Brother compatible vs. original laser toner cartridges: Is the cheaper price worth the lower quality?

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Over the past few years I rarely printed out documents, but every once in a while it happens. Either for official documents which (as of today's laws) still require to be physically signed and sent or for printing drawings of my kids or other stuff.

As I personally almost never needed any colours on the printed sheets, I decided a while ago to buy "compatible" toner cartridges for my Brother MFC 9330 CDW laser printer as they are much cheaper than the original toner cartridges from Brother.

Note: You may wonder why Brother? Because when I decided to buy this printer 10 years ago in 2013, I wanted a printer which officially supports Linux as Operating System. And Brother, back then and still now, officially supports Linux/CUPS.

Big price differences

The price range for a compatible cartridge varies a lot here in Switzerland. Let's take the Magenta cartridge (TN-245M) as an example:

Brother TN-245M price comparison

Compatible (and immediately available) TN-245M cartridges can be found from CHF 16.25 (that's roughly USD 18.15 right now):

Actis TB-245MA to replace original Brother TN-245M

But there are more expensive cartridges, too. Here's an example showing a compatible (meaning: not original) cartridge for CHF 47.30:

Compatible cartridge to replace original Brother TN-245M

That's 4x the lowest price, but still cheaper than buying the original toner cartridge. Today the cheapest price for an immediately available original Brother TN-245M was CHF 75.50:

Yes, compatible cartridges are definitely much cheaper (up to 6x) than the original Brother toner cartridges - but what about the quality? Is the quality 6x worse, too?

Colours digital vs. printed

As I mentioned before, I rarely printed out pages with colours and mainly used black/white pages. But recently I needed to print out some Kibana statistics and wanted to show them physically to someone. When I looked at the printed page, I couldn't believe my eyes: The colours from the graph barely represented the colours I saw on the computer screen!

Printed Kibana stats with Brother compatible toner cartridge

This is a picture taken from the printed out page. I added the arrow and the text description afterwards with GIMP. The green/yellowish part the arrow points to was supposed to be a kind of light brown. Also the large data column was supposed to be purple. The printer somehow went from purple to blue within the same bar.

Here's the original digital picture:

Original Kibana graph

You don't need to be a printer or colour specialist to immediately see multiple spots where the original colour is somewhat and sometimes even completely different than the printed page.

Comparing to original toner cartridges

I decided to give the original toner cartridges from Brother another shot and use this to compare the print quality compatible vs. original toner cartridges. Once I replaced the compatible toner cartridges with the original Brother cartridges, I printed the same document again. Here's the picture of the printed page:

Kibana graph printed with original Brother toner cartridges

Although the printed page doesn't look perfect either, there are huge differences in how the different colours were handled. The large data bar is now a solid purple and multiple different colours can now be seen at the top of the large data bar. A quick and easy comparison can be done with the IP addresses on the right top (which are blacked out on the last 3 octets), which shows more colours than on the first printed document.

Comparing "Printer Test Page"

The Printer Test Page, on Linux Mint at least, shows multiple colours (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) and Black text. Such a test page was printed first with the compatible toner cartridges, then once again after replacing the cartridges with original ones.

At first sight you wouldn't spot a major difference. Only when you look closer (click on the image to see the zoom) at the different colours you can see some differences:

  • Cyan colour is darker on the compatible toner and looks more "blue-ish" to my eye than actual cyan
  • Magenta and Yellow look pretty similar in terms of colour
  • Green is completely something different - most likely to the colour mixing used with a different cyan base colour
  • Blue is much darker on the compatible cartridges, again most likely due to the darker cyan base
  • In general the colour filled half-circles are not that "solid" with the compatible cartridges
  • The same can also be seen with the Black filling: The printed document with the original cartridges seems more solid (less little white spots)
  • The text itself (in black) looks almost identical - to the (untrained) human eye there's no lack of quality.

So what now? Compatible or original toner cartridges?

When only printing documents or pictures in black/white (or greyscale), I would advise to buy the compatible toner cartridges. They are less expensive than the original cartridges from Brother, however have a slightly less dense printout. On text however this doesn't matter.

But when often printing documents with a lot of colours, such as a graph shown above, the quality difference is quite obvious. Here I advise to go with the original toner cartridges.

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