Great pictures, small packages

The digital camera era has given birth to the most prolific community of photographers ever. And along with the increasing number of digital shooters comes a greater demand for photo printers. But how can you make quick prints of your photos to hand out to friends and family at special occasions, such as weddings, graduations, or parties? And what if you aren’t too tech savvy and don’t wish to deal with complex image-editing programs and glitchy software drivers?

That’s where compact photo printers come in handy. Designed for portable convenience, compact photo printers are single-function devices dedicated to printing photos quickly and easily on the spot. Most compact models are smaller and lighter than standard photo printers, and they’re primarily built to print 4-by-6-inch snapshots. Though these miniature printers can connect to your Mac, they feature memory-card readers, push-button control panels, and LCD screens, among other tools, to spare you from having to deal with the software drivers required for printing from your computer.

Since compact photo printers are made for special occasions and purposes, their designs are highly innovative compared with those of standard printers. Some models include a carrying handle for convenient transport, while others feature a touch screen and stylus to make photo printing easier and more fun. Aesthetically, these printers look rather interesting: they can resemble a boom box, a car battery, or even an egg-shaped kiosk.

While the concept of compact photo printers is simple and straight-to-the-point, in reality they vary greatly in terms of features, purpose, and performance. Even if you just plan to print photos at home, the ease of use and flexibility these smaller printers afford may compel you to purchase one anyway.

We compared five compact photo printers—the Canon Pixma mini320, the Canon Selphy CP740, the Epson PictureMate Zoom PM 290, the HP Photosmart A626, and the HP Photosmart A826—for quality, speed, features, interface, and design.

Compared in this roundup:

Image Quality

Print quality is the single most important criterion for deciding on a printer. And from this standpoint, the Epson PictureMate Zoom PM 290 came out on top, earning a Very Good rating from our Macworld panel of experts for both color and black-and-white photos. Using a four-in-one ink-jet cartridge—which combines cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) inks into one unit—the PictureMate Zoom produced crisp and clear photos, with accurate colors and excellent shadow detail. The Canon Pixma mini320, which earned a Very Good score for color photos, came in a close second for print quality. The mini320’s colors and shadow detail were also impressive, but overall its photos looked a little less refined than those printed from the PictureMate Zoom, presumably because the mini320 uses a three-in-one ink-jet cartridge (which doesn’t have any black ink). The mini320 also can’t print photos in black and white, which dampens our enthusiasm for the device.

HP Photosmart A626
Next in line was the Canon Selphy CP740, one of the few dye-sublimation compact photo printers on the market. Dye sublimation—dye sub for short—is an older printing process that uses heat to transfer images onto printable surfaces such as photo paper (see “What Is Dye Sublimation?” on the final page). The CP740, like most dye-sub printers and some ink-jets, mixes cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY) to simulate black. There are upsides and downsides to the CP740’s print quality. An upside is that dye-sub prints look a bit more realistic: because the printing process doesn’t leave ink dots, photos look more natural, with consistent tone and color. But the downside is that the absence of black ink tends to give prints a dark, flat appearance.

The dye-sub printer’s ink ribbon contains CMYO (as opposed to CMYK); O stands for overcoating, a laminate that protects photos from discoloration. I preferred the Epson PictureMate Zoom’s four-color pictures.

The two HP ink-jet printers, the Photosmart A826 and A626, produced photos that were identical in quality and were the least impressive of the batch. Since both printers use a tricolor ink cartridge, they too suffered from overly dark prints, similar to the CP740’s. But the dark prints from the A826 and A626 looked especially blotted, with strange outlines—a flaw that’s most visible under bright light. Our panel of experts gave the same ratings for both printers: Good for color photos and Fair for black-and-white prints.

Performance

To test speed, we timed how long it took each printer to print one 4-by-6-inch color photo and five 4-by-6-inch color photos at best-quality settings. True to its name, the Epson PictureMate Zoom turned in the speediest results, taking 42 seconds to print one 4-by-6-inch photo and 3 minutes and 9 seconds to print five 4-by-6-inch photos. The Canon Selphy CP740 was the second-fastest printer, taking 1 minute and 15 seconds to print the single photo and 5 minutes and 18 seconds to print the five photos. The Canon Pixma mini320 came in third, taking 1 minute and 17 seconds for the first test and 6 minutes and 56 seconds for the second test. The two HP printers were slower than their competitors.

