| How do you tell the difference between an enthusiast photo printer and a plain old consumer wannabe?
We've swapped out a few ink cartridges in our time. After using photo printers for years, we've learned that what makes an enthusiast printer a must-have isn't something that stands out just from looking at specs. As with most enthusiast and professional graphics products, you can't judge a photo prosumer printer by extrafast performance, higher resolution, or number of inks. The distinctions are more subtle. Attributes typically considered important for consumer models--such as text speed, ease of use, card slots, and plain-paper print quality--don't even factor into the equation for enthusiasts. What matters are the gamut and characteristics of the ink set, the supported papers, and the color-management tools. Community is also important: you need to have a place to go with your questions about third-party inks and papers, troubleshooting, color management, and software RIPs (raster image processors). Great print quality is pretty much a given, but with an enthusiast printer, we care about degrees of greatness.
Once upon a time, photo printers came with just three primary hues: cyan, magenta, and yellow. The addition of black, light cyan, and light magenta inks didn't really push the boundaries of the CMY gamut--the colors a device can produce. They simply made it possible to print more colors within the boundaries in order to produce smoother tones and better reproduce colors. It's only recently that the idea of expanding the boundaries of the gamut has trickled down from professional offset printing (such as Pantone's Hexachrome HiFi color set, which added orange and green inks) to photo prosumer models such as the Epson Stylus Photo R800 (adds red and blue) and the Canon i9900 (red and green) and iP8500. Plus, the Epson Stylus Photo R2400 and the HP Photosmart 8750 add extra grays into the mix.
Introducing new primaries makes active color management even more important than ever. A lot of time and effort has gone into mapping RGB to CMY color spaces; tossing in the new primaries means constant tweaking and continuous updating of ICC color profiles. Each of the vendors in this group ships some generic profiles with their printers, usually optimized for their specific papers. But the generic profiles generally won't meet the standards of a photo prosumer, so new profile releases from the manufacturers and end-user sharing of home-grown profiles for third-party papers and inks are essential.
At the enthusiast level, paper and ink are inextricably tied together, like diet and exercise: You can choose either one, but you'll get optimal results only when you do them together. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to use the manufacturer's paper and ink sets; there are plenty of third-party consumables to choose from. Lyson, for example, is a veteran in the fine-art ink and paper market for digital printing, especially for black and white. (Note that fine-art ink sets are a completely different species from third-party cartridge refills.) These consumables are optimized for specific models of printers, which also means there's a bit of a lag between the time a new printer ships and when new third-party consumables become available. That's one point in favor of buying an older printer.
If you want to try a third-party option, you need to pay close attention to the paper thickness supported by your chosen printer. Unfortunately, printer manufacturers don't make this easy for you. They tend to specify requirements in different ways--some choose mil (a measure of thickness where 1mil equals 0.001 inch); some choose millimeters; and some choose the basis weight (the weight of 500 sheets of standard-size stock), measured in pounds or grams per square meter. And sometimes they don't specify at all. Fortunately, Micro Format, a paper and printing materials manufacturer, provides a handy table for quick-and-dirty conversions to give you a rough idea of whether a paper is suitable.
Factoring in print longevity
Everybody wants their photos to last a long time; otherwise, why bother to capture the image in the first place? But determining the life of your prints is complicated, and the issue is further muddied by several myths and misunderstandings. For starters, terms such as archival and lightfast are often used interchangeably by vendors and users, but they're not the same. Lightfastness simply reflects a photo's fade characteristics when exposed to light, while archival also assumes a certain standard of paper durability and storage conditions--the print permanence data, then, is totally different. Determining how long a printed photo will last is an amazingly complex, expensive, and time-consuming task. There are outstanding theoretical and philosophical issues to contend with, as well. For example, where do you draw the line at which a print becomes unacceptably altered?
Wilhelm Imaging Research's longevity results are accepted as the de facto standard for digital printing. Unfortunately, both vendors and users try to boil all the complex data Wilhelm generates into one number, which is not only confusing but just plain wrong. You can't say that printer x's prints will last an x number of years. Each combination of paper and ink set will yield different results, and there are multiple results for every group. In addition to lightfastness, there are several other considerations, including humidity, water resistance, and ozone sensitivity. How you store a print makes a huge difference in how long it will last as well--is it exposed to the open air, under regular glass in a frame, or shielded by a UV filter?
Even if you could produce prints that will last forever, you might not want them. With current technology, at least, there are trade-offs between the gamut the ink set can produce and its tendency toward metamerism (apparent color shifts under different light sources), and print longevity. In other words, those long-lasting prints may not look as good in the here and now as those with a somewhat shorter life span.
