Since the i9900 already claims so much surface area, Canon throws minimalism to the wind and puts two really big buttons on the front--Power and Continue--as well as a status light that you can see across the room and an upstream USB port for direct printing from a digital camera. Two USB ports, a FireWire port, and an AC connection sit within a recessed alcove on the back panel.
Operationally, the i9900 has a fairly average, unimaginative design. The top segments of the articulated paper support sit at a bit too steep of an angle, which causes 13x19-inch sheets to bend back; conversely, if you don't fold the support for printing on letter-size paper, the paper bows inward. Canon warns you to feed the large Photo Paper Pro in single sheets and for good reason; the printer typically mangles the edge of the second sheet and jams if you try to automatically feed a stack. It also lacks a straight-through paper path, which is useful if you like to experiment with heavier or specialty paper. Further, you can't print panoramas with this model. Canon doesn't make such paper, and third-party solutions come in rolls rather than sheets--but the i9900 doesn't have a roll feeder. Spec junkies should note that the Canon i9900 offers a maximum resolution of 4,800x2,400dpi with a minimum droplet size of 2 picoliters (pl). It uses eight dye-based color primaries--cyan, magenta, yellow, photo cyan, photo magenta, black, red, and green--which Canon dubs its ChromaPlus ink system. As per usual with Canon printers, each color has an individual ink tank, which slips into a shared printhead and carrier mechanism.
Oddly, the i9900 has two USB ports. According to the documentation, one port is for USB 2.0 connections and the other is for USB 2.0 Hi-Speed; however, USB 2.0 supports both in a single port, obviating the need for a second (though one is actually a USB 1.1-compatible mode). Furthermore, data transfer from the PC to the printer doesn't require the bandwidth of USB 2.0 Hi-Speed. The FireWire 400 port provides Mac compatibility for OS 8.6 to 9.x and OS X 10.2.1 to 10.3.x, and a USB port on the front delivers a PictBridge connection for direct printing from compatible cameras.
A full-featured driver provides all the essentials for general-purpose printing and automatic adjustments and effects, as well as control over most of the important photo-printing parameters. My favorite feature is the ability to clean the cyan, magenta, and yellow nozzles in the printhead separately from the rest of the colors. Unfortunately, that just makes me long for the option to choose individual colors for cleaning; that would be a great ink saver.
You can manually adjust the color balance for each of the CMYK primaries and the global color intensity; have the software automatically optimize for a photo or graphics; adjust global brightness (which, based on the feature description, is actually a contrast control); or instruct the i9900 to use Windows ICM. The printer ships with a few basic ICC profiles for its photo papers, which have unnecessarily cryptic names such as MP1 and PR2.
Print-quality options depend upon paper type, but the best automatic setting is High. As with many photo printer drivers, you have to use custom settings to get to the best print-quality choice--Fine--and there's no way to determine the differences between High and Fine. For borderless printing, you can use a slider to specify how far to enlarge the image to cover the page borders. However, it lacks an interactive preview, so you won't be able to see where the new image borders will lie.
On the driver CD, Canon includes some particularly irritating, poorly documented software apps. PhotoRecord is for creating printed albums, while Easy PhotoPrint Plus offers a few automatic adjustments and not-so-easy photo printing. Since potential users of the i9900 are unlikely to use these bundled apps, however, we won't come down too hard on Canon. But it would have been nice if the company had included more-relevant programs instead, such as printer-profiling software.
You can use an array of paper sizes with the i9900, from as small as 3.5x4.7 to 13x23, as well as envelopes. Compared with Epson, Canon offers a relatively limited selection of papers designed for photo printing: Photo Paper Pro, Photo Paper Plus Glossy, Matte Photo Paper, and Glossy Photo Paper. For non-Canon papers, the printer supports between 17- and 28-pound stock, which excludes many custom third-party fine-arts papers. That never stopped anyone from trying, however. For many users, the combination of speedy performance, first-rate print quality, and a low consumables cost will more than compensate for the Canon i9900's otherwise average report card.
Speed and operation
As usual, you should take Canon's rated speeds with a grain of salt, but the i9900 is nevertheless the fastest inkjet photo printer we've seen. It feels like a sprinter compared to its main competitor, the Epson Stylus Photo 2200. During typical usage, 4x6-inch borderless photos emerged in about 1.3 minutes and 8x10-inch prints at about twice that. In CNET Labs tests, it performed even faster, producing an 8x10 in only 1.2 minutes. Given that the i9900 has 10 times as many nozzles as the Stylus Photo 2200, its speed advantage didn't surprise us.
The printer has a Quiet mode, which runs the printhead at a slower speed, but its normal operation is suitably hushed--not so for the nozzle priming/cleaning cycle, which is almost as loud as an old GE dishwasher. The ink is also unbelievably cheap; based on Canon's capacity ratings, we estimate that the ink cost of an 8x10 photo is only 14 cents. Even if you assume that Canon inflates its page-per-cartridge claims--as many vendors do--by 500 percent, the inks are a bargain compared to those of the rest of the enthusiast photo printers we've tested. Canon makes up the cost difference in paper, however; the company's best-quality photo paper (Photo Paper Pro) costs a minimum of 87 cents per sheet. In the end, printing an 8x10 photo on a letter-size sheet of best-quality photo paper with the i9900 costs only about 8 percent less as with the Epson Stylus Photo R800.
Unless you're trying to print impossible colors, you'll find few faults with the Canon i9900's output quality. Both color and black-and-white images display excellent detail rendering and dynamic range, as well as notably accurate color reproduction. Thanks to the dedicated red cartridge, the i9900 can produce some extremely bright, saturated reds. Skin tones came out a bit warm but not overly so. Because of the Stylus Photo 2200's older print engine and ink formulation, the i9900 currently has no consumer competition for printing large black-and-white photos. (You can buy excellent third-party monochrome ink sets for the 2200, however.) The i9900's composite gray displays a minimal cyan cast, which places it at a slight disadvantage to the Stylus Photo R800. But the grays look much more neutral than the HP Photosmart 7960's output and exhibit less obvious metamerism across different light sources.
For graphics, the i9900's larger droplet size relative to the R800--2pl vs. the R800's 1.5pl--results in somewhat poorer print quality. Black curves show distinct roughness, though the same circular objects printed with the photo primaries looked extremely smooth. On the other hand, the Canon renders graphics better than most of its other competitors. And even with graphics, where resolution is more important than for photos, we couldn't spot any differences between the two highest-quality modes. Canon recently updated its Web site, making it much easier to navigate and to find answers. Buying extra ink and paper direct from Canon is especially easy--no surprise there. Unfortunately, Canon has some of the worst user manuals in the biz; not only is the supposedly deep content frustratingly shallow, but it's available only electronically.
The one-year standard warranty is typical, and the company offers a three-year Canon CarePak Extended Service Plan for $135, which adds toll-free tech support and instant exchange.