Cheap ink – we test whether it delivers great prints

Printer ink is expensive and the rate at which printers seem to get through it is a common complaint among printer owners, so why not switch to a cheap third-party alternative?

According to a survey of Which? members, only 40% said they use cheap ink from a different brand like Cartridge World or Think Ink. Of the 968 people we asked, 41% said they’d switched before and weren’t happy with the brand they tried and a further 38% said they didn’t think the quality would be good enough with an alternative ink.

So we’ve put cheap inks to the test in our lab to see if you can get great prints from refilled and compatible ink cartridges, with mixed results.

Save money on printing – get more tips on reducing your print costs.

Good cheap Brother ink vs Brother OEM ink printBrother ink vs cheap alternatives

Print quality from cheap inks varied on our Brother MFC-J5910DW printer, particularly for photos.

However, the best cheap ink brand on test produced decent photo prints – the cheap print is on the left, the Brother ink print is on the right.

You can see slight differences between the two prints, but then the Brother ink doesn’t  produce a perfectly ‘true’ print.

Viewing the two photos independently of each other, they’re both acceptable and using cheap ink reduces photo print costs by 75%.

Suppliers/brands tested:,, Think Ink

Poor cheap HP ink prints vs HP OEM ink printHP ink vs cheap alternatives

You might think it’s hard to go wrong printing black text, but there’s a noticeable difference between a good and poor quality text print.

A poor text print may not ruin your thesis – it’s still legible – but poor quality text prints like the print on the left produced with ink on our HP Officejet 4620 printer can make the text look chubby, almost like it’s in a bold font.

Other examples of poor text prints can leave words looking grey as opposed to black.

Suppliers/brands tested: Think Ink,,

Poor cheap Canon ink vs good cheap Canon ink printCanon vs cheap alternatives

We got some great looking photo prints from the cheap inks in our tests on the Canon Pixma MG4250 printer, but we also saw some slightly disappointing ones.

You can see here how they measure up, with the good alternative ink on the right demonstrating stronger colours than the poor alternative ink print on the left which looks foggy, pale and lacks contrast.

Suppliers/brands tested: Cartridge World, JetTec

Epson OEM vs cheap Epson ink printCheap Epson ink vs cheap alternatives

Portrait shots can really highlight the differences between a good and bad print.

The disappointing print using Cartridge World ink on our Epson Stylus SX535WD printer (on the left), looks pale and flat.

A set of these Cartridge World inks cost 30% less than buying Epson’s own ink, but the cost of printing one photo worked out more expensive. So a cheap set of inks, doesn’t always mean cheap prints.

Suppliers/brands tested: Cartridge Discount, Cartridge World, Tesco

More on this…

9 replies

  1. I use replacement cartridges from all of the time and they are far cheaper than the original canon cartridges and I have never had a problem with any of them. They appear to be good quality and last as long as the originals. I basically do text printing with very few photos. Manufacturers cartridges are a complete rip-off – printers are sold cheaply but then you pay through the nose for their own brand cartridges.

  2. It is now my second time at using HP Ink Cartridges replacement for my Photosmart C4580, instead of the Original, which even if ordered on line were very expensive indeed.

    I went to a local Cartridge World shop, seeking to replenish my HP350XL and HP351XL (black and Colour). After my first visit I admit I was very worried even apprehensive at what the results would be; however, wanting to cut my cost……I was really surprised by the results, I could not tell the difference. The only noticeable thing was that the ink had a special smell (not experienced with the original HP cartridges). My Printer did not jam nor get dirtier, nor did it appear to experience any difficulties. Seemingly the Cartridges are as long if not longer lasting…

    Altogether good saving of at least £7.00 on my last online order. One is also given a card (fidelity) which gets stamped (one free stamp upon joining for the first visit + the first purchase stamp) I understand that after six stamps one is allowed a free Cartridge refill (not sure if XL or only standard size). As an OAP, every saving is a nice bonus.

  3. I have found by using cheap inks on my previous brother printer that prior to printing the printer performs cleaning more to the extent that it filled my ink waste tank which leaked from the bottom of the printer. When I spoke to brother regarding the problem they informed me that if I had used their inks the waste tank would never fill and overflow but when using cheaper inks the machine cleans more often causing the waste tank to fill and overflow.

    1. I feel your pain! I’m considering buying a Canon Pixma on the basis of finding a good quality 3rd party ink supplier. Have you had any luck since? looks promising…

  4. This article is no use to me. I was hoping to find you’d tested various compatible inks so I could work out which one to use for my printer.

  5. I still cannot find a link to the test results. This is most frustrating. I’m sure a set of tests was published in Which? magazine in 2014 but I just can’t find it. I’ve had the same experience with other products I’ve tried to look up. It’s enough to chuck in my membership. This website needs a good shake-up! And please date all the webpages so we know how old the data is.

  6. As a 69 year old i’ve been taking photo’s most of my life,both as a pro in the Royal Navy and as a casual freelance in retirement.All my photos that i print out now on my HP6520e printer are at A4 size,i have found that i get perfectly acceptable results with the Peach inkjet cartridges(from Cartridge People) and there is very little differance in the results between them and HP’s own brand at lessthan £23-00 for a set of 4-xl cartridges.

Create account

You can leave a reply without having a WordPress account, but if you do register you can upload an avatar. A WordPress account is not connected to your Which? login and cannot be used to login to or any other Which? services.

Sign up