Six-Color Ink-Jet Photo Printers
Dye-based ink-jet photo printers straddle two distinct markets -- nonprofessional users who want to print photos from a digital camera with a minimum of hassle, and demanding graphics professionals who won't tolerate the weaker blacks in images from more-expensive photo printers that use longer-lasting pigment inks. The latter group is generally willing to trade print longevity for the deeper blacks that dye-based ink-jets produce.
We looked at the latest crop of six-color photo printers that use dye-based inks: the $349 Canon S830D, the $349 Epson Stylus Photo 960, and the $399 Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 7550. All three handle paper as wide as 8.5 inches and offer some advanced capabilities, but they share one unfortunate limitation -- significant features that aren't supported in Mac OS X (see "OS X and Printing"). In general, these printers represent evolutionary, but not revolutionary, improvements on their predecessors.
Each printer has its major selling points. The S830D and the Photosmart 7550 offer computerless (direct) printing from a range of digital cameras and multimedia cards. The Stylus Photo 960 offers advanced paper-handling capabilities formerly reserved for Epson's more expensive offerings. However, all three printers can produce images of professional-level quality without intimidating the casual user.
The direct-printing capabilities of the S830D and the Photosmart 7550 allow you to print images from a digital camera straight to the printer without the aid of a computer: you either insert camera media into the printer's built-in reader or connect a supported camera directly to the printer. The Photosmart 7550 has a built-in LCD viewer that actually shows you the images on the memory card, and Canon offers the same capability as an option: the $99 CV-100 Canon Image Viewer. Both printers allow you to print just the photos you want and not the entire contents of a card. They also take advantage of the EXIF (Extendable Image File Format) data supplied by most current consumer-level digital cameras to perform rudimentary image optimization. In our tests, these prints looked decent, but they were no match for manually edited images.
Even if you're a pro who would never dream of committing unedited images to paper, you may find the ability of the S830D and the Photosmart 7550 to generate an index print -- thumbnails of every image on a card -- surprisingly useful. Neither printer can handle all images from all cameras, though -- check the companies' Web sites for an exhaustive list of supported cameras and file formats.
The Stylus Photo 960 doesn't include a card reader or a direct camera connection, but it does support EXIF, as well as Epson's own Print Image Matching (PIM) technology. Though you do need a computer to print to the Epson, it offers automatic image-handling features comparable to those of the other two printers.
Inks and Gamuts
All three printers use six inks to print images. The Canon and Epson printers use cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, and black, while the Photosmart 7550 uses cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, and light yellow -- it uses the black cartridge only when you're printing black text. The Photosmart 7550 is the first HP printer to use more than four inks. In our previous photo-printer roundups, HP's four-color printers received poor marks for highlight details, which rely on the light inks, so we're glad to see that HP has taken this step in the right direction.
However, after working with the HP printer and subjecting its prints to a close examination, we concluded that HP chose the wrong six inks. The light yellow doesn't seem to influence print quality -- yellow is already pretty light, after all -- but the absence of black ink in photo prints appears to have a negative effect on the printer's color gamut (the range of colors it can produce), evidenced by its inability to produce dark, saturated colors. Try as we might, we couldn't find a way to get a satisfactory dark green from the Photosmart 7550. It's also the only one of the three printers that doesn't offer individual cartridges for each ink, instead using three cartridges -- one for black, one for CMY, and one for light CMY: When one of the colors in a cartridge runs out, you'll need to replace the entire cartridge.
The Canon and Epson printers have very similar color gamuts. The Canon images look better than the Epson's when it comes to dark blues, and the Epson beats the Canon with regard to dark greens, but the differences are subtle. Essentially, these two printers tie in the image-quality category. The Epson produces a slightly darker black than the Canon and a much darker black than the HP.
One worrisome aspect of the Canon S830D is that, at least on the glossy paper we used in most of our tests, the prints seem to take a long time to reach stable color. When they first came out of the printer, the prints looked awful, with a strange, muddy haze over the entire surface. Fortunately, this disappeared after about 15 minutes. However, when we measured the output from each printer within an hour or two of printing, again after 24 hours, and once more a week later, we found that while the Epson and HP prints seemed fairly stable after 24 hours, the Canon print had shifted color -- particularly in the greens -- to an extent that discerning viewers would find significant. For advanced users who want to build custom ColorSync profiles for the printer, this raises the question of just when to measure the profiling target, a question we are still pondering.
Resolution and Detail
One of the more baffling specifications of ink-jet printers is the quoted resolution -- in this case, 2,880 by 1,440 dpi for the Stylus Photo 960, 2,400 by 1,200 dpi for the S830D, and 4,800 by 1,200 dpi for the Photosmart 7550. In fact, these numbers bear very little correlation to actual printer performance. What they state is the accuracy with which the printer can position the print head.
The ability to reproduce fine detail and subtle gradations depends much more on the size of the ink droplets than on their number. Printers can't reproduce detail any finer than the smallest dot they can put on paper, so smaller droplets translate to finer detail.
Epson is the only vendor to provide a specification (2 picoliters) for droplet size. Naked-eye examination reveals that highlight detail in the Epson's prints is slightly better than in the Canon's, and obviously better than in the HP's. When we looked at the photos through a 30¥ loupe, it became clear that the Epson's dots are significantly smaller than the Canon's and far smaller than the HP's.
The color accuracy of all three of these printers underwhelmed us. Canon and Epson supply ColorSync profiles for each supported paper type, but the profiles we tested weren't particularly accurate -- we actually saw better color in the Canon's output when we didn't use ColorSync. The Photosmart 7550 doesn't support ColorSync, using HP's proprietary ColorSmart technology instead. It produced the least accurate print, with a noticeable blue cast. All three printers tended to produce oversaturated color, with the Photosmart 7550 being the worst offender.
We tested printer speeds by printing both text and images at the best-quality and second-best–quality settings, which each printer vendor names differently. In all cases, the Canon was the fastest and the HP was the slowest. The difference between the fastest and slowest times for printing a 10-page Microsoft Word document was relatively small, but for images it was huge -- at the best-quality setting (with the high-resolution option selected), the HP took more than 24 minutes to print an 8-by-10-inch image, and even at a lower-quality setting, the HP couldn't catch up with the other printers at their best settings (see "The Speed of the Feed" for complete test results).
The Photosmart 7550 offers an optional automatic duplexing unit, which, combined with HP's double-sided paper, may make it handy for comps. However, it doesn't offer borderless photo printing -- something the S830D does provide, but only on 4-by-6-inch paper and only in OS 9. The Stylus Photo 960 has the widest range of paper options, including support for roll-fed printing (with a built-in automated cutter), and for borderless panoramas as long as 44 inches, on rolls 8.3 inches wide -- all of which is available only in OS 9. The device also offers a straight-through paper path for handling heavy stocks as thick as 1.3mm.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If computerless printing appeals to you, the Canon S830D may be just what you need. It also delivers high-quality images fast, though getting extremely accurate color may be a challenge. If you place a higher priority on getting the best images you possibly can, consider the Epson Stylus Photo 960, which offers excellent image quality with the widest dynamic range, best highlight detail, and biggest variety of paper options, but at a somewhat lower speed. The only reason we'd consider buying the HP Photosmart 7550 would be its duplexing capability. In all other respects, the others simply outclass it.
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