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Ink Cartridge Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Inkjet printer cartridges in four colors

An inkjet printer is an excellent, economical way to get high-quality printing at home. Inkjet printers produce images nearly as sharp as laser printers, but they are more economical for low-volume printing. From time to time, you'll need to refill the ink. Every printer manufacturer designs ink cartridges specifically for their printers. An ink cartridge may work in only one specific inkjet printer model, or it may fit a series of related models. This ink cartridge buying guide will help you understand more about printer cartridges and how to get the best ink refills for your printer.

Buying Ink Cartridges:

  1. Compatibility: Ink cartridges are designed to be used with a specific printer or series of printers, so using a compatible cartridge is essential. Check your printer's user manual for a compatibility chart that lists which ink cartridges it can use. You can buy ink cartridges and toner cartridges made by your printer's manufacturer or from a third-party manufacturer. Third-party ink cartridges are typically advertized with compatibility charts listing the printers that can use them.

  2. OEM printer cartridges: Original equipment manufacturer ink cartridges (OEM for short) are made by the printer companies themselves. Since the printer maker knows more about their own machines than anyone else, OEM inkjet cartridges will typically have the highest quality and the lowest failure rates.

  3. Third-party ink cartridges: Compatible ink cartridges are newly manufactured like OEMs, but they're produced by companies other than the original equipment manufacturer. Some aftermarket manufacturers offer a guarantee that their discount ink cartridges will perform as well as the name brand when used properly. Be aware that some OEMs patent their cartridge design, and you may not be able to find compatible inkjet cartridges.

  4. Remanufactured/refurbished cartridges: These ink refills are old printer cartridges that have been refilled and reconditioned. In the reconditioning process, empty ink cartridges are taken to a processor (the OEM or another company). Processors open the ink cartridge and refill it, replacing any defective or broken parts. Then the ink cartridge is tested for quality. Like compatibles, remanufacturing quality varies. These ink cartridges may also include guarantees or warranties.

  5. Print-heads: The print-head is a chip that operates the printing action. The print-head may be integrated into the inkjet printer or it may be part of the ink cartridge. This isn't usually noted in your printer documentation. Print-heads on printer cartridges will be controlled by a small circuit board on the side of the cartridge. These circuits can be damaged if you touch them, so take care when installing the cartridge. If the print-head is on the printer, the ink cartridge is just an ink reservoir.

  6. Color cartridges: A color inkjet printer uses just four colored inks to produce millions of colors: black, magenta (light red), yellow and cyan (light blue). Color inkjet cartridges may consist of four tanks, one for each color. A tri-color ink cartridge contains only three colors, with the black ink in a separate printer cartridge. This is especially useful for those who print lots of text but not many color images or documents. High-end printers use up to eight ink colors to create film-quality photographic prints.

  7. Ink cartridge care: If properly stored, OEM and remanufactured ink cartridges should still be good 12 to 24 months or more after purchase. Keep them in their sealed packet, out of the sun, in a room with a steady temperature until you are ready to install them. Avoid running the printer when the ink cartridge is dry, as this can cause print nozzles to become clogged or heating elements to burn out. It's better to change the ink cartridge before it runs completely dry.

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