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Is Discount Printer Ink Really a Bargain?

Updated on October 28, 2011

Recently, I had a chance to take part in an "ink challenge" activity sponsored by Hewlett Packard to see how refilled ink cartridges match up to genuine HP ink. Since I work from home as a freelance writer and am an avid scrapbooker, I go through a lot of printer ink in a typical month. Even with careful comparison shopping, the cost of printer supplies still represents a significant expense for my home office budget.

As part of the experiment, HP sent me two brand new HP Photosmart D110a e-All-in-One Inkjet Printers, paper, ink, and a gift card for me to get the cartridges refilled locally. One printer was designated as the refill ink printer and the other was designated as the genuine HP ink printer, then the same set of documents and photos were printed on each machine to compare results.

HP printer used for cheap printer ink challenge experiment
HP printer used for cheap printer ink challenge experiment | Source

Refilling My Ink Cartridge

The first step in the challenge was to see how convenient it was to buy refilled ink. While I've purchased store brand cartridges for my printer in the past, I've never actually gone to a store specializing in refilled ink. Typically, I just order my office supplies online and have them delivered to my door.

Since I live in a rural area, it took a few minutes of online searching to figure out that Cartridge World was going to be my only option for this service. I found it rather inconvenient since it required a special 45 minute drive to visit the store.

When I arrived, the clerk told me I would need to wait 30 minutes for my cartridge. So, I ended up browsing through some of the other stores located in the mall nearby.

The clerk did not mention purchasing remanufactured cartridges at all, which I understand is a common approach for people interested in buying discount printer ink. She actually didn’t seem very interested in me as a customer in general.

The refill ink cartridges were not difficult to install and they did not leak. However, it was a bit more difficult to get the alignment done on the refill printer. I had to complete the process twice before it said everything was acceptable.

My prints appear to be of similar quality for the most part. However, if I look carefully, the colors on my HP prints do seem a bit more vibrant and closer to what I was expecting for the photos based on how they appeared on my computer screen.

I would not buy from Cartridge World again because of the long distance and wait the trip required. I also did not feel like they provided much of a cost savings, since the refilled cartridges cost $47.06 and it appears that with careful online shopping this is very close to what I'd pay for genuine HP ink cartridges. I’d much rather save time and order from someplace online that could ship the cartridges right to my house. To me, using a coupon code from a site such as Retail Me Not seems like a much more convenient way to buy cheap printer ink.

Comparison of Hewlett Packard ink versus Cartridge World refill ink. HP printer ink photo is the top image.
Comparison of Hewlett Packard ink versus Cartridge World refill ink. HP printer ink photo is the top image. | Source

Printing General Household Documents

When it comes to printing documents for everyday household use, it's hard to tell the difference between refill ink and genuine HP ink. I printed emails, Internet coupons, and coloring sheets for my son using both refill ink and genuine Hewlett Packard ink. I doubt anyone would be able to tell the difference in print quality for each ink type.

Printing Business Materials

As most of us have realized, reading on a computer screen can cause eye strain. So, as part of the HP ink challenge experiment, we were asked to print PowerPoint presentations and online articles to compare their quality. Both the refill ink and the HP ink presentations were comparable in quality. The level of quality was also similar in the articles I printed and while I did prefer reading the printed copies to reading on my computer screen, it's unlikely I'd make a habit of printing research material on a regular basis. As a freelance writer, it would be too expensive to pay for paper and ink every time I wanted to review an article. There would also be the space issue to consider, since I'd have to store all those printed copies someplace.

Comparison of Hewlett Packard ink versus Cartridge World refill ink. HP printer ink photo is the top image.
Comparison of Hewlett Packard ink versus Cartridge World refill ink. HP printer ink photo is the top image. | Source

Printing Photos

Even though there doesn't seem to be much difference between ink types when printing ordinary everyday documents, the difference in quality becomes much more noticeable when you're printing your favorite digital photos for use on a scrapbook page or to give to family and friends.

I printed out several photos using both refill and HP ink as part of the printer ink test experiment. For some pictures, it was almost impossible to tell the difference. For others, especially when there were sections with very bold colors, it was pretty obvious which ink type was used to make the photo.

The scans in this article show the HP print on top and the refill print on the bottom. As you can see, my refill ink left a reddish tint to my images. For the black and white photo, I think my refill ink print actually looks more like a sepia toned image than a true black and white photo.

To get a second opinion, I asked my husband to pick out the refill ink prints from my pile of photos after I'd finished running off copies off all my images. He got every print correct and preferred the genuine HP ink prints for every image but one. I actually liked the refill ink black and white version better, but that's mostly because I have a soft spot for the vintage look of a sepia toned photograph. For the color print, I preferred the Hewlett Packard ink version.

