When your laser printer emits the beep of doom, then it can only mean one thing: it's time to replace the toner cartridge. That often isn't cheap. Toner costs around four pennies a page for black toner and higher for colour.
You can pick up a third party black toner cartridge for under a quarter of the price of the official branded version that promises to print the same number of pages. A pack of colour toner cartridges from a discount manufacturer will cost you under half the price that you'd pay the original printer manufacturer. So why wouldn't you cut costs?
The third-party toner cartridge market falls into two main categories. The first is compatible cartridges, which are generic 'no-name' units made new by an alternative manufacturer. The second is remanufactured cartridges, which are used ones, refilled and resold. Some companies will even refill cartridges that you supply.
You'll often find both types of cartridge for sale on reputable retail marketplaces, which gives them an air of credibiity. In truth, while you might be just fine using either, you might not. The problem is that you don't really know what you're getting when dealing with either category. The market is fragmented, with many different players.
In some scenarios, users are willing to take the risk and opt for third-party consumables. Inkjet cartridges are a good example. Ink for consumer inkjet printers is so expensive (and the machines are so cheap) that some home users are willing to try their luck. For printers in a business setting, though, the uncertainty around using third-party toner can create real problems.
One such problem is print quality. Ink clogs can create streaky, blotchy images, while poor quality ink can lead to faded images. Multiple reports from independent testers have found varying results in third-party consumables.
In 2016, testing lab Wirth Consulting compared third-party toner cartridges against HP's own and found that while HP's cartridges were always acceptable for all uses, the quality of the third party prints varied. The best discount cartridges were usable for all purposes barely half of the time. The worst were only ever acceptable for individual use and never good enough for distribution, even inside the company.
Wirth is an independent lab but the report was commissioned by HP. Consumer Reports' annual printer survey in 2018 wasn't. It found that 37% of people had tried third-party ink cartridges. Of those, more than a third (36%) said that they were sub-par, and the magazine's own tests confirmed quality problems. Toner cartridges use a different technology to ink ones, but this doesn't inspire confidence.
Another issue is process quality. In a patchy market, it isn't always a guarantee that a remanufactured cartridge will contain the advertised amount of toner. Forum research reveals accounts of third party toner cartridges that arrived only half-filled.
Others tell horror stories of third-party toner cartridges that burst, leaking messy toner all over the printer's innards, forcing the poor IT technician to clean it up. One user reported that a burst cartridge leaked onto the printer's power supply and burned it out. That's another thing; printer warranties frequently exclude any damage caused by unauthorised toner.
There are alternative approaches to saving money on toner. Some vendors are now applying the reservoir model frequently found in inkjets to laser printers. Instead of a cartridge, they come with a toner tank that can be refilled with a low-cost kit.
The other cost-saving measure is to use a managed print service that monitors toner usage and replenishes it automatically. This reduces the cost overhead of monitoring, managing, and refilling printers.
The real cost-cutting measure might be more economical use of your toner in the first place. Thinking twice before printing each document, and using full duplex (double sided) printing if you do, can go a long way towards reducing your toner consumption.
Check out the popular printer toners below - limited stock available