Stylus Pro 3800: new benchmark for 17-inch printing

For the past three months, I’ve been living with Aperture and Lightroom, working on a comparison of the two photo workflow products (which should appear soon in Macworld and here on Macworld.com). During that time, I have also been testing Epson’s latest high-end photo printer, the Stylus Pro 3800. As is the case with nearly all of Stylus Pro printers that I have used over the past decade, the 3800 turns out impressive prints on many different media types. It has a few quirks that are worth mentioning, but they don’t really overshadow the 3800’s print quality, which remains the hallmark of Epson’s high-end printers.

I’m working on a deeper review of the $1,300 printer, but here are some of my overall impressions of the unit after months of testing:

  • The 3800 uses nine pigment-based inks, including separate black cartridges for matte- and glossy-finish papers. Unlike the older Stylus Pro 4800 and the Stylus Photo R2400, which had only eight ink slots for the nine inks, you don’t have to physically swap out the Matte or Photo Black ink cartridges in the printer when you go back and forth between paper types. The 3800 does have to swap black inks though; the Matte and Photo Black inks “share” a single channel in the printhead. The addition of the ninth cartridge slot means that only the black ink line is flushed, which reduces waste and lets the printer automatically swap black ink based on the paper type chosen in the Print dialog box. It takes 2 to 3 minutes to move between the black inks, and, according to Epson, uses less than 2 ml of ink when swapping from Photo to Matte Black, and 4.5 ml when going back to Photo Black.
        This approach isn’t as efficient as the approach HP and Canon are using in their latest models, which have separate ink channels in the printhead for the different black inks and use the appropriate black for the paper being printed on, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the process on the R2400 or Stylus Pro 4800, which wasted a lot of ink. With the next generation of Stylus Pro printers (which are probably a year—if not more—into the future), I would expect to see Epson re-engineer their entire print engine to fix this issue, but clearly the company didn’t want to mess with the architecture that has kept Epson front and center in the professional photo space.
  • It can print on a wide variety of media from 4 inches by 6 inches up to 17 inches by 22 inches (some people have reported that you can print up to 17 inches by 37 inches, but I haven’t tried it). It has three paper inputs: one that handles up to 30 sheets of standard-thickness photo paper, one single-sheet feeder for thicker media such as watercolor and cotton rag-style papers, and a straight-through paper path for media up to 1.5mm thick. I’ve thrown quite a bit of oddball papers at it, including some very fine Japanese handmade papers, and it’s taken them pretty well. I’ve had have some occasional paper jams when loading a stack of sheets into the primary input tray, but nothing more than that.
        Print speed is decent: roughly 2 minutes to get an 8-inch by 10-inch print, and a little over 6 minutes for a 16- by 20-inch print. Canon in particular has much faster print speeds, but I can live with the 3800’s overall performance.
  • The cartridges each contain 80 ml of ink, not as much as the 110-ml cartridges for the Stylus Pro 4800, but still generally more economical than the Stylus Photo R2400. The list price for the cartridges is $60, which translates to about 75 cents per milliliter, and I’ve seen the inks priced as low as $50.78 on Amazon, which drops the cost per ml to 63 cents. Contrast this with the 75- to 94-cent per milliliter cost for the R2400, and you’re saving quite a bit of money if you print a lot, and even more if you switch between matte and glossy paper.
        For reference, I’ve printed more than 350 images to this point, with regular switching back and forth between the black ink sets, and the lowest ink level on any cartridge in the printer is 25 percent.
  • The quality of Epson’s prints remains second to none. In the past year, HP and Canon have made such strides in print quality that it might look as if Epson has slid somehow, but one look at the 3800 prints and you’ll know they haven’t. While quality fine-art printing is relatively new to HP and Canon, Epson has owned this market since the departure of Scitex’s Iris in the early years of this decade. The 3800’s color fidelity on a color-managed system is excellent, and black and white prints can be stunning in their beauty, thanks to the specialized black inks and the two light-density gray inks. And Epson has built its reputation on not only print quality, but repeatability as well, which means that every print you make will look the same, something that’s absolutely crucial if you sell your work.
  • On the slightly negative side, the 3800 doesn’t have any of the whiz-bang usability features found in newer models from HP and Canon. You won’t find a Photoshop plug-in or an automated way to add new paper profiles to the Print dialog box. You can build your own ICC profiles using third-party tools (or via profiling services) and print to them from applications like Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom, but it’s definitely “old-skool” printing with the 3800—you get the print quality and repeatability.

As I’ve noted over the past few months, Epson finally has some serious competition in the professional space. I think HP has been more successful in challenging Epson than Canon has, especially with the impressive Z-series wide-format printers and the entry-level—but still full featured— Photosmart Pro B9180 (   ). Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF5000 (   ) doesn’t quite reach the level of print quality that Epson and HP have right now, and, at $2,000, it sits in a funny place in the market: $700 more than the Stylus Professional 3800 and the same price as Epson’s Stylus Pro 4800, which has better print quality and a built-in roll feeder (Canon’s is a $200 add-on, although I’ve seen it bundled for free in a number of promotions).

If you’re looking to sell your work professionally, and you don’t need anything bigger than a 17-inch-wide print, the Stylus Pro 3800 is without a doubt the current benchmark at this level of the market. There are some fine photo inkjet printers priced under $1,000, but they’re not designed to be workhorses that will churn out print after print. The 3800 will do that in spades.

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