Pinching pennies with your printer

The deals are hard to pass up: quality color printers for around $100. There's only one catch. The ink costs a bundle.

In fact, that's how printer manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard, Lexmark, Epson, and Canon boost their profits. By selling the most popular printers, they can sell loads of expensive ink. For example, a Hewlett Packard cartridge costs between $30 and $50.

Fortunately, consumers have an alternative. Other companies have jumped into the inkjet-cartridge business. Their cartridges come in two forms: compatible and remanufactured.

Compatibles are cheaply priced cartridges that work with the print head inside a printer. They're typically the cheapest alternative, if you plan to use the cartridge once. Remanufactured cartridges, on the other hand, are designed to be reused. They can be refilled two or three times before the quality declines significantly, experts say.

Remanufactured cartridges and refill kits now have about a 16.5 percent share of the inkjet-cartridge market, according to Jim Forrest, managing editor of The Hard Copy Supplies Journal, a publication of market-research firm Lyra Research in Newton, Mass. With increased consumer awareness, improvements in quality, and significant price advantage, Mr. Forest expects that share to grow to 23 percent by 2007.

In general, remanufactured cartridges cost 15 to 25 percent less than name brands; compatibles cost 25 to 30 percent less. But before abandoning brand-name cartridges, industry experts say consumers should weigh several factors:

• The printer. Some printers work only with remanufactured cartridges, while others operate with compatibles. Two of the most popular printer lines, Epson and Canon, accept compatibles. Lexmark and HP printers don't.

• Ink longevity. While third-party inks can produce quality plain text and color documents, the length of time that the ink will last might make a difference, especially for photos. If you don't mind color that starts to fade after two years, then a third-party ink works well.

• Volume of printing. If you plan on a moderate volume of printing, saving that extra money with third-party inks might be the best bet. But beware the possibility of clogged print heads and copies smudged by spills and splatters. And if you print really high volumes, consider buying a more expensive printer. "It will probably have high-capacity cartridges available, which lower the cost per page," Mr. Forrest says.

In a recent test of third-party inks by PC World magazine, the third-party ink cartridges for Epson and Canon printers generally yielded as many color pages as the manufacturer's cartridge. But a $5 no-name ink cartridge purchased from PrintPal frequently plugged up the print head nozzles.

If consumers end up with a mess in their printers, that does not necessarily void the printer warranty from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). "If it's proven that a cartridge damages a printer, supposedly that voids the warranty," says Charlie Smith, retail marketing manager for the Internet retailer, "But there is special legislation out there that says the OEMs cannot say a third-party cartridge will damage a printer, because they don't."

An even cheaper option is an ink- refill kit. These kits can be used for all models of HP and Lexmark and some Canon models. While the specific process varies depending on the brand model and the printing needs (color or black ink), the general idea is that users directly inject ink into the cartridge.

According to PC World, an InkTec refill kit for HP cartridges contains more than three times as much ink as a cartridge. Refills cost $10 for black and $14 for color. But with air clips, refill bottles, plugs, and syringes, it's an involved and time-consuming process. Even the testers at PC World reported ink "dripped everywhere" when they tried to refill the cartridge.

That may explain why most customers don't buy a second kit, Forest says.

The competition from third-party inks has led printer manufacturers to offer their own low-priced cartridges, some even costing less than $20.

But since these cartridges contain one-third less ink, they still manage to "suck money out of people's pockets," says John Howard, president of Carrot Ink, an online cartridge retailer in Addison, Texas.

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