Cheap Printer Ink Buying Guide

Price Range

$6 - $10


$10 - $15


$15 and up

High End

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. These cartridges are either remanufactured (recycled cartridges that have been cleaned, refilled, and tested) or compatible (made by third-party producers to fit popular printer brands and models). Big-box and office-supply chains stock a very limited selection of off-brand printer ink -- Office Depot sells an in-house brand, for example, and Walmart carries For Dummies -- but most stick to cartridges produced by printer manufacturers.

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.

Printer Cartridge Reviews

Printer Cartridge Quality and Compatibility.

We found complaints in printer ink reviews about the quality of all third-party cartridge producers/vendors we researched. These online retailers sell three types of replacement cartridges: brand-name (and pricey) OEM cartridges, remanufactured cartridges (recycled OEM cartridges that are cleaned and filled with fresh ink), and compatible cartridges (new units engineered to work with specific printers). Remanufactured cartridges seem to be the best deal overall.

Users rarely indicate whether their review comments refer to remanufactured or compatible cartridges, but they do suggest that problems with printer fit dog compatible cartridges more so than recycled versions. The reason is obvious: Third-party producers don't have access to original blueprints and processes, so sometimes something in the housing or componentry is slightly off.

Taking the category as a whole, some off-brands outpoll others in users' estimation. Purchasers generally like the cartridges from 4inkjets, with printer ink reviews posted at Bizrate saying they're easy to install and fit just right; some, however, report defects such as streaky printout or a printer that doesn't recognize the cartridge. 123inkjets cartridges seem relatively problem-free, according to the vast majority of reviewers, although an older post asserts that an HP printer stopped recognizing the replacement color cartridge after five print jobs and a few grouse about problems with fit. Carrot Ink wins plaudits for low cost and printout that's supposedly on par with OEM cartridges even as some reviews grumble about leaks and unspecified disappointments.

Printer ink reviews of cartridges from InkSmile and 123 Refills at several sites mostly commend the products. A smattering of grievances, however, cover defects such as a printer that stopped working shortly after cartridge installation, cartridges that arrived at the destination less than full, and blotchy printout.

Printer cartridges from Inkgrabber leave many users cold. We came across complaints about leaking, poor printout, functional failures, and faulty sizing. Similar experiences with Clickinks are reported in printer ink reviews, although a good number also testify to satisfaction with these budget cartridges.

Note that most of the printer cartridge providers we researched offer a one-year guarantee, with the exception of Clickinks and 123 Refills, which close their return windows after 180 days. (Tip: Read the fine print carefully; rules often differ for opened and unopened packages, exchanges and refunds.)

Customer Support.

Considering the complaints users lodge against third-party printer cartridges, it pays to know what level of customer service to expect. All the retailers we researched maintain customer support operations and a return/refund policy. Here Carrot Ink stands out with a posted no-questions-asked policy on returns, which doesn't garner much specific mention in printer ink reviews at Bizrate although the returns process earns a rating of more than 9 out of 10 from dozens of reviewers.

As you might expect, users report a variety of experiences with these companies. Negative comments show up in reviews of all the ink cartridge providers for issues such as slow delivery, incorrect orders, failure to issue refunds, charging for return shipping, slow response to email queries, rude customer service agents, and long waits on phone lines. But some printer ink companies take more heat in reviews than others. 123inkjets finds favor with a reviewer at Gizmo's Freeware who notes that prices are a little higher than the competition but the return policy and customer service deserve a thumbs-up. Inkgrabber and Clickinks, meanwhile, garner relatively more censure than the others for a range of service irritants.

High-Yield vs. Standard Printer Cartridges.

High-yield cartridges typically print about twice as many pages as standard cartridges and are only slightly more expensive, making them a good deal for heavy-duty printing needs. For occasional print jobs users are better off with standard-size cartridges (remember, ink can dry out if the printer isn't used regularly). We read quite a few printer cartridge reviews bemoaning the unusable state of cartridges that had been sitting in the box for months before being called into service. (Tip: Don't over-order even if the price is right.)

Printer Cartridge Shipping Rates.

Most printer ink vendors offer free shipping on orders greater than a certain amount, usually between $50 and $75, although Clickinks sets the floor at $30. InkSmile is the only company on our list that offers free shipping on all orders while the others charge a flat $4.95 for all orders less than their free-shipping threshold. Most companies deliver within a few days and charge for returns unless there is a clear defect. (Again, read the fine print.)

Michael Sweet

Michael Sweet writes about consumer electronics. If something runs on electricity or ones and zeroes, he's interested in it. Sweet has written about PC technology and consumer electronics for 14 years.

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