Genuine OEM Toner and Ink vs. Compatible, Third-Party, or Refurbished


While I don’t get as many questions about the different types of toner or ink anymore, I see a lot more people using compatible, third-party or refurbished toner in color machines. Unlike must monochrome machines, in color machines non-OEM toner can result in major quality issues and expensive repair bills. In this post, we’ll explore the difference between monochrome and color machines as it relates to toner, and discuss some of the issues I’ve seen with non-OEM toners.

OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) – Toner cartridge made by the manufacturer of the product, which is specifically designed and tested to insure the best quality of print and longevity of the product. This is also referred to as “genuine”.

Compatible, Third-party, Refurbished, Non-OEM Can mean a variety of things and quality differs greatly from one company to the next. The best thing I can say here is don’t buy a year’s supply of toner from one place before testing the product. If you’ve decided to go the non-genuine route, find a product that’s in the middle of the price range. You may not need to buy the most expensive third-party toner but you should never buy the cheapest one you can find.

You may also be interested in reading this related post

Inkjet Refills or Compatibles
While I’ve seen some non-genuine laser toners get the same quality of print as OEM toners, I’ve never seen that same quality in a non-OEM inkjet cartridge. That’s my first complaint. You will never have the same print quality as an OEM cartridge.

The second problem is how the machines are now designed. Years ago, most inkjet machines had two cartridges, one black and one tri-color, and the print head was on the bottom of the cartridge. If you purchased a defective cartridge you took it out, replaced it, and no damage was done to the machine.

Nowadays, 95% of the machines out there have tube assemblies and separate print heads. The ink cartridge is stationary inside the machine and tubes run the ink through the machine to the print head or heads. In this system, if you get a bad ink cartridge that ink is in your tube assembly and print head. Just changing out your cartridge will not resolve the issue. That new ink has to work itself through the tube assembly and the print heads, requiring a lot of prints after you replace the cartridge before you will have good quality prints again, if you’re lucky.

The third problem is that third-party ink is usually thinner than regular ink. OEM ink is more like oil whereas third-party ink is like food coloring; water with a dye added. Because of this, third-party ink tends to dry up more quickly than regular ink resulting in clogged nozzles on the print head or in the tube assembly. Also, thin ink can cause air pockets in the tube assembly, which should never happen with machines of this design. There always needs to be a solid flow of ink within the tube assembly or you get sporadic color; you have it one minute – then it’s gone – then 5 prints later it’s back again for a page or two – then it’s gone.

Conclusion about Inkjets
I never recommend third-party ink in these machines. Your machine will never be the same after using it. Eventually the ink will damage your print head and or tube assembly. If by some miracle you find someone who can get the parts and is willing to repair it, you will discover it cost just as much to repair than what it cost to go out and replace the whole machine. These machines are fragile enough. You don’t need to provide them with more reasons to break.

Solid Ink Compatibles
The ink sticks are put into the machine and the machine melts them into the ink reservoir where the ink is sprayed onto the drum. Kind of like a heavy duty inkjet.

The first problem here is that, while sometimes the ink color is an exact match to OEM ink, you will eventually run into ink that is not the same color and because the ink melts into the reservoir you will have to print off a lot of pages before that ink works itself out and print quality is good again. Also, if you want to stop using those ink sticks you probably will have to remove the ink loader and pull them out. Once they are in they are hard to get out.

Next problem is that anytime you apply heat to anything you risk changing the chemical compound of the original product. If the ink is not designed perfectly it will burn in the reservoir resulting in darker than normal color and possible clogged nozzles on the print head. Once again you will have to run several cleanings to remove the ink from the reservoir and to unclog the prints heads.

The third problem is that third-party ink in these machines love to clog the nozzles on the print head. I tell customers all the time that I’ve only had to replace a print head once or twice on a machine that has always had OEM ink run through it but I’ve replaced several after third-party ink has been used. I’ve seen third-party ink cause a whole color or multiple colors not printing where OEM ink usually only results in one or two nozzles not working, which can be fixed by several cleanings or by substituting the nozzles.

Finally, using third party ink can damage the seals inside the print head or it leaks past the seals resulting in ink spilling inside the machine, which causes damage to the print head as the ink leaks down on the electronics.

Conclusion about Solid Ink
Just like with inkjets you will always be fighting color issues you would not expect, like colors not matching the image on your computers screen if you use third-party ink. Eventually you will have clogged nozzles that can’t be repaired. The cost of print heads on these machines just keeps going up and up. A half year ago I could replace the print head for around $400. Now it would cost around $600 to 700 to repair. Also the print heads come with about 10 questions all relating to third-party ink. The printhead can be fixed if you do not use third-party ink so you can return the head for a rebate. If you answer yes to third-party ink in the questionnaire then no rebate. Basically if you run third party ink in these machines, it will very likely result in damage significant enough to require a major repair or throwing the machine away and buying a new on.

