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Print quality and durability – effects of ink

Issue #1108 – If you think third party inks will give you the same quality and durability as original inks, you are most certainly mistaken! Following on from the investigation concerning the implications of the glossy paper used for printing photos , in this article we investigate the much more dramatic implications of using different inks for photo printing.

When we’re printing, for many of us there may well be the thought in the back of our minds, “should I be saving money by buying third party inks?” We know what the printer manufacturers tell us about the need to use original supplies and, while many choose to stick rigidly with original inks, many others ignore their advice and take the third party route, filling our inkjet printers with third party inks. For some, the ink quality is an issue, for some it isn’t.

What we are particularly sceptical of is the message presented by the printer manufacturers and particularly the veiled threats that use of third party inks will invalidate our warranty. We think, ‘They would say that, they just want us to buy their inks because that’s their business and they don’t want to lose it to other companies’ … and … ‘Using third party inks isn’t going to be a problem for me and I can save shed loads of money that way’.

Well, let me tell you – I’m as sceptical as the next man and I know that this scepticism is frequently evident in the TCPglobal articles (which I have fun researching and writing). But then, anyone following any kind of research, investigative or journalistic route has to embrace a degree of scepticism or they find that there is nothing to research or investigate. An inquisitive mind is essential.

So, as an independent research and test house, I can assure you that the message you read here is fully backed by a healthy scepticism of marketing messages.

Recent tests have shown me, however, much more dramatically than I expected, that using third party inks can be a disastrous experience. Taking that a step further, using both third party inks and third party papers is worse still – but that may be the subject of another article.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the use of third party inks when printing on the manufacturer’s own glossy photo paper. As with the previous article, these results are based on printing with Brother’s A3 series business inkjet MFCs and, while it cannot be guaranteed that other printer brands will behave in exactly the same way without specifically testing them, general experience indicates that results should translate closely for other OEM supplies when pitched against third party supplies.

After all, third party inks are not going to vary very much (if at all) between cartridges produced for different brands of printer. The emphasis is on cheapness and so bulk manufacturing is the name of the game.

OK. Where do we start? As before, there are three elements we will investigate:

  • Print quality
  • Water fastness
  • Light fastness

… and for all elements we are comparing prints made with OEM paper only. This article is about ink and NOT paper. All samples are printed on Brother BP71 glossy photo paper.

What we’ll do is to compare the OEM ink (Brother LC1100) with compatible cartridges from three third parties.

Print Quality
As with OEM inks on third party papers, when viewing a photograph in isolation, it is easy to be impressed and to be happy with the quality of the print. However, the ink is the more important factor in the equation and we find that there are bigger differences in print quality from use of different inks than from use of different papers.

Note: This is a single image, scanned in one pass of the scan head, so there is no difference in the way the individual images have been handled by the scanner.

LC1100 ink
compatible ink
compatible ink
Stinky Inks
compatible ink
Print Quality - InksPrint Quality – Inks

When comparing papers, the differences in straight image quality are pretty minimal, making it difficult to differentiate in a scan at this size. However, these inks demonstrate significant differences, at least some of which can be clearly seen in this scanned image.

Firstly, while the image printed with Brother original inks is nicely saturated with good colour balance, contrast and depth, the image from the Conzumo ink (top right) is heavily affected by a Yellow colour cast – to the point of being unattractive. This is certainly the worst of the deficiencies, none of which really show up visually in the colour blocks at this scale.

However, optical density readings show that the Conzumo Yellow ink prints with a density 17% stronger than the Brother original. It also shows that the Conzumo Cyan ink actually prints more than 11% less dense than Brother’s Cyan. Between them, these ink differences cause the strong Yellow colour cast.

Where the Inkrite ink (bottom left) is concerned, we note a slight purple colour cast – this is caused by the Cyan and Magenta inks are printing at a higher density than Brother’s originals by 9% and 5% respectively while the Yellow prints 14% less dense.

In the Stinky Ink image (bottom right), we see that the entire image is lighter. This is because all three of the colour inks are less dense than original inks – by 4% (Magenta), 10% (Cyan) and 17% (Yellow).

All of the images printed with third party inks display slightly lower contrast than the image printed with the manufacturer’s original supplies. However, placing the four original paper prints side by side, only the Conzumo sample really stands out as being completely unacceptable, while the Stinky Ink sample is notably lighter. The Inkrite sample is the closest to the Brother original.

Secondly, Water damage
Coincidentally, I had a conversation with an associate in a different organisation just a couple of days ago about water damage to inkjet prints. We were actually talking about the dangers of spilling coffee on letters printed with dye-based inkjet technology. My solution, of course, was to suggest buying a printer that uses pigment ink.

However, water damage to photographs can be more distressing than water damage to a letter, simply because users tend to demand a greater longevity from glossy photo prints than they do from plain paper documents. This is because plain paper documents are usually required for reading or reference for just a short time while photos may be displayed for years.

Anyway … the point here is that the quality of ink and paper, and the matching of the two, has a huge impact on the durability of a photo print. We saw in the previous article about photo papers that the Brother BP71 glossy photo paper is exceptionally good at locking the ink in, resulting in a very low level of damage when soaked in water.

