Alternative ink, compatible printer cartridges?

Reproduction, recycling, or Chinese clone. If you want to save on ink cartridges, you should know the alternatives.

Some call them "compatible printer cartridges", while others call them "ink alternatives." This refers to printer cartridges that have one thing in common compared to the original: they're cheaper! That's why it's worth taking a second look: It's good to know what the alternatives can do, what differences there are, and why some cheap offers are easy on the wallet, but not on your printer.

It is hardly surprising that printer manufacturers recommend only using original cartridges. Brother, Epson, etc. keep on coming up with ideas to prevent customers from switching to alternative printer cartridges, but they often lose out against suppliers who can offer them at up to 80% less. But you need to be careful, especially when the cartridge seems incredibly cheap. Are they new or recycled cartridges? Where are they made? Who's making them?

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Compatible printer cartridges: everything new, everything better?

Sure sounds safe, at first: ink cartridges that are compatible, i.e. produced completely new in the factory, should be 1:1, right? But the story behind the cartridges for each printer model is much more complex. After all, they differ not only in the composition of their ink, but also in their design. In order not to infringe the patent rights of the original manufacturers, makers of compatible cartridges thoroughly analyse the originals and reproduce them in such a way that the copies differ from the originals only in the smallest details.

Check their IDs! Cartridges can be identified by chip

If problems occur when using compatible printer cartridges, it's often the chip that's to blame. For example, your inkjet printer may refuse to work with the third-party cartridge, displaying messages like "Cartridge not recognised." Almost all newer ink cartridges are now equipped with a chip that likes a passport to the printer. It stores identification data such as manufacturer, serial number, and country code.

The obstacles for rebuilds are increasing

When Stiftung Warentest tested a selection of compatible cartridges in 2015, a striking number of incompatibilities arose.

The presumed reason: Printer manufacturers are increasingly protecting themselves against the competition from alternative suppliers through the consistent installation of electronic chips. This is because the chips make replication extremely difficult and require increasingly complex analyses of the originals. It's an effort that only those larger manufacturers can afford at present who invest a lot in the development work of the printer cartridges.

Chinese clones? Pinch a penny today, pay for it later

European manufacturers of compatible inks often offer respectable quality, because in terms of patent protection and quality they must comply with national and EU standards. Many of the cheaper replicas are now being produced in China.

The fire sale prices at which you can buy these inferior products rarely pays off. The quality remains clearly below the German standard, while a weak printing performance and a worse print image are quite common. By the way, this concerns the no-name clones as well as those who counterfeit original cartridges under the name of large printer manufacturers – mostly questionable online providers with aggressive price advertising.

Compatible printer cartridges - alternatives with a potential for breakdown

As good as the replicas can be, the level indicator seems to remain a weak point: Error messages are not uncommon here. If the empty level is displayed too early, a new cartridge will then be required prematurely; if the warning appears too late, fast action will be needed: In the worst case, the printer can be damaged if it continues to be used. If it still has a warranty, it's often difficult to prove that the problems are NOT due to the use of other inks.

The cost advantage is still a strong argument. And something else makes many of the replicas attractive: The ink tank is often designed larger than the original, so the ink lasts longer. the best case scenario, double savings? Yes and no, because here you should rely exclusively on reputable providers.

Who ever is relying on recycling is doing everything right.

The advantage of recycled ink cartridges starts with the manufacturing process: Empty original cartridges are cleaned and industrially reprocessed in an elaborate process. This also means, for example, that cartridges with chips can be quickly recognised as originals by the printer.

Recycling programmes not only relieve the burden on landfills, but also on consumers –financially and in terms of disposing of their empty cartridges. Today, these programmes are offered by all major printer manufacturers: They are also obliged by law to take back printer cartridges free of charge and take this responsibility seriously. In addition, third-party suppliers also collect, clean and fill the empty originals and sell them at favourable prices.

A plus for environmental protection and reliability

Good material, good conscience: Recycled cartridges are hard to beat when it comes to environmental compatibility. All reusable parts are cleaned to conserve resources and are subject to the same strict standards as new parts. This professional cleaning is essential so that the ink can be transported smoothly again, especially for ink cartridges with an integrated print head. Once this has been done, recycled cartridges usually function reliably and spare the user many annoying error messages.

The older the printer, the cheaper the recycled cartridge

The selling price of a recycled ink cartridge depends on the printer: the older or more popular the model, the more cartridges exist that have already been collected and recycled. This also means that relatively few cartridges will have been recycled for the latest model printers.

Caution, recycling dummy!        

Unfortunately, many retailers from Asia also imitate recycled products. Here, the strikingly low price is a sure sign that it's not a recycled original, but a newly manufactured product. So, if you are offered a "recycled" cartridge for a recently launched printer, it is most likely a counterfeit.

The mix of inks must be right!

The composition of the refill ink is just as important for recycled printer cartridges as it is for replicated ones. Poor UV compatibility, poor smudge resistance and, above all, "fake" inks are an unmistakable sign of inferior ink quality. A tip: if you buy a new printer and intend to use alternative ink cartridges, print and store a test page with the original colours as you soon as you get the printer set up. This will allow you to compare your later ink colours with the original.

Fill the ink, install the chips? Not a good idea!

Very thrifty people fill their alternative ink into the cartridges themselves. This can lead to permanent stains or even ink leaking into the printer. It's also not advisable to install the original chip on the third-party cartridge. It's better to invest a little bit more in an alternative cartridge with valid "origin" or just use recycled cartridges.

Recycled cartridges are the best alternative for the printer and the environment

The fact is: Only the original goods guarantee high quality. But those who still want to save can minimise the risks for their printer. Recycled ink cartridges are clearly the safest and most responsible alternative. This situation is going to continue to evolve. Recycling facilities and processes are continually being further developed and the more customers who opt for recycling, the cheaper the products will become in the long term. A good deal for people and the environment.