All Inks Are Not Created Equal

Inkjet CartridgeInk cartridges are like the razor heads of the computer industry. Printer manufacturers like HP and Canon hawk their printers at a loss, knowing they’ll make a killing on the flip side when their customers purchase the consumables.

And a killing is just what they make. Printer ink is one of the most expensive fluids on earth. By some estimates, if you were to fill up the tank of your car with the stuff it would cost anywhere from $120,000 to $150,000.

I rarely print anything just for this reason. Laying out all that dough on what is basically coloured water is a tough pill to swallow.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought my little sister a printer last week. But she’s working on starting up her own holistic nutrition practice and her ancient Epson had just bit it. Printing stuff can be pretty important during the start-up phase of a business, I figure.

I hit Future Shop and asked the guy for the cheapest inkjet he had. The specs for the HP he showed me were pretty impressive considering it cost less than a hundred bucks. Plus the HP’s supplies were the cheapest on display at ten bucks less per cartridge than the Canon, which would likely save my sister a bit of money over time.

We met up at a downtown Vancouver café to present the geek gift and my sister was grateful. Future Shop had provided a coupon that offered a 10% discount on printer supplies for 12 months and we got to chatting about how expensive the stuff is.

Suddenly the man at the table next to us set down the Lifestyle section of the Vancouver Sun with a flourish that caught our collective attention. He firmly pronounced: “Never buy name-brand!” His speech carried the lightest of lisps. He raised his chin in the air as he spoke and stroked the little Chipoo dog that sat on his lap, basking in the warm sunlight.

“I used to buy name brand,” he said slowly and cautiously. He adjusted the zipper on his Adidas tracksuit jacket then waved his finger in the air loosely. “Never again.”

“I used to buy Canon ink. It cost me, oh, fifty dollars for one black cartridge.” He carefully folded his hands together and cupped them around his knee, then continued. “On eBay I can buy five generic cartridges for…” His voice trailed off. He looked wistfully up at the sky, as though the figure he was after floated around up there. “For about thirty-five dollars.”

It’s true, eBay is rife with el-cheapo third party ink products. It seems like everybody and their dog is trying to cash in on the ink market by undercutting the name-brand producers like Epson and Canon.

However, numerous independent reviews, from sources as varied as the CBC’s Street Cents, PC World, and the San Francisco Chronicle, have concluded that the quality difference in output and damage to a printer can often even things up. Some studies found that some third party ink jet cartridges that cost less than name-brand also contained less ink.

Canon, Epson, HP and their ilk all claim that their extensively engineered devices require their equally extensively engineered inks for optimum performance and longevity.

Indeed, many tests have shown that inkjet heads tend to become clogged more frequently when third party ink is used. And more often than not, print quality suffers with these inks as well.

When you consider the substantial amount of ink required to clean an inkjet printer’s nozzles and the extra ink used to reprint documents, the cost advantage of non-name-brand inks quickly erodes.

“You should trust me,” the man with the dog concluded. “I’m in the business.”

Exactly what business wasn’t clear, as he was obviously lounging in the sun on a weekday afternoon reading a second-hand newspaper. And his dog looked a tad hungry.

Personally, I always use name-brand ink, and perhaps I’m a sucker for that. But in the long run the pennies I might save on underground ink don’t seem to be worth the trouble. Beside, who would ever trust a man with a lapdog?

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 28, 2006.

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