Updated

Our Cartridge Score and Tests
Printers

What it is: Cartridges are consumables of the printer. They contain ink or toner.
When it matters: When you want to know how much it'll cost to replace the cartridge.
Score distribution

In this day and age, it feels like most consumable technologies have become a thing of the past. Disposable, alkaline batteries have been largely replaced by rechargeable lithium-ion cells, and you can store more photos on a memory card than you can on a roll of film. Printer cartridges, however, haven't gone anywhere. While efforts to ditch the print cartridge for good are stronger than ever, as evidenced by the rise in popularity of refillable, cartridge-free SuperTank printers, traditional ink and toner cartridges are still here to stay for a while.

Inkjet and laser printers use different ink types, so their cartridges are different, but the function is the same: supply the ink required for printing.

We test the different characteristics of a printer's cartridges to help you find the best bang for your buck. We test not only the black and color page yield, but also whether the printer uses photo cartridges, how many color cartridges it uses, whether you can buy high-yield cartridges, what kind of drum unit you need to replace, and whether it supports third-party cartridges.

Test results

Inkjet Cartridges

Inkjet printers use a series of nozzles to spray droplets of liquid ink directly onto a sheet of paper. The ink can be dye or pigment-based and comes from cartridges installed inside the printer.

SuperTank printers are unique in that they don't have user-replaceable cartridges. Instead, you fill the ink tanks yourself with high-capacity ink bottles. It's a bit more of a hassle than simply swapping out a cartridge or a toner, but reduces waste and keeps costs low.

HP OfficeJet Pro 8025 Cartridges
Traditional inkjet cartridges.
Brother MFC-J995DW Cartridges
SuperTank-cartridge inkjet hybrid.
Epson Expression ET-2750 SuperTank Reservoirs
SuperTank cartridge-free inkjet.

Laser Cartridges

Laser printers use beams of light to trace a negatively charged image onto what's called an imaging drum. The drum then selectively collects toner, a finely powdered type of ink with an electrostatic charge, stored inside the cartridges. The drum transfers the toner onto the paper and heats it all together to permanently fuse the image onto the paper.

Canon imageCLASS MF644Cdw Color Toners
Color laser printer with cyan, magenta, yellow and black toner.
Brother HL-L2395DW Black Toner
Monochrome laser printer with black toner only.

Our tests

Various inkjet and laser toner cartridges

Photo Cartridge

What it is: For photo printing. Some manufacturers will add specific color cartridges to produce better quality photo prints; the added colors will help you have better photos, like some photo-oriented printers that'll add gray ink to have a better grayscale photo print. Some printers will have two black ink cartridges: one with dye-based ink and one with pigmented ink. Dye-based ink is the standard type of ink.
When it matters: When good quality photo printing is important to you.

If you appreciate the convenience of being able to print photos at home, something to keep in mind is whether the printer you're looking at uses photo cartridges. A photo cartridge is a cartridge dedicated to improving photo printing quality. Most consumer photo printers only use a single "photo black" cartridge, but other variants exist.

Epson 410 starter cartridges with Photo Black cartridge

In this test, we check whether the printer uses photo cartridges or not. If the printer has one or more photo cartridges, then it gets a "yes" in this test. However, since some printers can still produce decent prints without a photo cartridge, this test isn't scored.

This test matters most for standard inkjet printers since SuperTank inkjet and laser printers generally aren't designed for photo printing.

Number Of Color Cartridges

What it is: The number of color cartridges. Some printers will have the three primary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) bundled together, and others will have the colors in individual cartridges. Some photo-oriented printers will have additional color cartridges for better photos.
When it matters: For replacement. You can change the empty color cartridge without throwing away other cartridges that are still good.
Score distribution

If you print a lot of color documents or photos and want to keep your color printing costs as low as possible, you'll want to keep an eye on the number of color cartridges a printer has. Some printers only have one color cartridge, which you need to replace entirely as soon as one ink color runs out, even if it's not fully empty. However, other printers have three or more color cartridges, so you only need to change the colors you use the most often, which is more cost-efficient.

In this test, we report how many color cartridges the printer uses. Since printers with more than one color cartridge can help reduce costs, they're scored more favorably. Photo cartridges are considered within the color cartridge count, even black or gray ones.

This test matters most for standard inkjet printers since SuperTank inkjet printers and laser printers are generally designed to have individual ink reservoirs or toners cartridge for each color.

