Cheap ink: It’s what every inkjet printer user wants. But although printer vendors’ ink tends to be pricey, the alternatives–refilled or remanufactured cartridges–come with dire warnings about drips, disappointing print quality, or damage to your printer.

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Are third-party inks worth the risk? There used to be only two ways to find out: Try it yourself–and possibly sacrifice your printer in the process–or commission a laboratory to run exhaustive tests. surfacetoairnewyork.com did the latter three years ago for “Cheap Ink: Will It Cost You?”

Birth of a Serial Refiller

Now we’re trying a third way–the Serial Refiller way. surfacetoairnewyork.com sent intrepid writer Jeff Bertolucci an HP Photosmart e-All-in-One inkjet multifunction printer, a model whose cartridges are popular among third-party ink vendors, and assigned him this mission: Try a bunch of refills and let us know what happens. For each test, he printed a variety of samples repeatedly until streaks began to appear in the output, at which point he could calculate the cost per page and also examine print quality.

The baseline: The HP 60 black and color cartridges that came with the Photosmart e-All-in-One produced 132 fully printed pages. At $35 for both cartridges (when purchased separately), the cost per page works out to a high 27 cents. (HP’s 60 Ink Cartridge Combo Pack, priced at $32, saves a few bucks.)

Each of the options we’ve tried so far offers its own approach and its own array of supported printers–mostly older printer models, as third-party vendors need time to create their alternative cartridges and inks. Cartridge World’s service tends to cater to older models. Among newer models supported, InkTec sells a do-it-yourself refill kit that works for numerous Lexmark models, such as the Lexmark Genesis, Lexmark Platinum Pro905, and Lexmark Pinnacle Pro901. Costco’s in-store refilling service supports both the HP we’ve used as our test case and the HP Envy100 e-All-in-One. Office Depot’s service supports newer printers such as the HP OfficeJet 6500A Plus e-All-In-One.

So far we’ve found that the bigger the hassle involved, the better the savings–but output quality varies. The best balance we’ve discovered has come from Costco: Its in-store refilling service is convenient, and it delivers acceptable print results for half the cost of HP’s own inks.

What Are the Risks?

The risks of using third-party inks are unpredictable. Using such inks will not void your printer’s warranty; however, the warranty won’t cover any damage that might occur as a result of that use.

Ink spillage during refill or use is probably the biggest risk, creating a mess at best and possibly damaging the cartridge or printer at worst. We have also had to endure a lot of pop-up dialog boxes and control-panel warnings. Such messages can be intimidating and persistent, but usually you can click OK to dismiss them.

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The Serial Refiller’s short-term experiences are anecdotal, and they do not test the durability or archivability of third-party inks, nor how the printer will fare after repeated use with them. Nevertheless, our hands-on tests offer a taste of what you can expect if you try a third-party alternative with your own printer. For more of the Serial Refiller’s adventures, check out the following “Portrait of a Serial Refiller” articles.