Epson updates Stylus Pro printer line

Last week, Epson’s Professional Imaging group quietly announced four new printers in its wide-format line. Three of the printers, the Stylus Pro 4880, 7880, and 9880, are updates to existing models (the Stylus Pro 4800, 7800 and 9800, respectively), and offer incremental, albeit important, enhancements over their predecessors, while the fourth, the Stylus Pro 11880, is a brand-new model with some features that offer tantalizing insights into Epson’s future directions at the pro end of the market.

The biggest change in the 880 series is also the first change to Epson’s UltraChrome K3 pigment-based ink set since it was announced in May 2005: the replacement of the existing magenta and light magenta inks with “Vivid” magenta and light magenta inks. With these new inks, Epson claims that the 880 printers not only offer a wider color gamut than previous UltraChrome K3 printers, but also over competing printers from HP and Canon. (Due to the composition of the inks, the Vivid inks won’t work in earlier UltraChrome K3 printers, however.)

Other changes across the line include a new coating technology on the printhead that is designed to eliminate entirely the issue of clogged nozzles, and a new screening algorithm, called AccuPhoto HD, that produces prints with more accurate dot placement, finer blends and reduced grain than ones produced with Epson’s current line of Stylus Pro printers. Epson’s Mark Radogna also told me that all of these printers will support printing of 16-bit images with Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) when the new operating system ships this fall.

The 64-inch Stylus Pro 11880

The big gun in the line-up is the Stylus Pro 11880, which is Epson’s first printer to support media up to 64 inches wide. The printer also has a nine-channel printhead and nine ink cartridge slots, which means that there is no ink wasted when you swap between the Photo and Matte Black inks—the 11880 just uses the appropriate black ink depending upon the paper being used (glossy and semi-gloss papers use the Photo Black ink, while matte and fine-art papers use the Matte Black ink). This printhead is an entirely new design with 360 ink nozzles per inch, twice that of the printhead in the other Stylus Pro printers. The benefits of this printhead, according to Epson, are perfectly spherical dots, extremely accurate dot placement (especially when combined with the new screening algorithm), and significantly higher print speeds.

As befits a printer of this size, it includes an automatic take-up reel, which is great when you’re running the printer in a high-volume production environment, borderless printing at a variety of sizes, and USB 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet support. The print cartridges include a whopping 700 ml of ink.

A feature that will also be of great use to high-production shops is a system that imprints a small bar code on the end of the paper when you change rolls to run a job on a different paper type. The code contains information about the paper type and the amount of paper left on the roll. When you put the old roll back on, the 11880 automatically scans the bar code, and updates the printer’s settings without requiring any further operator intervention.

The Stylus Pro 11880 will be available for $15,000 in limited quantities later this year, and a version with the ColorBurst RIP should also be available soon after launch.

The rest of the line

While the three other updated printers don’t have the printhead found in the 11880, they do use the new ink-repelling coating, the Vivid Magenta inks, and the new screening technology, and they all include 10/100BaseT Ethernet and USB 2.0 connectivity (Ethernet was an extra-cost add-on in earlier models). Unlike even the Stylus Pro 3800 , however, they continue to have eight cartridge slots; to swap between Matte and Photo Black inks, you still need to go through the time- and ink-consuming process of manually swapping cartridges. (Radogna said that the 880 printers waste much less ink in the process is much less than their predecessors, however). This remains the key weakness in the Stylus Pro line, but most pros I know print using one of the ink sets, so it’s not as big an issue as it might appear, especially given Epson’s superior print quality. That’s not to say that people don’t want the capability to switch without wasting ink—it’s obviously why Epson is moving to the nine-channel printhead design.

Pricing remains the same as the the models they replace: the 17-inch Stylus Pro 4880 is $2,000 ($2,500 with the ColorBurst Rip); the 24-inch 7880 is $3,000 ($4,000 with the RIP); and the 44-inch 9880 is $5,000 ($6,000 with the RIP).

What does it mean?

For professional photographic work, Epson’s print quality has been the best in the industry for years; most photographers I know who sell their digital prints rely on Epson’s printers. As I have repeatedly said over the past year, HP and Canon are catching up—HP is definitely as good as Epson with the 24- and 44-inch Designjet 3100Z series , and close to Epson’s quality with the Z2100 printers—but I believe that Epson still has a bit of an edge in overall detail and color fidelity. The Vivid Magenta inks should help produce slightly better detail in the shadows, and, combined with the new screening technology, give better overall tonal gradations throughout all your prints. I was able to see the improvements in image quality recently when I viewed side-by-side prints from a Stylus Pro 7800 and 7880, but I’ll withhold final judgment until I’ve had a chance to print my own images on shipping units, and can compare prints with comparable ones from HP and Canon printers.

It is also interesting to finally see Epson confront the nozzle clogging issue. This is one of the things that has made some people wary of investing in Epson printers over the years, although I can honestly say that, when I have run into this, it largely has been with one of Epson’s consumer printers, not the ones in the Stylus Pro line. But for some users, it is a real issue, and it’s good to see that Epson is paying attention. (Ultimately, I would think that the advances made in the Stylus Pro models would be applied to consumer-level inkjets.)

The new nine-channel printhead in the Stylus Pro 11880 is obviously where Epson is going with its entire Pro line, and it will be a good thing to finally have the ink-swapping issue behind us once and for all. Because of the timing of the announcements, and Epson’s general product release cycles—I have no inside information—I wouldn’t imagine that Epson will be announcing 17-, 24- and 44-inch versions with the 9-channel printhead for at least a year, if not longer, so, if you need to sell your prints now, and can live with the swapping, the updated models represent a pretty decent upgrade.

The other intriguing thing about the announcements was the lack of a replacement for the Stylus Photo R2400. My guess here is that Epson is finding that the improved ink efficiency of the Stylus Pro 3800 makes that printer a better draw for professionals and serious amateurs, while many other users are looking at lower-priced alternatives, such as the Stylus Photo R1800 (   ) or Stylus Photo 1400 (   )—or HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180 (   ).

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