At first glance, Epson’s $1,295 Stylus Pro 3800 Standard Model looks out of place in the photo printer market. There are a few very good photo printers with similar features in the $500-$1,000 range, and some excellent industrial-strength printers with richer sets of features starting at around $2,000. However, if you are a photographer looking to create high-quality, large-format prints for sale or exhibition, the 3800 is a great printer that is worth your consideration, even though it has a flaw that will drive some potential buyers away.
The Stylus Pro 3800 uses nine pigment-based inks designed to provide long-lasting output on a wide variety of paper types. Like most pigment ink printers, the 3800 switches between two black inks: photo black, which is used when you print on glossy and semi-gloss paper, and matte black, which is used for printing on smooth finish and fine art papers. The other seven inks—light black, light light black, cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, and yellow—are used with all paper types.
Setup is quick and easy: the cartridges snap into place, and the driver installation is simple. The 3800 can connect directly to your Mac via USB, but it also has a port for connecting to your Ethernet network for group printing. While it is a fairly large unit, you can recess the paper trays when the printer is not in use, which significantly reduces its footprint.
When it comes time to print, the 3800 is very flexible, offering borderless printing on paper ranging in size from 4 by 6 inches all the way up to 17 by 22 inches. It has three paper paths, including a front-loading, straight-through path for printing on rigid media up to 1.5 millimeters thick, and two top-loading slots for papers of lesser thickness.
Print quality and performance
For years, Epson’s hallmark has been its print quality, and the Stylus Pro 3800 is no exception. Colors are rich and vibrant, even on glossy paper, which often presents a problem for pigment inks. The 3800’s black and white prints were exceptional—and exhibited no color shifts (or metameric failure )—when printed on fiber and fine art papers.
When comparing a large selection of glossy- and matte-based photos printed from the 3800 to similar prints output by HP’s $700 Photosmart Pro B9180 ( ), and Canon’s $850 Pixma Pro9500 ( ) printers, viewers almost always chose Epson’s prints as the best of the group. And, when it came to black-and-white prints, viewers on our jury unanimously chose the 3800’s output over any printer in its class.
The Stylus Pro 3800 doesn’t just offer superior print quality; it’s also very fast. Using the standard quality setting, a 4-by-6-inch photo took 56 seconds to print; an 8-by-10-inch image printed in 1 minute and 48 seconds; a 12-by-18-inch picture printed in 4 minutes and 16 seconds; and a 16-by-20-inch photo took only 5 minutes and 44 seconds to come out of the printer. (As a point of comparison, Canon’s Pixma Pro9500 took approximately 6 minutes to output an 8-by-10-inch print at its default quality setting.)
Dealing with ink
One of the big problems with another of Epson’s printers, the $850 Stylus Photo R2400, is that it requires you to swap cartridges when you switch between matte and photo black inks. This process is clumsy and wastes a lot of valuable ink, and it can set off a cascade effect that drains other ink cartridges in the process. The 3800 is better in this regard, offering separate slots for each black ink type. When you choose a paper type in the print driver, the printer automatically chooses the appropriate black ink type.
Unfortunately, the black inks share a single channel to the printhead, which means that the printer still must purge that line of ink before switching. This two- to three-minute process wastes approximately 2 milliliters of ink when swapping from photo to matte black, and 4.5 milliliters when going the other way. While this is better than the R2400, both HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180 and Canon’s Pixma Pro9500 use separate ink lines for matte and photo black inks, a much less wasteful approach.
Luckily, the Stylus Pro 3800 does an excellent job with ink efficiency. I printed almost 400 photos—mostly 8-by-10-inch and larger—before I had to replace any ink cartridge, and I went back and forth between black ink types during the testing. At 75 cents per milliliter of ink, the cost per page will be much less with the 3800 than it will be with any comparable photo printer, which really turns into savings if you print a lot of photos.
Macworld’s buying advice
If you are a professional photographer or serious amateur looking to reproduce your work at large sizes and with extremely high quality, the Epson Stylus Pro 3800 Standard Model is a great printer. You get speed, quality, and efficiency at a good price, even when you factor in the swapping of the matte and photo black inks. While some people will view the printer’s primary flaw as a fatal one, it’s hard to argue with the end result: large, beautiful prints on almost any media type.
[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor at large and an editor at completedigitalphotography.com.]Stylus Pro 3800 Standard Model