Black Cartridge Model

What it is: The cartridge model number.
When it matters: When you care about keeping costs low and want to have an idea of the cartridge replacement cost.

Virtually all consumer printers have a black cartridge. This test provides the black cartridge model number, as reported by the manufacturer, which is what you'll want to look for when getting an idea of how much ink will cost.

Tested Black Page Yield

What it is: An intermediate value in the calculation process of the page yield of the printer. This is the number of 80% covered area of black ink prints. The test document was printed using Adobe Acrobat Reader with the printer's default settings, with the grayscale box checked. The paper used was the AmazonBasics Multipurpose Copy Printer Paper at 92 GE brightness.
When it matters: When you want to know the page yield of the cartridge.
Score distribution

In this test, we measure how many black and white prints the printer can produce using an accelerated test method with a full replacement cartridge. Our Estimated Black Page Yield results are based on our findings in this test.

Using Adobe Acrobat Reader, we print a PDF with an 80% black coverage pattern. This test document is printed using the printer's default settings on plain copy paper. We use a full replacement cartridge instead of the starter one. We print on both sides of each sheet of paper and keep printing until either the printer signals there is no more ink, or the prints have begun fading significantly. We then manually count the number of copies produced up until the point where the test pattern begins to fade. Since this is an accelerated test, the faded page can represent a significant number of real-world prints, so we also scan the faded page and calculate the print coverage to factor it into our estimate page yield as well.

This test matters for all printers, since print yield is an important part of choosing a printer that you can afford in the long run.

Estimated Black Page Yield

What it is: The total number of black ink pages that it's possible to print from one cartridge. The test page reference (ISO-IEC 19752-2004) used is covered at 4.21% black ink. This value is estimated using the tested page yield and the covered ratio between the ISO page reference and the 80% covered test document.
When it matters: When you want to know how much it'll cost you to print. Printers manage the calculation of remaining ink differently, and it can have an impact on your overall cartridge consumption, increasing the printing price.
Good value: > 950 pages

In this test, we estimate how many black and white copies you should get from the printer's standard replacement black cartridge. If you print a lot in black and white, you'll want to find a printer with a high estimated black page yield.

Using the ISO-IEC 19752-2004 as a reference, we calculate what a more typical print yield might look like based on the results of our accelerated black page yield test. Our calculation multiplies our tested black page yield by the ratio of our test document's coverage (80%) compared to that of our reference document (4.21%). The higher the estimated page yield, the better.

This test matters for all printers, since print yield is an important part of choosing a printer that you can afford in the long run.

Color Cartridge Model

What it is: The cartridge's model number.
When it matters: When you want to keep costs down. Using the cartridge model number, you can look for the best price and have an idea of the cartridge replacement cost.

Not all printers support color printing, but many do. This test provides the model number of the printer's color cartridges as reported by the manufacturer, if applicable. Use this model number to find out how much the color ink will cost you.

Tested Color Page Yield

What it is: An intermediate value in the calculation process of the page yield of the printer. This is the number of 80% covered area of cyan, magenta, and yellow ink prints. The test document was printed using Adobe Acrobat Reader with the printer's default settings. The paper used was the AmazonBasics Multipurpose Copy Printer Paper at 92 GE brightness.
When it matters: To estimate the page yield of the cartridge.
Score distribution

In this test, we measure how many color prints the printer can produce using an accelerated test method with full replacement cartridges. This test is the first step in our color page yield calculation.

Using Adobe Acrobat Reader, we print an 80% color coverage pattern in cyan, magenta, and yellow. Each test document is printed using the printer's default settings on plain copy paper. We use full replacement cartridges instead of the starter ones. Because some printers will use a bit of yellow ink when printing our cyan test document, we print one color after another instead of using up each cartridge before passing onto the next. So, we print one page of cyan, followed by magenta, then yellow. We repeat this cycle until either the printer signals all color cartridges are empty, the printer stops printing in color entirely, or the prints have begun fading significantly. We then manually count the number of copies produced in each color up until the point where the test pattern begins to fade, scan the faded copies to calculate the coverage, and report the average yield for all three colors.

This test matters for all color printers, since color print yield is an important part of choosing a color printer that you can afford in the long run.

