cartridges and poor customer service. Users' assessment of Clickinks is split -- some vouch for its products and level of service while others roundly protest, enough to torpedo its placement on our list. InkSmile and 123 Refills are two more sources of cheap ink cartridges; the former attracting positive attention for free shipping and the latter for easy returns and wide product assortment.
Most online printer ink vendors trade in cheap remanufactured and compatible cartridges as well as OEM cartridges tagged at slightly reduced prices. User feedback reveals that cheap remanufactured cartridges tend to work better than cheap compatible inkjet cartridges. For one, they invariably fit (after all, they've been used successfully before). Also, the "smart chip" embedded in the cartridge that signals it is meant for that model and relays information about ink levels is less likely to balk. The smart chips in compatible cartridges don't always interact well with inkjet printers, which can result in an "out of ink" warning even though the cartridge is full. (In most cases you can still print by bypassing the alert.)
Users rarely comment on the quality of ink in replacement cartridges, which suggests most are satisfied. Some review sites say ink quality in budget replacement cartridges is very good across the board. One site exclusively devoted to reviews of printer ink gives 4inkjets the highest rating among the third-party brands it has researched, asserting the ink is nearly as good as OEM cartridge ink. 123inkjets is a close second on this list of nine off-brand cartridge vendor/producers, while Carrot Ink settles into fourth place. Users' assessments (posted online) generally confirm this appraisal.
Still, buying cheap printer cartridges is a bit of a gamble, it seems. We found many printer ink reviews lauding the performance of low-cost cartridges and their money-saving virtues but also an alarming number of complaints, even for the top picks, about problems with the cartridges (e.g., leaks, incompatible fit, printer head jams) and the companies that sell them (e.g., lost and mistake-riddled orders, return and refund hassles, rude service). Still, the cartridges are cheap enough to chance it so long as you buy from a reputable online dealer and understand that on occasion you may wind up with a dud.
As savvy online shoppers surely know by now, it's important to understand the company's return policy whenever placing an online order. This is especially true with cheap printer ink because problems are not uncommon. Also take the time to check shipping fees for returns and for the initial order. Some vendors offer free shipping with large orders, but the threshold varies from retailer to retailer. Small businesses and heavy-duty users may benefit from this arrangement. But cartridges dry out over time, and bulk ordering to save on shipping may not prove to be such a good deal for anyone who prints only sporadically.
One important note: You will not void the printer warranty by using a remanufactured or new compatible ink cartridge produced by a third-party. U.S. law, specifically Section 102 (c) of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, takes care of that. The warranty won't be honored, however, in the event that the printer manufacturer can prove a malfunction was directly caused by the non-OEM cartridge.
And finally, if you're looking for a place to dump a spent cartridge, head over to Cartridge World. This brick-and-mortar chain runs an active recycling program and specializes in refilling and remanufacturing (and selling in-store and online) many types of ink cartridges.