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Printer ink isn’t cheap. To avoid getting hit with a huge ink cartridge bill at the local office supply store, many people turn to online 3rd-party ink sellers to score cheap ink. These cartridges can cost significantly less than original ink-sometimes 50% or more off the standard price. This makes third party ink worth it to many, but there are a few questions you should ask before buying.

Recycled or compatible? There are two basic types of 3rd party ink cartridges: recycled and “OEM-compatible.” Remanufactured cartridges are essentially recycled; sellers collect used, empty original cartridges and refill them with their own ink.  With OEM-compatible cartridges (“OEM” stands for “Original Equipment Manufacturer”), companies reverse-engineer cartridges based on the specs of the original design. The cartridges themselves, as well as the ink, is created by a third-party vendor based on the original ink and cartridge specifications.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each type. Compatible cartridges tend to have a higher quality overall than recycled, but due to patent infringement issues, they’re not as widely available for some brands as recycled cartridges are. Recycled cartridges can have a slightly higher failure rate, but they’re easier to get for most brands and they cost less.

What’s the company’s quality control process? If you’re going for recycled or compatible cartridges, do your best to find out what process the company uses to make sure their cartridges work. With recycled cartridges, choose a company that does more than simply refill old cartridges with new ink. They should also check cartridges for cracks in the casing, failure in electrical components and other quality-compromising issues, and repair or replace cartridge components that need it. Both recycled and compatible companies should test their cartridges before selling them.

What’s your printer’s warranty? Warranty issues are difficult to judge. Almost all manufacturers have warranties that say they won’t cover damages caused by third-party ink. However, the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act, enacted at the Federal level in the U.S., prevents companies from attempting to control which consumables customers use.  In general, if you use a third-party cartridge it won’t automatically void your warranty if the cartridge didn’t cause the damage-but if it did, you may be stuck paying for repairs or replacements out of pocket. It may be worthwhile for you to find out whether the third-party ink company you choose will repair the damage to your printer in case of a problem caused by their cartridges.

What are you planning to print? Not all third party ink cartridges are of equal quality, but according to consumer reviews, many look just as good as the real thing coming off the printer. However, not all third-party ink cartridges are as durable and long-lasting as originals; if you’re printing pictures, you may get better results with name-brand ink that will last longer without fading.

Are you really saving money? Check the pricing on the third-party cartridge with that of the original manufacturers’. With shipping costs, sometimes the cost difference isn’t very much-and you might want to look into recycled cartridges for deeper discounts.

What’s the store’s reliability? Branded ink products typically have some sort of guarantee. Third-party ink cartridges don’t, and while many have proved reliable and high-quality, it’s not unknown for third-party ink to clog print heads and fade more quickly than original inks do. The best third-party cartridge stores offer some sort of written guarantee that stands behind their products.  In addition, the longer a store has been in business, the more likely that it offers a high quality product. Look for a store with good online reviews and a strong guarantee.

Buying printer ink from a third-party vendor can be hit or miss. But if you find a reliable source of high-quality recycled or compatible ink cartridges, you could save a significant amount of money on your printer consumable costs. Do your research and make sure you know what type of third-party cartridge you’re getting, your store’s reputation, and the original manufacturer’s prices-just to make sure you’re saving money in the deal. If you do, you’re likely to be able to save money on ink.

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Buying third-party ink online can save you considerable time and money. But with third-party ink, you don’t get a manufacturer’s guarantee-so it’s important to find a dependable seller.  Not all third-party ink sellers are as good as they seem. Here are a few things you can do to guarantee that you find a reliable seller of high quality recycled or compatible ink cartridges the first time you look.

How do they check for quality? Whether you’re using recycled or compatible cartridges, you’ll need to go with a vendor that checks thoroughly for quality. Recycled cartridge manufacturers shouldn’t just refill used cartridges; they should also check to make sure the plastic casing of the cartridge isn’t cracked and that all internal components are working correctly, and replace or repair as needed. Recycled cartridges should be tested after the refill, and compatible cartridges should be tested thoroughly as well.

What’s their online reputation? Do an online search to determine what people are saying about this particular company. Are customer reviews generally positive, or does there seem to be a trend of malfunctioning cartridges and perfunctory customer service? You can learn a lot by using search engines and online forums to find out who else has bought from this company and what their experience has been.

How long have they been in business? The older a company is, the more likely it provides a quality product and has learned from its mistakes. This certainly isn’t always true, but the third-party ink business is competitive-and you’re more likely to get a good product from a company that has managed to thrive despite the competition.  When possible, choose a company that has been in existence for several years.

Do they stand behind their products? Some online printer ink vendors offer guarantees; some don’t. Find out what happens if your printer ink cartridge doesn’t work as it should. Do you get your money back? Do you have to ship the cartridge back to them at your own expense? Do you have to justify your return? Look for a company that has an easy, hassle-free policy when it comes to returns and exchanges.

What happens if the cartridge causes damage to your printer? The law surrounding original manufacturers’ warranties and third-party ink is still unclear. While most original manufacturers state in their warranties that they won’t accept repairs from damage caused by third-party ink, the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act, a U.S. law, restricts their rights to control which ink customers choose. How it applies to overseas customers is not clear, as well as whether it will force manufacturers to cover damage caused by third-party ink under the warranty.

That means the seller should take extra steps to help customers whose printers have been damaged by third-party ink. Ask your vendor what they would do in this situation. If they tell you they will repair your printer for free, get the promise in writing if it’s not already spelled out in their documentation.

Do they have your brand? Some brands are more difficult to find than others, especially when you’re looking for compatible cartridges. These are cartridges that are reverse engineered using the original specs, and some companies have been successful in suing third-party vendors and preventing them from doing this with their cartridges. As a result, third-party cartridges are less widely available than recycled cartridges-but even those may not be on hand for your brand. Be sure the company you choose carries your brand consistently.

Can you call them? If you have a problem with your cartridge, the best return or exchange policy in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t get in touch with a company representative. Be sure the company has a phone number available where you can reach someone who will tell you more about the company’s return, repair and exchange policies-just in case something goes wrong.

Not every online printer ink vendor is reputable. Do some research into the online reputation of the company you choose. Pick a company with a solid track record, good customer service and high-quality cartridges. Look for one that always has your brand in stock and offers phone service to customers who have problems. If you do, you’re more likely to find a dependable printer ink vendor that can help you save money on your ink.

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