Lately, anyone who's paying attention has seen a stampede of multipage ads in national magazines, meant to brand the term digital photography in the mind of the average consumer. Indeed, the allure of taking photos with a digital camera and printing them how and when you like is hard to resist.
It's in this context that we view the latest round of photo printers that produce photos as large as 8 by 10 inches. Straddling the often fuzzy line between consumer- and professional-level devices, these products offer features such as direct printing from camera storage media with no computer or image-editing application required (see "Look, Ma, No Photoshop!"). But most are also capable of producing output that would please the hard-core Photoshop geek.
In this roundup, we looked at two new printers from Canon -- the $250 i900D and the $200 i960 -- Epson's $179 Stylus Photo R300, Hewlett-Packard's $300 Photosmart 7960, and Lexmark's $80 Z705. We also included an outlier, the $499 Olympus P-440, which uses dye-sublimation, rather than ink-jet, technology to produce prints.
We used several criteria in judging the photo printers. The quality of the output had to be at least as good as what you'd get from a one-hour photo store, without your having to jump through hoops to get it. The printer needed to be affordable, not just to buy but also to maintain. And we wanted the winner to be reasonably speedy; otherwise, you may find that it's faster to walk to that one-hour photo store.
All of the ink-jets use six inks for photo printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, light cyan, and light magenta. The Epson and Canon devices use individual cartridges for each ink -- a potential money-saver since you can replace just the ink that's run out -- while the Lexmark and HP printers use one tricolor cartridge for cyan, magenta, and yellow, and a second cartridge for the light photo inks. With the Lexmark, you swap out the light-photo cartridge when you need to use the black-only ink cartridge. On the HP, the black ink is the only one you swap out: your color and special photo inks are always installed, and a third cartridge slot holds either a black-ink cartridge for text or a special photo-gray cartridge (included) for black-and-white photos.
The Olympus P-440 is a dye-sublimation printer that uses cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes with a clear coating applied over the color to prevent damage from fingerprints. Unlike ink-jets, dye-sublimation printers use the same amount of resources regardless of the size or color composition of the output. The fixed cost is a little over $2 per print.
Color Me Faithful
A photo printer isn't much use if what you see on your monitor doesn't resemble what you get from the printer. To test color accuracy, we printed our standard test image to each printer using three different color-matching methods: the printers' default settings, ColorSync color matching, and a custom ColorSync printer profile created with GretagMacbeth's Eye-One Photo color calibrator ($1,495; www.i1color.com). The test image is a TIFF file saved in Lab color, so the printer profile is the only one that affects the color reproduction. The test image contains fine details in highlights and shadows (shiny metal and coffee beans); memory colors (colors we can identify as right or wrong because we know what color something is supposed to be -- a red bell pepper, for example, in an image of fruits and vegetables); and a variety of textures from cloth to plastic to wood grain. All in all, the photo presents a considerable challenge.
Our jury (a panel of experts made up of Macworld editors) gave the Epson R300 the highest marks for color fidelity at the default settings, followed by both Canon printers and the Photosmart 7960, all three of which produced similar results (and which would benefit from better included color profiles). The Olympus P-440 didn't fare quite so well, particularly when printing dark blues, but nonetheless produced acceptable results. The Lexmark Z705 was the only printer whose results our jury deemed unacceptable, with strongly oversaturated reds that made the cherry tomatoes in our test image look radioactive.
The Lexmark was the only printer that really needed a custom profile. At the default printer-driver settings, the Lexmark produced some truly garish colors that our jury unanimously agreed were poor. Printing with the custom profile improved matters dramatically, but it's certainly unrealistic to expect buyers of an $80 printer to resort to a $1,500 profiling solution. Even with the custom profile, the Lexmark print still didn't approach the color fidelity that the other printers produced without any profile.
A closer examination of the prints made with custom profiles put the Canon and Epson printers at the head of the pack, followed closely by the HP Photosmart 7960, which didn't do quite as good a job on dark colors. The Olympus P-440 produced decent but unspectacular results, with too much contrast and too little highlight detail.
