Printer ink

All you need to know about printer ink and cartridge problems.

20oct printer ink hero

Ever wondered why some printers are so cheap to buy? It’s because they cost big money to run. Just a few replacement ink cartridges can set you back more than the machine itself.

Printers are often priced using a “razor and blades” strategy, where the printer is sold at a loss with half-empty “starter” cartridges. The manufacturer and retailer bank on making their profits when you start forking out for new cartridges soon after purchase. Make sure to ask the retailer whether the printer you're looking at comes with full cartridges.

Number of cartridges

Most colour printers have at least four cartridges: cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY), plus black (K). Avoid inkjets that only have two ink cartridges – black and tricolour – because when any CMY colour runs out you have to replace the whole tricolour cartridge.

Extra inks can slightly improve print quality, but they aren’t essential. Examples include lighter variants of CMYK that provide smoother blending in photographs, and gloss inks that overprint a clear lacquer, which gives a glossy look.

Printhead cleaning

You might be surprised to find how much ink is wasted by some models. In inkjet printers, a lot of extra usage is due to the printhead being cleaned each time the printer’s turned on, meaning it’s more cost-effective to do all of your printing at once. This isn’t an issue for laser printers, which use powdered ink.

Don’t automatically rule out a printer with high extra ink usage, though. It could still be a decent choice as long as you print in batches.

Using colour when printing black

Some printers use a combination of CMY colours to produce black rather than draining the black cartridge (which is considerably cheaper to replace). The hapless consumer only finds this out when they have to replace the colour cartridges after printing nothing but mono pages.

Switching the settings to "greyscale" or "draft quality" usually forces the printer to default to the basic black cartridge.

Our advice: if you'll be using an inkjet for a lot of mono printing, ask the retailer if there's a way to prevent it from using the colour cartridges to generate black. If you're misled about this then, under the Consumer Guarantees Act, the retailer is obliged to replace the printer with one that can do what you asked for.

Ink refills and third-party brands

One option for keeping your printing costs down is using third-party ink cartridges or cartridge-refill kits. Printer manufacturers would rather you didn't, as they make considerable profit from selling their own ink and toner. Some even threaten to invalidate your warranty if you use products from other brands.

The choice is yours. Tests by consumer organisations overseas have shown that some third-party products are just as good as proprietary ones. Several of our members have reported good success with refills, and excellent savings on running costs.

Ink cartridge woes

We look at common problems with ink cartridges and what you can do to fix them.

When replacing an ink cartridge, sometimes you’ll get a message saying the new cartridge isn’t recognised. Reasons for this could be:

  • The printer may not have been able to read the chip attached to the cartridge. Try removing the cartridge and re-inserting it.
  • The cartridge slots will be labelled by colours (black, cyan, magenta and yellow). Ensure the correct colour is in the right slot.
  • If the cartridge isn’t from the printer’s manufacturer, you should check it is compatible with your printer, either by contacting the manufacturer or through a cartridge comparison website.
  • If none of these suggestions work, return the cartridge to where you bought it. If the cartridge is faulty, the retailer has to replace it or refund your money under the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Blocked print head

If a colour isn’t printing or you get a warning about a clogged print head, then you need to run a cleaning cycle. If you’re not sure how, check your printer’s manual. If it’s an inkjet printer, turning it off and then on will run the cleaning cycle. If the problem persists, take it to a printer service shop.

Leaking cartridge

Ink cartridges can leak. Usually, this is due to the cartridge being inserted incorrectly, meaning there isn’t a good seal. You can try to fix this by removing the cartridge and re-inserting it in the printer. If it’s still leaking then the cartridge could be faulty and you should return it to where you bought it. To prevent it leaking during transport, tape over any ink holes.

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