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CIO - Suppose Ford or Toyota would sell you a brand new car for, say, $500. Wow! Such a deal, you might think. But there'd be a catch: Every tank of gas would cost you $50, and you had to buy it from Ford or Toyota. Before long, you'd have spent a lot more on gas than you did on the car.
That's very much the situation facing consumers who use inkjet printers. The hardware is relatively cheap, but the cartridges are fairly expensive and they run dry fairly quickly, too. To save ink, you could print less or at a lower resolution, but why not do the same amount of printing at a lower cost and help the environment at the same time? That's the promise that vendors of remanufactured and refilled cartridges make. The question is, do they keep it?
You might expect me to say, "Remanufactured cartridges are a great idea--nevermind warnings about poor quality from greedy printer makers. You'll never know the difference between the two."
Well, I'm not going to say that. Last week I spoke to executives on both sides of the printer cartridge debate--one with Hewlett-Packard, another with a company that makes refill equipment. They were easy to reach and seemed reasonably frank, considering both have skin in the game.
My conclusion: You can save as much as 50 percent with refilled cartridges and 10- to 20 percent with remanufactured cartridges. For many routine print jobs that's a perfectly acceptable solution. However, some print jobs won't look as good or last as long without fading. And there's a chance that a poorly refilled or remanufactured cartridge will fail, make a mess, and maybe even damage your printer.
What about my warranty?
You may wonder if using a refilled or remanufactured cartridge will void your printer's warranty. No and yes is the answer, according to HP's Thom Brown, who carries the ungainly title of ink and media technology specialist.
Simply using the cartridge does not void the warranty, he says. But--and this is a pretty big loophole--if the off-brand cartridge fails and damages the printer, you're not covered, he told me.
Lexmark's policy sounds similar: "Refilling the ink cartridges can cause them to leak, thus clogging or even damaging the print head. Any damage to your printer caused by refilled ink cartridges may not be covered under your warranty," the company says on its website.
The likelihood of buying a cartridge that wrecks your printer--or at the least, simply doesn't work--is hard to measure. Brown estimates that one in three refills don't perform as advertised. (He's not claiming that all of those will damage the printer.)
Meanwhile, Bill McKenney, CEO of InkTec Zone, which makes equipment used to fill cartridges, says he's only come across one case in which a customer says his printer was wrecked and very few claims of defective refills.
What about print quality?
Like many technologies, inkjet printing is a lot more complex than it appears. Simply put, a cartridge holds a reservoir of ink which is heated to a boil by a heating element. The resulting bubbles spray through a gird of tiny holes onto the paper.