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5 Photo-Quality Ink-Jet Printers

Ink-jet printers have evolved dramatically over the past few years, but the most-remarkable developments by far have been in the area of photo-quality ink-jets--printers designed for reproducing photographic images. Only five years ago, purchasing a photo printer typically meant shelling out $35,000 for an Iris machine. Today, you can pay less than $500 for a photo printer that produces output which looks and feels very much like a traditional darkroom print.

Macworld Lab put five photo printers to the test: the Canon S800, the Epson Stylus Photo 780 and Stylus Photo 1280, the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 1218, and the Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200. We compared features, measured speeds, and evaluated output for sharpness, color, and continuous tone. When we were done, it was clear that the Stylus Photo 780, although slow, produced the best photographic images at a relatively low cost. The Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200 produced the worst.

Ink and Paper

Instead of the four inks used by traditional ink-jet printers, four of the five photo printers we tested use six inks, adding light cyan and light magenta to the mix. The two additional inks help improve highlight detail by forming subtler dots than full-strength cyan or magenta can. (Yellow ink is already so light that there's no point in introducing a light yellow ink.) The odd man out is the Photosmart 1218, which uses the conventional four inks but prints at a very high resolution of 2,400 by 1,280 dpi.

Only one of the printers, the Canon S800, features individual ink cartridges for each color. The others use one cartridge for black and another for all the color inks; when one color-ink compartment is empty, you have to replace the whole set of color inks. Canon's multiple-cartridge approach is much more efficient and may save you money if you tend to use one ink more heavily than others. But if your ink use is evenly distributed among the colors, the extra cost of the individual cartridges may cancel out any savings.

If you're expecting to produce large images, keep in mind that only the Stylus Photo 1280 offers print areas larger than 8.5 by 11 inches, outputting prints as large as 13 by 44 inches on roll-fed panoramic paper (the roll-feed mechanism is included) or up to 13 by 19 inches on SuperB-size sheets.

Direct from Digital

Several printers offer ways to simplify the process of getting images from a camera to paper without the intervention of a Mac. Both the Personal Picture Maker 200 and the Photosmart 1218 come with built-in CompactFlash and SmartMedia readers. These let you plug your digital camera's storage medium directly into the printer and start printing. Unfortunately, not all cameras that use CompactFlash and SmartMedia are supported by all printers; check for compatibility before you make a purchase.

While this feature may be handy for making quick index prints, there are few digital-camera captures that won't benefit from preprint editing. The Personal Picture Maker 200 is also capable of hosting a USB Zip drive, from which it can print images--useful because you can transfer edited images to a Zip cartridge and then load the cartridge into your printer, allowing you to print without tying up your Mac. The S800 includes a separate CompactFlash reader, but it connects to your computer, not to the printer.

Photo Finish

The most important measure of any photo printer is the quality of its printed images. We printed a photograph at each printer's maximum resolution on the specialty paper provided by the vendor, and we rated the prints' color fidelity (the accuracy of color reproduction) and continuous tone (the lack of an obvious dot pattern).

When reading our scores, keep in mind that color fidelity is largely related to the accuracy of the printer's included ColorSync profiles. We used a Photoshop Lab file as our test image to ensure that each printer's vendor-supplied ColorSync profile was the only profile that affected the color. If you plan to generate custom profiles for your own system, you may be able to improve the printer's color fidelity. (For tips on constructing custom profiles, see " Show Your True Colors," How-to , April 2001.)

All the printers we looked at received at least acceptable ratings for color fidelity and continuous tone. But the Stylus Photo 780 was the clear winner, rated excellent by our jury in both categories. Its larger sibling the Stylus Photo 1280 produced excellent continuous tone, but it scored slightly lower in the color-fidelity test because the image appeared slightly undersaturated. The S800 and the Photosmart 1218 each had some problems with color fidelity, showing slight color casts, but the S800 had better continuous tone. The Personal Picture Maker 200 had excellent color fidelity, but it displayed the worst continuous tone and was noticeably less sharp than any of the other printers.

We also looked at how well the printers produced neutral gray-scale images using all the colors. (This extends dynamic range by producing a darker black than black ink alone can achieve, and it gives a better continuous tone.) The only printer that produced a good neutral black-and-white image was the Photosmart 1218. The S800 and the Stylus Photo 780 printed slightly off-neutral images, while images from the Stylus Photo 1280 and the Personal Picture Maker 200 had an obvious and objectionable color cast.

Although all these printers are optimized for photographic output on specialty paper, we looked at their performance with both text files and low-resolution photographs on lower-priced plain paper. (The specialty papers are too expensive to use for text or draft prints.) The Photosmart 1218 was the only printer that produced excellent results in these tests. The S800 did a good job of printing photographic images on plain paper, but its text output was noticeably less sharp than any of the other printers. Both Stylus Photo models produced acceptable (but slightly fuzzy) results. The Personal Picture Maker 200 printed text acceptably, but it had by far the worst photographic output on plain paper, with garishly oversaturated colors and blocked-up shadows.

Slow Progress

Sluggish speed is one of the trade-offs you make for printing in color. The Photosmart 1218 was fastest on our text document and came in just behind the S800 on the high-resolution Photoshop image--taking nearly seven and a half minutes, compared with the S800's five. Both Stylus Photo models and the Personal Picture Maker 200 took close to 25 minutes to print the same photograph. However, the S800 was much slower than the other models when printing text. You can increase your printer's speed by lowering the resolution setting, but remember that this will also lower image quality. The notable exceptions to this were the Stylus Photo printers; we could see very little difference between their output at 2,880 by 720 dpi and at 1,440 by 720 dpi.

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