Estimated Color Page Yield

What it is: The total number of color ink pages that it's possible to print from one cartridge. The reference document coverage is 12.22% cyan ink, 17.45% magenta ink, and 18.80% yellow ink over 5 pages based on ISO/IEC 24712-2007 standard. This value is estimated using the tested page yield and the covered ratio between the ISO reference page and the 80% covered test document.
When it matters: Printers manage the calculation of remaining ink differently, and it can have an impact on your overall cartridge consumption, increasing the price of the printing.
Good value: > 250 pages

In this test, we estimate how many color copies you should get from the printer's standard replacement color cartridges. If you print a lot in color, you'll want to find a printer that has a high estimated color page yield.

Using the ISO/IEC 24712-2007 as a reference, we calculate what a more typical color print yield might look like based on the results of our accelerated color page yield test. Our calculations multiply the results of each our color print yield tests by the ratio of our test document's coverage (80% cyan, magenta, and yellow) compared to that of our reference document (12.22% cyan, 17.45% magenta, and 18.80% yellow total coverage sum over 5 different types of color print). The higher the estimated page yield, the better.

This test matters for all printers, since print yield is an important part of choosing a printer that you can afford in the long run.

Third-Party Cartridge

What it is: The possibility of using a third-party cartridge.
When it matters: When your printing frequency is high and you plan on reducing your printing cost, third-party cartridges are a good solution. They're cheaper, but some printers won't recognize them. Sometimes using a third-party cartridge voids the warranty.

If you're wondering whether a printer you're looking at has any lower-cost ink options available, it can be helpful to know if it supports third-party cartridges or not. Third-party cartridges are either inkjet or laser toner cartridges that come from a different company than the printer manufacturer. This can include remanufactured cartridges that have been refilled or newly manufactured generic cartridges. They're usually a lot more affordable than brand-name cartridges, but some printers won't recognize them and they might not perform as reliably.

In this test, we purchase the most popular third-party cartridge model available and check whether the printer will recognize it and can still print. Since third-party cartridges present a cheaper option, printers that support them get a higher score than those that don't. We currently don't distinguish between remanufactured and compatible, generic cartridges, however.

This test matters most for standard inkjet and laser toner printers since SuperTank inkjet printers don't use cartridges.

Note: The use of third-party cartridges can void your printer's warranty. Not all third-party cartridges are created equal, and some perform better than others. Many companies will refuse to service or repair a printer damaged by a third-party cartridge, so it's a risk worth keeping in mind.

High-Yield Cartridge

What it is: Some printers let you replace the cartridge with an oversized one. Usually, an XL will print around two times more pages.
When it matters: When your printing frequency is high, it's a good way to reduce the cost of the cartridge without the risk of using a third-party cartridge.

If you're considering a printer that has all the features you're looking for but its cost-per-print isn't great, you'll want to know whether you can purchase high-yield cartridges for it or not. High-yield, also called XL cartridges, are filled with more ink than standard replacement cartridges so they can print more at a reduced cost-per-page.

In this test, we check whether the printer is compatible with any high-yield cartridge models and list the applicable naming convention. Since they can help you get more bang for your buck, printers with compatible high-yield cartridges are scored favorably compared to those that don't. However, printers with additional high-yield models, like XL and XXL cartridges, don't get any extra points.

This test matters most for standard inkjet and laser printers since SuperTank ink bottles tend to only come in one size.

Drum Unit

What it is: When the drum unit of a laser printer is in the printer, you'll eventually need to replace it, adding cost. When the drum unit's in the toner cartridge replacement kit, you don't have to think about it.
When it matters: When trying to keep long-term costs down.

If you're interested in the low cost-per-print performance of a laser printer, you'll need to know how to replace the drum unit. When the imaging drum comes as a separate unit, you need to buy a new drum now and then, which can be pretty expensive. When the drum unit is built into the toner cartridge, you replace it every time you get new toner. You'll likely pay a bit more for toner, but don't have to worry about the drum at all.

Brother DR-730 imaging drum unit

In this test, we check whether a laser printer's imaging drum yield is integrated directly in the cartridge or comes as a separate unit entirely. However, since the right drum type for you depends on your print volume, this test isn't scored. If you're just looking for a simple black and white printer to use at home, then something with a separate drum unit will likely be more affordable; however, if you're a small business owner who prints thousands of copies a month, having the drum integrated into the cartridge is often more cost-effective in the long-term and keeps your prints looking their best.

This test only matters for laser printers since inkjet printers don't require imaging drums.