Here, we see that not even the Brother paper can prevent a degree of damage when third party inks are used.

LC1100 ink
compatible ink
compatible ink
Stinky Inks
compatible ink
photo papersEffects of water – photo papers

While the Brother image has been affected very little, less than 1% average change in optical density, the two images on the bottom row are affected to a much higher degree.

Effects of water - Conzumo inkEffects of water – Conzumo ink

Interestingly, the Conzumo image has survived remarkably well, with a very minor average loss of optical density (less than 1%). What is not noticeable from the scan above is that there is a small amount of leaching of the Yellow ink around black text. This does become obvious with an enlargement. This effect was noticed to a lesser degree with both Inkrite inks (Magenta leaching) and Stinky Inks (Yellow leaching).

On the bottom row, the Inkrite photo has clearly lost a significant proportion of Yellow from the image (8.5%), while Cyan and Magenta inks have lost only 1% and 1.5% optical density respectively. This is even discernable at this size in the solid Yellow colour block – a deficiency that leaves the image looking a very redish/purple.

Stinky Inks’ sample print started off with a much lower optical density level of all three inks, as described above. After soaking, it was found to have lost a further 2% density in Cyan and 2.5% density in Yellow, resulting in a distinctly insipid and unbalanced image.

Thirdly, Light Fastness
This is where we really see the biggest deterioration in image compared both to the original image and also to the sample printed with the manufacturer’s original supplies.

As with the samples in the previous article, all images have deteriorated due to extended exposure to an intense light source. The top images, Brother ink on Brother paper, are the same as shown in the previous article, of course. The average deterioration (average loss of optical density, CMY) for this sample using the OEM supplies is exactly 30%, the technical failure point for light fastness.

You will appreciate that even at a loss of 30%, the sample is still reasonably good. Nothing is lost completely, all text is legible and all aspects of the image are still intact. The loss has affected the overall density/vividness of the image.

That cannot be said for any of the third party inks, however. As stated on several occasions previously, it is the ink that makes the most critical difference to the quality and durability of a photographic image – much more-so than the paper used.

Here we see such severe deterioration of the third party images that several elements are lost altogether.

Before exposure After exposure
Light fastness – Brother LC1100 inkLF Brother LC1100
Light fastness – Conzumo compatible inkLight fastness - Conzumo compatible ink
Light fastness – Inkrite compatible inkLight fastness - Inkrite compatible ink
Light fastness – Stinky Inks compatible inkLight fastness - Stinky Inks compatible ink

With the Conzumo ink, a tiny proportion of the Yellow is still in evidence – but then, it started with oversaturated Yellow anyway! Average CMY loss is 87%, with both Magenta and Yellow having lost 95% of their optical density, making it the worst performer in the group.

Just to repeat a note here – Cyan is the ink that is usually most durable under exposure to light. Then, it is a matter of ink formula as to whether the Magenta or the Yellow is the more durable. As a generality, Magenta tends to be more vulnerable than Yellow and will be the first to fade but, for these third party inks, there is little difference between the two. It is actually Brother’s original inks that buck the trend with the Cyan being rather more vulnerable that the Yellow.

Inkrite’s inks have performed only a little better than Conzumo’s, returning an average CMY image loss of 81.5%, while the Stinky Ink sample falls between the two with an average CMY loss of 84%. On an individual ink basis though, the Stinky Ink Yellow recorded the highest optical density loss within this group – at 99%.

LC1100 ink
compatible ink
compatible ink
Stinky Inks
compatible ink
Cyan -32% -72% -57% -55%
Magenta -42% -95% -95% -99%
Yellow -16% -95% -93% -97%
Average -30% -87% -81.5% -84%

Of one thing we can be certain, none of the third party inks perform anywhere close to the performance of the OEM inks.

Having now looked at the effects of using both third party papers and third party inks on image quality and durability, it has become abundantly clear that any user who makes the decision to veer away from the manufacturer’s original supplies takes a big risk on two major counts:

    Firstly, image quality suffers
    Secondly, image durability suffers – from both water and light related attack

IF … users seriously require photo prints for just a brief and cursory look, or to show round friends and relatives for just a short period of time, and they can be reasonably sure that the prints will not be subject to water or extended light exposure, then the quality and durability difference may be insignificant. There may even be cost benefits.

However, for discerning users with a demand for longevity in their printed photographs, I would strongly suggest that this is a risk not worth taking.

Moving on from there, there is also significant evidence to suggest that the general user experience suffers from the use of third party supplies. To date, we have a quantity of data that shows the danger of cartridge failure from third party cartridges compared to OEM cartridges that do not fail (a sweeping generalisation, I know, but I have only ever known OEM cartridges from Lexmark that have failed!!).

In any situation where a cartridge fails, the Cost of Printing is instantly affected. So, there may, in the end, be no cost benefits from using third party supplies.

Perhaps cartridge reliability is the topic of another article, along with a look at image quality and durability when using both third party papers and third party inks.

In the meantime, users should be aware that they may not be achieving the benefits they think they are if they take a chance and buy third party supplies.

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