Ink cartridges Do cheap ink cartridges work?
Cartridges made by the same brand as your printer – called Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) cartridges – rarely fail to work. The printer and ink have been designed to work together.
Third-party ink cartridges – or non-OEM cartridges – are more likely to fail than OEM cartridges, however the failure rate may be quite low.
We asked a number of third-party ink manufacturers about failure rates, and the highest failure rate claimed was 2%.
The fact that there's a failure rate with third-party cartridges shouldn’t be surprising. These cartridges are developed in response to new OEM inks and printers reaching the market, and third-party cartridge manufacturers have to develop an ink and cartridge to work with an existing printer, while being careful not to infringe on any patents that the printer manufacturers have on their cartridge designs and ink formulations. It’s therefore highly likely that the composition of the ink in an OEM cartridge is different from the ink in a third-party cartridge.
Sticking with the manufacturer's own ink? Find out who sells the cheapest printer ink.
Cartridge failures in Which? tests
In 2011, Which? tested nine brands of third-party ink on printers.
We purchased at least six sets of each cartridge and only two brands experienced no failures at all in our tests.
With some brands only one or two cartridges failed, but even one failure can be inconvenient and wasteful if you’re not getting as many prints from it as you would expect.
A cartridge failure may not render your printer useless – all of our printers continued to work at the end of our tests. However, if a third-party ink cartridge failure does damage your printer you may not be covered for repair under the printer manufacturer’s warranty – check the wording carefully if you are using third-party ink while your printer is still under warranty.
Why a cartridge might fail
Here are a few reasons we’ve found for some third party cartridges failing:
Chip not recognised
If the cartridge has a chip on it, these often need to be reset or replaced by third-party manufacturers to make the cartridge work in the machine. Even after this, a chip may still fail to be recognised.
When a chip isn’t recognised you’re likely to see an error message on the screen, and you won’t get any prints out of that cartridge.
You might be able to physically get the cartridge into the printer, but it needs to form a good seal with the print head. If the seal isn’t good air can get into the cartridge and result in a colour not working at all, or it could half work and leave you with the colour looking odd on the page. Sometimes just opening up the printer again and pressing down on the cartridge to try to get it to seal will work, but you don’t want to press too hard and damage the printer. This may not work – leaving you needing to replace the cartridge completely.
Another issue here is that the retailer you buy the third-party cartridge from may be using different suppliers – the set you purchase next time may behave differently from the previous set if they’re coming from a different source. We experienced this in our tests – we ordered the same cartridges from an online retailer on two separate occasions and the ink cartridges received were packaged very differently.
The print head may be part of the cartridge or in the printer depending on the product.
The print head is like a very fine sieve through which ink must pass before hitting the page. A clogged head produces streaks or random dotting.
The composition of the ink in of the third party ink will be different from the printer manufacturer’s formulation, so there is the possibility that it might clog the print head on the printer.
Sometimes it’s possible to clear the blockage by initiating cleaning cycles on the printer. Cleaning cycles force ink out through the print head. Having to run cleaning cycles will impact on your print costs, possibly negating any saving you might have made by switching to third party ink in the first place.
If the print head is in the cartridge – as with some HP inks – a clogged print head isn’t the end of the world. When you buy a new cartridge it will have a new print head in it.
However if the print head is part of the printer there’s a bigger problem for the life of your printer if it is damaged – replacing the print head could be costly.
Printer cartridges are widely available online - for information about your rights when shopping online see our advice.