The results of the water resistance test showed smearing and curling with the refill ink prints. The photos printed with Hewlett Packard ink and paper showed minimal damage.
The results of the water resistance test showed smearing and curling with the refill ink prints. The photos printed with Hewlett Packard ink and paper showed minimal damage. | Source

Photo Water Resistance

As an avid scrapbooker, it's important to me that my photos be able to stand the test of time. While I do have backups of all my digital images, I'd hate to think that all of the scrapbook layouts I've spent so much time creating will be faded, curled, or damaged in a decade or two if I make the wrong printing choice.

To test the durability of printed photos, HP asked the ink challenge participants to make copies of images using both Hewlett Packard ink and the discount printer ink refill cartridge. Pictures were splashed with water and completely submerged in water to see how they would hold up. My refill ink pictures smeared immediately and actually left ink stains all over my kitchen counter. The paper used to print the refill ink photos also started to curl, which would be a huge problem if these images were attached to a page in my scrapbook. (Refill ink pictures were printed using Kodak 4x6 paper, while the genuine HP printer ink pictures were printed using HP advanced photo paper. The reasoning behind this is that you'd likely not match the brand of paper to the ink if you were trying to save money by purchasing a refilled cartridge.)

In my home office, I have a Canon Selphy photo printer that I use to print photos for my scrapbook pages. I was initially attracted to this printer, despite the high cost of paper and ink, because it makes very durable photos that are comparable in quality to prints from Walmart, Target, or Walgreens. However, after seeing how well the HP prints held up to the water, I am starting to wonder if this specialty printer is really necessary.

Photo Fading

When you're planning to display your photos, there is a risk of prints fading when they are exposed to light. Hewlett Packard inks are tested to make sure this doesn't happen, which I can verify based on the fade resistance portion of the HP ink challenge. We were asked to place refill printer ink and HP ink photo prints in a sunny window for six weeks, with half of each print covered to protect it from the light.

When I took my prints down, I was pleased with the results. I couldn't see any signs of fading in the HP ink print and the fading on the refill ink print was very subtle. You'd have to be looking really closely to notice it. I tried to take a picture of the prints and scan them to demonstrate, but the difference is so minimal that it doesn't show up in either version.

Paper craft project from HP Creative Studio website. Refill ink printer version is on the left, Hewlett Packard ink version is on the right.
Paper craft project from HP Creative Studio website. Refill ink printer version is on the left, Hewlett Packard ink version is on the right. | Source

Printing Paper Craft Projects

Paper crafting projects, such as digital scrapbook pages and collages, are a fun way to use your inkjet printer. But, this is another area where ink quality makes a difference. As part of the inkjet challenge test, I created several posters, cards, and scrapbook layouts to see how the colors compared. You could see a noticeable difference in the projects printed using genuine HP ink versus those printed on the refill printer, which I suspect is because the craft projects are printed on 8 ½ x 11 paper and feature large swatches of solid colors when a photo would be printed in a smaller scale and have blending between the various shades. Like the photos I printed as part of the test, all of my refill ink projects had significant discoloration in the red areas. In about half of my test projects, there was discoloration in the blue areas as well.

While not related to cheap printer ink directly, I'd also like to point out that it makes a big difference whether or not you are using the right settings on your printer for your paper crafting projects. I accidentally forgot to change my printer settings to "photo paper" for one of my projects and ended up with streaky bands of color across all of my images. Once I fixed the settings and printed again, the image was much better.


Is discount printer ink really a bargain? Based on the results of the HP ink challenge, I'd say the answer to this question depends on your printing goals.

After conferring with the other ink challenge participants via the Hewlett Packard online forum, it appears that the refill I chose from Cartridge World was one of the highest quality options available. While I felt the savings were minimal considering the effort involved in obtaining my cheap printer ink, the cartridge did produce acceptable results for household and general business use. However, I would not recommend this discount printer ink to a photographer or crafter. My images with the refill ink had enough color differences to cancel out the potential cost savings. I also was disturbed by how easily the refill ink prints smudged and curled when they came into contact with just a few drops of water. If I am going to invest my time and energy in creating a scrapbook page or other photo-based paper craft project, I'd prefer to know that my pictures are going to be as durable as possible.


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    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 

      5 years ago from California

      I buy the cheaper ink but it definitely isn't as good. It works for what I print. If you need high quality printing it's best to go with a brand name.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I have often wondered about this. I have an HP all in one and have always purchased their ink...wondering if I was wasting money for brand consciousness or something. Thanks for your detailed analysis. As a paper crafter, I'll stick with the premium stuff.

    • Donna Sundblad profile image

      Donna Sundblad 

      6 years ago from Georgia

      Very useful. I've given you a vote up!

    • MarloByDesign profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      Voted UP and USEFUL. Your Hub title was very intriguing to me, so I had to read your Hub. THANKS for all of your research and now I know!


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