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How do Inkjet Cartridges Work?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Inkjet cartridges are extremely popular: most computer users are familiar with inkjet printers, as they provide relatively high quality printing and can be used in a variety of industries. The principle which inkjet cartridges use is very straightforward and easy to understand. Inkjet cartridges are reservoirs of ink which connect to a series of small nozzles called the print head that are used to create very small dots of ink. In a single color such as black, the nozzles can be used to form text. The colors in the inkjet cartridges can also be combined to form a color image.

Most color inkjet cartridges follow the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key, or Black (CMYK) color model. The four colors are held in separate reservoirs, sometimes within a single cartridge and sometimes sold individually as separate inkjet cartridges. They can be mixed in specific amounts to form hundreds of potential colors, creating lush and evenly toned color images on a wide variety of papers. When a user prints a document, the data sent from the computer to the printer includes the specific CMYK formula for each pixel in the image and the print head replicates it with hundreds of tiny nozzles that fire simultaneously.

Many manufacturers make inkjet cartridges with a built in print head. The reason for this is that the print head is one of the most heavily used parts in the printer: by including it with inkjet cartridges, manufacturers ensure that the print head is replaced frequently, permitting high print quality. The print head forces ink out by using either heat or vibration. Thermal print heads vaporize the ink, turning it into a small bubble which is forced out of the nozzle and onto the paper. Vibrating print heads force ink out with movement.

Print quality can vary widely with inkjet printers, as most users are aware. Several factors can influence print quality, beginning with the resolution. The higher the resolution, the higher the image quality, because the resolution refers to how many dots per inch (DPI) the printer can produce. Images which look grainy or ragged are produced on low DPI printers. The paper used can also affect quality, because low grade paper tends to allow ink to disperse on the paper, blurring the edges of the dots. High quality printer paper does not permit this, meaning that each dot remains crisp and distinct.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On Sep 21, 2011

In my home office I have a printer that takes inkjet toner cartridges and I also have a laser printer.

When I am printing professional documents, I will always use my laser printer because the quality is so much better.

For most of my home printing I will use the inkjet printer though. It is more economical and the quality of print is usually not as important. I always try to keep an extra inkjet cartridge on hand so when I run out I will have a replacement.

By bagley79 — On Sep 20, 2011

I have a Canon printer that I have used for several years. While most Canon inkjet cartridges aren't that expensive to replace it can still add up if you do much printing.

I was looking for ways to save some money on my ink cartridges and bought a kit to refill them at home. This didn't work very well for me as I found that they didn't seem to last very long when I refilled them myself.

The next thing I tried was taking the cartridges to a place that would refill them for me. The cost was about half of what I would pay for a new cartridge. I found these did not last very long either.

Now when I need a new ink cartridge, I just go and buy a brand new one because this is the only way I have found to get a lot of printed pages from one cartridge.

By andee — On Sep 20, 2011

I have an inexpensive printer in my home office that works great for printing personal documents. Most everything I print is in black and white and using inkjet cartridges is definitely the most economical way to print.

There have been many times that my color printer inkjet cartridges have dried out because they don't get used very often. One printer that I had wouldn't print anything unless both cartridges were in place.

I got to the point where I just left the color cartridge in there even if it was dried out. This way my printer would still print out what I needed in black and white.

By wander — On Sep 19, 2011

@letshearit - I think that with the way inkjet cartridges work, they are ideal for refilling. You can do it yourself really cheaply at home, it just takes a bit of a knack of working with something small. Pretty much if you look inside inkjet ink cartridges there are just three little areas with sponges that hold the ink. You wet the sponges with new ink of the appropriate color and are good to go again.

Another solution is to buy discount inkjet cartridges online. You can buy bundle packs really cheaply and it saves you the mess of refilling cartridges. Usually the cheap inkjet cartridges are just as good as the expensive brand name ones.

By letshearit — On Sep 19, 2011

With the simple way that inkjet cartridges work, you have to wonder why inkjet cartridges are so expensive. I have actually found it cheaper to purchase entirely new printers on sale rather than replace the ink.

What I do these days to stop going through printers so quickly, is take my empty inkjet cartridges into a shop at my local mall that can refill inkjet cartridges. They charge me $10-$20 a cartridge, depending on whether or not it is black or color I need done. It is a fairly painless process, but just be warned that the inkjet printer cartridges tend to bleed after they are refilled, so you could have a mess on your hands if you aren't careful.

By anon24962 — On Jan 21, 2009

Are Inkjet printers also the printing technology for the future or are any new promising technologies on the rise?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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