The Devil Is in the Details
Color fidelity is important, but the ability to bring out fine details is also a big issue. With ink-jet technology, the ability to produce fine detail depends on two things: the size of the individual ink droplets, and the accuracy with which the printer can place them. Resolution specifications aren't a reliable guide here, because they simply state the accuracy with which the printer attempts to lay down ink drops, not the accuracy with which they succeed in doing so. Droplet size is a slightly more reliable guide, but our testing showed that even these specifications can mislead.
The two printers that produced outstanding detail were the Canon i960 and the HP Photosmart 7960. Both claim resolutions of 4,800 by 1,200 dpi, but the Canon uses a much smaller droplet than the HP (2 picoliters versus 5). Moreover, the i960 showed noticeably better detail than its i900D sibling, although they have identical resolution and droplet-size specifications. The i900D tied with the Epson R300, which claims to have a higher resolution -- 5,760 by 1,440 dpi -- but uses a slightly larger 3-picoliter droplet size. The Lexmark Z705 again fared poorly: it uses a much larger 7-picoliter droplet, and our test panel gave it the lowest marks of all the printers for detail reproduction -- it completely lost details such as the serrations on a knife blade or the texture on a clove of garlic.
The Olympus got the second-lowest rating in terms of detail; images from dye-sublimation printers just aren't as sharp as those from ink-jet printers.
The ink-jet printers all offer multiple resolutions, and the highest resolution takes a lot longer to print than the second-highest one, so we asked the jury to compare prints from each ink-jet at the highest and second-highest resolutions on glossy paper to see if they could see any difference. All told, we could detect no difference between the two resolutions (which is good news if you want high-quality prints quickly).
Shades of Gray
While we suspect that the vast majority of consumers will use these printers for color photographs, we were intrigued by HP's claim that the Photosmart 7960 can also produce "stunning black-and-white" photos (though to do so you must swap out the black cartridge for the special photo-gray cartridge, which ships with the printer). Our jury rated the black-and-white prints from the Photosmart 7960 as good, as they did with both Canon printers, but the difference largely boiled down to a choice between the HP's black and white with a reddish cast versus a much less appealing green (from the Lexmark) or cyan cast (from the Epson and Olympus). Although the HP was the best of the lot, we can't recommend any of these printers for serious black-and-white use.
The printers varied widely in the speed with which they produced prints. At the second-highest resolution, which normal printer owners will probably use most often, the undisputed speed champ was the Canon i960. (The Olympus P-440 has only a highest resolution.) The i960 produced an 8-by-10-inch print in a blistering 1 minute and 29 seconds. The Canon i900D took second place, closely followed by the Epson R300. The HP Photosmart 7960 was a little slower. The Lexmark took more than twice as long as any other printer, in all sizes at all resolutions. The Olympus P-440's leisurely performance on 8-by-10 prints surprised us -- speed is usually regarded as the main advantage of dye-sublimation technology. The Olympus printer did print 4-by-6 prints quite quickly, however (see the benchmark for speed comparisons).
Macworld's Buying Advice
The one printer that clearly stands out from the pack is the Canon i960. The combination of speed, color fidelity, detail, and price makes it a fabulous product. The Canon i900D and the Epson Stylus Photo R300 offer excellent value and are also fine choices. The HP would work well for people who print black-and-white images often. The Olympus P-440 is just too expensive for its limited usefulness. And despite the Lexmark Z705's low price, it isn't worth the hassle to get this device to produce good color.
Look, Ma, No Photoshop!
Computerless photo printing has gone from a curiosity to a mainstream technology that holds huge potential for the millions of consumers who wouldn't have a clue what to do with even an entry-level image-editing application.
The Canon i900D, Epson, HP, and Olympus feature built-in memory-card slots for printing from digital-storage media, and the quality of the prints pleasantly surprised us -- all were comparable to the results you'd get from a typical one-hour photo store, and the computerless prints from the Canon i900D were very good indeed, with strong but plausible saturation and natural skin tones. The Epson, the HP, and both Canons support printing directly from compatible cameras, and the i900D and the HP sport color LCD screens (Epson's $229 R300M has a similar display). The Epson R300 further supports printing directly from a USB CD or Zip drive (though your Zip disk will have to be DOS formatted) and can print to CDs or DVDs.
Even if you would never dream of printing an unedited image straight from the camera to one of these printers, you may find it very handy to be able to produce quick thumbnails of all your camera cards' images.
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