Color and Monochrome Laser or LED Compatibles
Here is where the news starts to get better. On a lot of the Laser and LED printers the toner, developer, and drum are all in the cartridge. If you get a bad cartridge that gives poor print quality or leaks you replace the cartridge, the image immediately looks better and very rarely results in major repairs because everything is in the cartridge.  However there are machines out there that have separate toner, developers, and drum units. If that is the case in the model you have I strongly recommend not using third-party toner because it’s the same as inkjet and solid ink. Once bad toner is in the system it’s hard to get out and poor print quality cannot be fixed the same day unless you flush out the toner system and replace the developer in the developer unit or in some cases replace the drum unit.

Unlike most third-party inkjets and solid ink, colors seem to match more closely to the OEM product. Some third-party cartridges out there are very close to OEM products. I get surprised once in a while when I open a machine to find a third-party cartridge. I always ask customers who want to use third-party toner how important print quality is to them and what they use the machine for. If they don’t care about exact color and quality too much and just use color for contrast in spread sheets and graphs or for internal documents then they probably will not have a problem with third-party toner. However, if they print information they will be handing out to customers or print a lot of graphics and pictures that need to be perfect or as close as possible then OEM is the only way to go.

In my opinion, the worst problem with third-party cartridges is they tend to leak more than OEM. Third-party manufacturers generally replace the cleaning blade, drum and primary charge roller but only replace other seals after an inspection deems it necessary. One dead give-away, for me, on HP and Brother machines is the condition inside the machine if they have used third-party cartridges. There is always more loose toner inside the print engine cavity with third-party toners. Toner leakage can be substantial. On machines like Brothers that have corona wires and charge grids the toner gets up in them resulting in black streaks or blotches down the page. Toner can leak on the high voltage contacts or onto other electronics resulting in all sorts of print quality issues or weird electrical problems. Toner build up can happen in the fusing assembly causing paper jams, torn fuser films, scratched hot rollers, and other print quality issues. In other cases you might not realize toner had leaked down around the transfer roller but when you blow it out with canned air, toner flies up every where resulting in more clean up and in extreme cases toner can get into the laser scanner assembly optics. If that happens then the unit will need to be taken apart and cleaned out.

Not all toner is created equally. OEM toner is specifically designed for the product.  In order to get 600 to 1200 DPI the manufacturer has to use a very fine toner. A way remanufacturer’s cut their cost is to use a lesser grade toner. To cut costs a lot of third-party toner is prints at 300 DPI. Now this will not show up on text prints but will on gray scale and photos. Customers usually complain that photos and graphics just don’t look as crisp as before.

Third-party toner tends to be coarser resulting in premature wear on parts of the machines. If you ever look at a picture of OEM toner and third party toner, the OEM toner tends to look like little pellets while third-party looks like large pieces of slate or sharp rocks.  I always tell customers with Brother machines that if they use OEM toner the drum unit will last well past its life but if they use a third-party brand they will be replacing it much sooner. Also coarse toner will eat away at the protective coating on the fuser film or hot roller. Once again fusers tend to last longer with OEM toner.

Toner is bonded to the paper using heat and pressure. Not everything melts at the same temperature. Typically, the larger the item the more heat is required to make it melt and paper heats up more quickly than metal.  Because not all toner is equal you might run into improper fusing on heavy cardstock, labels, or envelopes on third-party toner. Also, third-party toner has more of a tendency to stick to the fuser film or hot roller which can result in ghosting and other damage to the fuser.

Conclusion about Laser and LED Compatibles
I do not recommend third-party toner on machines that have toner auger systems and the developer unit is either by itself or in the drum unit. Also, if print quality is important, stay away from third-party toner.

Companies that have five or more of the same monochrome printer can consider third-party cartridges. This will drive down your overall cost per page significantly and because you have multiple machines you will typically always have a back up toner laying around if a third-party toner goes bad.

While third-party toner is not as dangerous to use on machines where the toner, developer, and drum are all in the same unit, there are things to watch out for and if you see any signs of leaking make sure to replace the toner cartridge as soon as possible to prevent damage inside the machine.  It might not hurt to have general cleanings performed on these machines. Some service providers offer discounts on multiple machine cleanings. If you have five or more printers using third-party toner you might consider having them cleaned at least once a year.

Conclusion about OEM (Genuine) and Compatibles (Non-Genuine)
Compatible cartridges have come a long way and, while they still have some issues, they are a lot better than ten years ago. Back then, I would not recommend them to anybody. Today, compatible cartridges will save you money up front. In some cases quite a bit. However, in the long run it often results in costly repairs that exceed your original savings. As stated, I do not recommend compatible cartridges for solid ink or inkjet printers, machines where print quality is important, or on machines that have separate toner, drums, and developer units.

OEM cartridges are definitely the best and safest way to go. I hardly ever have a print quality issue on an OEM cartridge that is not a result of something else external not related to the cartridge causing the problem. The choice is yours. I hope this post helps you make a more informed decision.

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Kevin Gumpp is a certified printer technician and freelance writer for Market Point. If you have a question regarding this topic or have any other printer repair related questions or topics for which you would like more information, please send an email to maryp@marketpoint.com.

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