Some people use the life span of a traditional silver-halide C-print--an everyday photo developed by your neighborhood Wal-Mart--as the standard by which to evaluate longevity. Even those photos have a lifetime ranging from about 20 to 40 years, depending upon the type of paper and processing used. By that fuzzy measure, many current inkjet photo printers are capable of producing prints that'll last just as long, if not longer, given the appropriate paper and inks.
The bottom line: If you plan to weigh potential print longevity when deciding on a printer, choose your favorite type of paper stock--stiff or flexible, glossy or matte, standard manufacturer offerings or specialty finishes--and compare Wilhelm's ratings for each ink set with your selected paper type.
Does size matter?
Enthusiast printers come in two sizes: the familiar models that handle 8.5x11-inch paper, and larger, medium-format versions. Medium-format printers can handle media up to 13 inches wide; the largest sheets they take are 13x19, usually referred to as Super B in the United States or A3+ elsewhere. Epson tended to introduce its innovations in its letter-size printers and subsequently roll them into medium-format versions (this is true for the R1800, but with the innovations in the R2400, the company seems to be splitting the product line), while Canon tends to do the opposite. HP, on the other hand, has released its first true prosumer model, the medium format Photosmart 8750.
In the end, you may ignore the size of the printer entirely. If you're looking for the latest and greatest output quality and performance, you'll probably end up deciding between the medium-format R2400 and the small-format i8500.
| ||Canon Pixma iP8500 ||Canon i9900 ||Epson Stylus Photo 2400 ||Epson Stylus Photo R800 ||HP Photosmart 8250 |
|Features ||8 ||7 ||9 ||8 ||8 |
|Image quality ||8 ||8 ||9 ||9 ||7 |
|Speed and operation ||8 ||8 ||7 ||7 ||7 |
|Ink set ||ChromaPlus: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, photo magenta, red, green ||Chroma- |
Plus: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, photo magenta, red, green
ChromeK3: cyan, magenta, yellow, light black, light light black, photo cyan, photo magenta
Optional: photo black, matte black
Chrome Hi-Gloss: cyan, magenta, yellow, photo black, matte black, red, blue, gloss optimizer
|Vivera: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, photo magenta |
Optional: photo grays
|Estimated ink cost per 8x10 print (U.S. dollars) ||14 cents ||14 cents ||21 cents ||71 cents ||78 cents |
|Estimated paper cost, best-quality letter-size sheet ||87 cents ||87 cents ||70 cents ||39 cents ||70 cents |
|Estimated total cost of 8x10 print on letter-size sheet ||$1.01 ||$1.01 ||91 cents ||$1.10 ||$1.48 |
|Key paper specs|
|Estimated maximum print lightfast- |
ness (Source: Wilhelm Imaging Research)
|n/a ||n/a ||85 years framed; 60 years unframed (rated for: Premium Glossy Photo paper) ||80 years framed; unframed n/a (rated for: Premium Glossy Photo paper) ||n/a |
|Maximum print size ||8.5x23 ||13x23 ||13x44 ||8.3x44 ||8.5x24 |
|Maximum borderless print size ||8.5x11 ||13x19 ||13x44 ||8.3x23.4 ||8.5x24 |
|Approximate maximum supported paper weight for third-party papers (grams per square meter) ||105 ||105 ||90 ||90 ||200 |
|Droplet size (picoliters) ||2 ||2 ||3.5 ||1.5 ||5 |
|Maximum resolution (dots per inch) ||4,800 |
|Interfaces ||USB 2.0, PictBridge USB ||USB 2.0, FireWire ||USB 2.0, FireWire ||USB 2.0, FireWire (Mac only) ||USB 2.0, PictBridge USB; Bluetooth optional |
|Straight-through paper path ||No ||No ||Yes ||No ||No |
|Roll-paper feeder option ||No ||No ||Yes ||Yes ||No |
As with size, consumables cost is important but may ultimately become moot when you're choosing among these printers. Remember, however, that ink cost is merely half the equation. For instance, the Canon i9900 looks like a bargain at its estimated ink cost of 14 cents per 8x10. But because Canon's paper is relatively expensive, the total cost ends up about the same as the Epson R800. In part, we think Canon's paper is more expensive because the company sells it in smaller quantities; for instance, you can get Epson's letter-size Premium Glossy Photo Paper in 50-sheet packages, but Canon sells its competing paper in only 30-sheet packs. In addition, one element that's impossible to factor in prepurchase is the cost of the ink wasted during head-cleaning cycles and prints that are unusable because of nozzle clogs.
Ultimately, unless you're doing contract color work--where it costs you money or jobs if the color isn't spot on--or you have very specific requirements, you'll likely be happy with any of these photo printers. So go forth and make some pretty pictures.
Read the CNET editor's take