Are compatible ink cartridges any good? Manufacturers certainly have a lot to gain from selling us their own genuine ink.
They keep the price of printers artificially low (almost a loss leader) simply to get their printer in our homes – it’s their own branded ink cartridges where they make most of their profit.
Prices of manufacturers’ own ink have increased even further in recent years (see example in Appendix at bottom of page) so this article examines the benefits of genuine vs compatible ink cartridges to see which is best for you.
Why Use Genuine Ink Cartridges?
Manufacturers give three main reasons for using their ink – the following points are taken from Epson and Brother:
Specially formulated to consistently produce photo quality prints.
Note the emphasis on photo quality – the quality of standard text and color graphics is likely to be too similar to notice any difference.
Independent tests usually find that genuine inks may produce better quality photos (on photo paper) although it can be hard for the average user to notice. It also depends which compatible inks are tested – some are very good and some are quite poor.
Guarantee the reliability of your printer and prolong its life. Poor quality compatible ink may clog print heads, leak or cause other damage to the print mechanism.
In my experience this is more likely with cartridges that are refilled (rather than replaced) or with the cheapest compatibles e.g. eBay specials that are priced too good to be true and have no user reviews.
Finally, the scare tactic:
If damage is caused to the print head or other parts of the machine as a result of using other brands of ink, then any repairs required may not be covered under warranty.
But inkjet warranties are typically for just 12 months so that concern is only really relevant in the first year – outside of the warranty period, any repairs would likely cost far more than buying a new printer anyway.
Why Use Compatible Ink Cartridges?
The benefit of compatible ink is price. I have reviewed before how to save ink when printing webpages and many printers have a ‘draft’ quality option which may help but, even so, genuine ink is still incredibly expensive.
As an example, here is a comparison of costs for a cheap but good quality Epson XP-355 All In One printer (see my review) that I bought recently in the UK.
A genuine Epson Claria 29 XL (double capacity) multipack for this printer was £52 (about $65) for 30.5ml total capacity.
But a well reviewed compatible ink multipack from Vmosgo, with 33ml total capacity (8% more than Epson’s) was just £7 (about $9) when I bought it (check Vmosgo 29XL price at Amazon UK).
So a saving of £45 ($56) on just 1 set of ink cartridges – that’s the same as the cost of the actual printer! And I got 8% more ink too…
Typically I use the equivalent of 3 XL multipacks per year in my home office so, for me, the final cost comparison is:
Annual Ink Cost:
Epson: £156 ($195)
Compatible Ink: £21 ($26)
A total saving of £135 ($169) per year – more than £11 per month.
So my ‘break-even’ point using compatible ink cartridges is just 4 months – if the printer became unreliable after that, I could buy a new one and still be better off because I had saved at least £45 already – more than enough to just buy a new printer…
In my opinion that makes a nonsense of the claimed lifespan and warranty benefits of using genuine ink.
Of course it would be very bad for the environment to buy a new printer every 4 months! But, in my experience as a computer repair business owner, printers running compatible ink typically last for years.
For example, my last 2 home office printers (Canon and Epson) ran solely on good quality (well reviewed) compatible ink cartridges for over 6 years each before they developed any faults.
And 6 years is already a very long life for a cheap inkjet printer – it’s very likely they could have failed then anyway, even if I had used genuine ink all that time.
Regardless, I saved at least £800 ($1000) during the lifetime of each printer – that’s money in my pocket, not the manufacturer’s.
Is Compatible Ink Worth The Supposed Risks?
From my own experience, and seeing hundreds of customers in my computer repair business, if money is no object and you want to be 100% sure of best photo quality (and warranty cover), it may make sense to use only genuine ink cartridges.
However, in most cases, genuine ink costs so much more (over 7x more for my printer and that’s not uncommon) that it is well worth considering using compatible ink.
When To Use Compatible Ink
Do you use 2 or more sets of cartridges per year?
If not, the savings of compatibles may not always be worth it, at least in the first year while the printer is still under warranty.
Do you regularly print a lot of high quality photos, on proper photo paper?
If yes, you will likely get the absolute best results using genuine ink, but the cost can be very high as large photos use up ink at an astonishing rate.
Consider testing with a side by side comparison to see if compatible ink quality is acceptable – or just use an online service to print your photos, it will be much cheaper for large volumes…
Do you mostly just print standard text and graphics, on standard paper?
If yes, you’ll likely see no real loss of quality if you switch to using well reviewed cheap compatible ink cartridges like the Vmosgo 29XL that I bought.
Are you prepared to perhaps return or throw away a compatible cartridge if it doesn’t work?
If not, choose genuine ink – even well reviewed compatibles are slightly more likely to have a faulty cartridge than genuine ones (but they cost so little that it doesn’t really matter if the odd one doesn’t work…
Are you prepared to run the printer’s head/nozzle cleaning function (if ever required)?
If not, choose genuine ink – in my experience compatible inks can dry up slightly quicker than genuine ink which is a problem if you don’t use the printer for a month or more.
Tip: whichever ink you use, to avoid ink cartridges drying up through lack of use, just print something that uses black and all colours every couple of weeks. Some text in different colours will do, it doesn’t have to be a big photo.
So should you use compatible ink cartridges? The choice is yours but personally I haven’t had any significant problems using them and have saved (literally) thousands over the years without any obvious loss of quality.
But then I rarely print high quality photos – I use an online service as it’s cheaper for bulk printing.
And there’s probably more chance of being unlucky with compatibles – the odd one may not work and, in my computer repair business, I have certainly seen a couple of cases where a bad set ruined a printer. However, those unlucky users had already saved far more than the cost of their printer already.
So it is always worth looking for good reviews (and lots of them) rather than just buying solely on the lowest price, from unknown sources.
I wrote a previous version of this article back in 2012 after buying an Epson SX-235W printer for £40 – almost exactly the same price as my new (only very slightly improved) Epson XP-352 in 2019.
So the cost of what is basically the same printer hasn’t changed in 7 years, despite inflation – but what about the cost of ink?
In 2012 the relevant XL capacity Epson multipack was £35 for 32ml capacity. In 2019 it’s now £52 for 30.5ml – 49% increase in price, for 5% less ink.
Manufacturers continue to sell inkjet printers cheaply so they can sell us their ink at astronomic prices, because they make more profit that way.
Like most modern tech, it’s terrible for the environment as most inkjet printers are now disposable products – if they fail even just outside of the 1 year warranty it’s cheaper to buy a new printer and send the ‘old’ one to landfill than it is to repair it.