Also, most people don't do all their printing in one session, and their printers stand idle for long periods. During those periods, an inkjet will occasionally come to life and perform print head cleaning, consuming additional ink. Sources agree that there is no rule of thumb about how much ink is lost this way, but the ISO test does not take it into account.
In other words, as they say in the car ads, your mileage may vary.
But accepting the standard as a basis for comparison, a random sampling of 33 black ink cartridges have published yields ranging from 175 to 2,400 pages, with the average being 661. Nine have page counts in the 400s. The cost per page (dividing the retail price by the yield) ranges from 1.6 cents to 15.4 cents, with the average being 5.9 cents. The average retail price of the black cartridges is $25.26.
Keep in mind that a full refill will require at least one and perhaps three more cartridges for color (non-black colors are sometimes combined in a cartridge) and the price of each may be comparable to that of the black cartridge. Some printers shut down completely even if only one color runs out, or, if you're able to press on, you risk ruining the print head fed by the ink cartridge that has gone dry.
Third-party ink can be problematic
Meanwhile, in response to the high costs, a third-party cartridge industry has arisen based mostly on refilling recycled cartridges made by the OEMs and collected through various channels. Lyra's Lecompte estimates that a third of cartridges selling at retail are refilled, often selling for half the original price.
But reservations about refilling are widespread, and include leaking, streaking, print head failures and unmatched colors. "I usually don't get good results out of refilled cartridges," says Industry Analysts researcher Slawetsky. "I don't recommend it with color, since it is tough to get good calibration." Notes Lyra Research analyst Lecompte, "The quality is not quite as good since it is used equipment."
Indeed, Micro Solutions Enterprises (MSE), a refilled toner cartridge supplier in Van Nuys, Calif., got out of the refill ink business two years ago because quality was hard to maintain, says Luke Goldberg, MSE's vice president. MSE promotes the reputation of its refurbished laser toner cartridges, but maintaining the same quality with ink cartridges proved too difficult -- there were too many leaking cartridges, too many that left streaks on the page, and other failures, Goldberg says.
Ironically, by getting out of the business MSE was also reacting to a trend toward lower cartridge prices, as more printers have the print head built into the body rather than in the cartridge, Goldberg adds. (An HP spokesman said that its cheapest cartridge with an integrated print head retails for about $15, while those without print heads start at about $10 and are usually found in more expensive printers.)
On the other hand, online third-party refill ink vendor Castle Ink is still in the business. Spokesman Bill Elward acknowledges that quality is a challenge, and that there are refillers who skate over the issue, giving the others a bad name. His firm has gone through four suppliers since 2005 looking for low defect rates, he says.
"The average cartridge can be refilled at most six times, but for quality control the best practice is to not refill more than three times," Elward notes. "But there are refillers who push it to the limit."