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Best Printer Inks of the Year: Inkjet Printer Cartridges Explained

5 minute read

By Hayley Harrison

Printing can offer big savings compared to professional printing services, but there are still costs involved. In addition to staying stocked up on paper, you need to keep your printer filled with ink. The cost of printer ink can add up significantly, with the average person or small business spending an average of $60 to $120 per year on black ink and $75 to $150 on color ink.

When you’re investing money in printer ink, you want to ensure you’re getting the most for your money. This guide to printer inks will help you choose the best options for your printing needs and introduce you to the key types of cartridges, so you can shop with confidence.

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Starting with Your Printer Model Is Key

There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all printer ink. Each printer has a unique design and requires an ink cartridge designed to exact specifications. Even printers made by a single manufacturer usually take different printer inks. If a cartridge isn’t right, it may not fit inside your printer at all and could damage the parts if you try to force it into place. Additionally, the improper cartridge may not work properly, leading to wasted paper. To avoid these problems, check the model number and the ink recommended for your printer before you shop.

Dye-Based Ink

Dye-based ink is the most common type of printer ink, and it comes in a wide range of colors. To produce dye-based inks, manufacturers fully dissolve colorants in water. As a result, the coloration is even throughout the ink. Loaded with dye-based inks, most printers can quickly tackle printing tasks. Paper can quickly absorb dye-based inks, so your finished print jobs are likely to dry fast. The penetrating properties of the ink also help glossy printed photographs retain their color over time.

Pigment-Based Ink

Pigment-based ink is an alternative to dye-based ink. Instead of being a liquid, this type of printer ink consists of powdered pigments suspended in a carrier liquid. With pigment ink, you can expect slower print times, and your finished printouts will likely need to dry for a few minutes before you can handle them safely. The upside of this ink is that it allows for greater color variations to give photos printed on archival and matte photo papers more natural coloration.

Multi-Cartridge Systems

Multi-cartridge systems are found in a variety of printers from top brands. In this setup, printers usually hold two cartridges. One contains only black pigment or dye ink, while the other holds the colored ink. When your print job calls for color, the cartridge releases the necessary amounts of magenta, cyan, and yellow dyes to produce the various shades. When one color inside the cartridge runs out, you must replace the entire cartridge, even if other colored inks remain.

HP 61

The HP 61 Ink Cartridge Pack is one of the best multi-cartridge printer ink packages available. With it, you receive one black ink cartridge capable of printing up to 190 pages and one tricolor cartridge with enough ink for up to 165 pages. All the inks featured in the cartridges are fade-resistant to help your print jobs stand the test of time. Like all multi-cartridge systems, these printer inks are typically best for people who only print in color occasionally.

Single Cartridge Systems

Single cartridge ink systems solve the problem of having to replace an entire ink cartridge just because you ran out of a single color. Instead of using one black and one colored cartridge, this type of printer uses at least four cartridges: black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. When one cartridge becomes completely depleted, you only need to swap it out and can continue to use the others. However, these cartridges usually contain less ink, so you may run out of basic black much more quickly.

Canon PGI-280/CLI-281

The Canon PGI-280/CLI-281 ink system is a high-quality example of a single cartridge system. This value pack gives you one of each of the ink colors compatible with many Canon printers, but you can also purchase the inks separately as needed. One of the biggest advantages of these dye-based inks for photographers is the ChromaLife 100 technology that creates more realistic skin tones and natural landscape colors than many other single cartridge inks.

Canon CLI-65

Also from Canon, the CLI-65 ink system marks a big advance in the design of single cartridge systems. Instead of four inks, it includes eight, adding light gray, gray, light cyan and light magenta. With these additional colors and the ChromaLife 100 technology found in the PGI-280/CLI-281 system, these printer inks provide more lifelike color for printing on glossy, semigloss and luster photo papers. The biggest downside is that the tanks are much smaller and will likely need to be replaced more often.

Cartridge-Less Systems

Cartridge-based ink systems are no longer the only option to consider when you’re buying a new printer. Some manufacturers are now offering models that eliminate cartridges entirely. In place of cartridge holders, these printers feature color-coded tanks and usually come with a starter supply of jumbo ink bottles. To use the printer, you fill each tank with the correct color, and then you refill as required. Although cartridge-less systems may save you money on ink, they can cause a mess, so fill with caution.

Epson T512 EcoTank

The Epson T512 EcoTank ink system features refillable black, cyan, magenta, and yellow tanks instead of cartridges. You can purchase a multipack with black and all three colors or buy black on its own. Unfortunately, Epson doesn’t sell the colors individually, which adds to the expense of refills. Still, one bottle can print thousands of pages and may save you up to 80 percent compared to the cost of cartridges. Auto-stop ink bottles simplify refills and reduce the risk of overfilling.

Factor in Your Printing Needs

Whether you’re comparing ink options for a printer that can accommodate different cartridges or trying to decide on which printer model to buy based on ink types, don’t lose sight of your printing needs. If you spend most of your time printing black-and-white documents or don’t print frequently at all, pigment inks or multi-cartridge inks will likely save you money and adequately suit your purposes. For photographs with a professionally printed look, individual cartridges with dye inks may be a better option.

Use Caution with Compatibles

It’s no coincidence that all the best printer inks recommended above are original parts produced by printer manufacturers. Although many lower-priced products claim to be compatible with popular printer models, their results rarely rival genuine manufacturers’ refills. Plus, there’s no guarantee that an off-brand printer cartridge will work in your printer. If you do decide to take a risk and buy a compatible refill over a manufacturer’s, read product reviews carefully and purchase from a reliable retailer that offers hassle-free returns.

Hayley Harrison


Hayley Harrison is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After receiving a degree in the History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh, she changed gears and pursued a career in banking. In 2002, she began producing financial literacy articles, and eventually moved to writing full-time on a variety of subjects, including health, food, travel and career planning.