Additional Information

Color and Photo Printing

The vast majority of consumer color printers use only three base colors, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow (CMY). Together, these colors can create a wider perceived range of colors in print. However, when CMY inks are combined, they create an impure black, also known as a "composite" black. Since perfect blacks are needed for many commercial printing purposes, the vast majority of consumer printers add a dedicated black ink source. This is known as "four-color-process" printing, or the CMYK color model.

Cheaper printers tend to use a two-cartridge system, where the cyan, magenta and yellow ink colors are contained inside a single tri-color cartridge.

Higher-end models often use individual ink systems, where each ink color has its own cartridge. Some even use special photo cartridges, too.

HP OfficeJet 5255 Cartridges
Two-cartridge system with a single tri-color cartridge.
Canon PIXMA TR8520 Cartridges
Five-cartridge individual ink system with an additional photo black cartridge.

 Many photo printers only use a single "photo black" cartridge, but some might have a dedicated gray or photo blue cartridge as well. These photo cartridges are often pigment-based, compared to regular dye-based cartridges. As you get into more professional-grade models, you'll notice even more photo black options, as well as additional light cyan and magenta cartridges to fit the CcMmYK model. Some older premium photo printers used to have green and red or orange cartridges to work with what was known was the Hexachrome printing process, but it has been discontinued.

Risk vs Reward of Third-Party Cartridges

Printer ink is expensive, plain and simple. Starter cartridges, the ones that come with your machine when you first get it, only have a little bit of ink inside them, so they don't last very long. You buy a new printer, print a little bit, and before you know it, you're off to spend more money on replacement cartridges. Standard replacement cartridges last longer, but the costs can add up over time - sometimes it can be tempting to just buy another new, cheap printer instead of paying for ink again. Inkjet printers are the worst offenders, but even the most economical laser printers will set you back a fair bit now and then. High-yield cartridges are more economical in the long run, but the upfront costs can be hard to swallow. Third-party cartridges are an appealing option for many since they're so much more affordable than brand name cartridges.

There are two main kinds of third-party cartridges: 

  • Remanufactured cartridges, also called refurbished, recycled, or refilled ink cartridges. These are pre-owned cartridges that have been refilled and reassembled, often with ink or parts from other used cartridges, for resale. This could include original brand-name cartridges that you've had refilled in person, or fully refurbished cartridges purchased online. 

  • Compatible cartridges, sometimes called generic, or "no-name" ink cartridges. These are newly manufactured cartridges, made by any company other than the original manufacturer of the compatible printer.

While third-party cartridges might cost less, it's hard to know whether they'll provide better value in the long run. There are a lot of third-party options out there, with differing degrees of quality. Lots of people find great deals every day, with cheap third-party cartridges that provide comparable print quality and yield to the original cartridges. However, there are many reports of third-party cartridges that can make your prints look streaky or faded and run out of ink too soon.

It's also possible for third-party cartridges to damage your printer, especially if the ink formulation isn't respected. This is a significant risk because manufacturer warranties rarely cover damage that third-party cartridges might cause. For many printer companies, the mere use of a third-party cartridge is enough to often void the warranty.

Even if we were to test the price-to-performance ratio of all the most popular third-party cartridges out there, there are too many options out there to give a definitive answer. That said, if your printer is already out of warranty, or you're not concerned about needing to pay for a new one if it gets damaged, third party cartridges can be a viable option. However, if you're concerned about print quality or the longevity of a new machine, you'll want to stick with cartridges from the original manufacturer.

What's Missing?

There are a couple of things we don't yet test, like:

  • Ink formulation (dye vs pigment)
  • Third-party cartridge yield
  • Differences in third-party cartridge compatibility (remanufactured vs generic compatible)
  • High-yield cartridge yield
  • Third-party drum compatibility
  • Drum yield
  • Inkjet printhead location (fixed head vs disposable)
  • Clogging and other cartridge-related issues

Conclusion

Cartridges are the most important, and often most expensive, part of printing. Whether you're looking for something simple for the family to use at home or a multifunction workhorse to set up in the office, the type of cartridge a printer uses can make or break your buying decision. A printer might have all the features you're looking for, but if the cartridges aren't any good, then it might not be worth it. You'll want to consider not only the black and color page yield, but also how many color cartridges it uses, if it has a photo cartridge, whether you can buy high-yield cartridges, what kind of drum unit you need to replace, and whether it supports third-party cartridges. Still, try not to get lost in the details. There's no such thing as a perfect printer. Think about what matters most to you, and go from there.

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