Interface

Despite their disappointing performance, the HP printers scored well on ease of use. The A826 and A626 both feature a truly impressive and innovative touch-screen interface that you control with a stylus. Although the standard push-button control panels are easy enough to use, the touch-screen interface streamlines the process of printing photos: you just insert a photo storage card, tap on a screen, and then tap on the Print icon. Most users will appreciate the ability to crop their photos using a stylus and a touch screen instead of having to repeatedly mash buttons on a control panel. Other than that, the touch-screen interface made it so simple to navigate through the printers’ menus that I never needed to consult the user manual. HP’s interface is a good sign for things to come in the consumer printer market.

The PictureMate Zoom’s interface consists of a standard multibutton control panel and a 3.6-inch LCD screen. Though not as fancy as a touch screen, the PictureMate Zoom’s interface is straightforward and easily navigable. I had no problems choosing, editing, and cropping images to print photos just the way I wanted them.

Canon Pixma mini320
The Pixma mini320’s interface is slightly more complex than the PictureMate Zoom’s. Like Apple’s iPod, the mini320 provides a scroll wheel for navigating through your options and media. It also has a few additional buttons for basic functions. Overall, I found this control panel intuitive, but the printer’s menu layout and organization were a bit confusing. For instance, after applying some edits to a photo, I saw a Preview option on the menu. But when I pressed its corresponding button, the screen displayed a thumbnail of the image that I couldn’t enlarge. The mini320 actually has no option to preview edited photos before printing them, despite the presence of this menu item. It was also difficult to find the printer’s special Color Balance mode because it was not under the Special Options menu where I expected to find it. These small interface quirks were misleading and disorienting.

Canon’s Selphy CP740 has the simplest, most minimal interface. One button gives you the option to print dates on your photos, another lets you choose whether to print a border, and a display button gives you a larger preview of your photo. It also has a red-eye–removal button, and, of course, power and print buttons. A Mode button lets you choose whether to print a single photo, multiple copies of a photo, or all the photos on your memory card. To me, the single- and multiple-copy options seem unnecessary, since the plus (+) and minus (–) buttons should allow you to increase or decrease the number of prints without switching modes.

Image Editing

The image-editing options varied greatly among this batch of compact photo printers. The unique editing capabilities of the A626 and A826 are perfect for scrapbookers. For example, you can write directly on your photos using the stylus—to, say, sign a photo, compose a message, or doodle an illustration. The stylus and touch screen also make it easy to crop photos, add or remove effects, type captions, add frames, and insert clip art.

The PictureMate Zoom also provides a satisfying selection of image-editing options. With the Zoom, I was able to crop, remove red-eye, apply color effects, and more. In contrast, the two Canon printers—the mini320 and the Selphy CP740—are a bit disappointing. The mini320 has cropping, color-tweaking, and image-optimization features, but doesn’t give you the option to preview your image edits—so you could waste a lot of ink on test prints before getting the perfect one. Aside from a red-eye–removal option, the CP740 doesn’t provide any image-editing tools.

Design

Canon Selphy CP740
The A826’s design is unique. With its egg shape, reminiscent of a photo kiosk, the A826 caught the attention of several passersby, who stopped by my cubicle just to look at it. An important note about the A826: though it’s a compact photo printer, that doesn’t mean it’s easily portable. Measuring 14.7 by 15.1 by 10.4 inches with its output and paper trays open and ready to use, the A826 is bigger than the other compact photo printers we tested. Its touch screen is also especially large, at 7 inches. The printer lacks a handle, so carrying this device around on trips or to events would be impractical. Rather, it’s designed to serve as a personal kiosk or home photo center. Still, the printer could use a feature that would make it easier to grip, in case you wanted to move it from one room to another in your home. The egg shape makes it slippery and difficult to hold.

In terms of interface and features, the A626 is practically the same printer as the A826, but in terms of size and shape, their designs are completely different. Significantly smaller than the A826, the A626 measures approximately 7.7 by 8.7 by 9.9 inches with its output and paper trays open. Equipped with a small carrying handle, the attractive, boom-box–shaped A626 is designed for carrying along on trips or special occasions. The A626 also weighs only 3.4 pounds, so it won’t weigh down your luggage when you bring it with you on a trip to Hawaii. The problem I had with the A626 was its input tray. You access the tray by prying open a cover on the back of the printer, but that leaves very little space to load the paper. The A626 could stand some design improvements, such as easier access to its input tray and greater paper capacity.

Similar to the A626, the PictureMate Zoom is designed for mobile use. Equipped with a convenient carrying handle, the Zoom has a boxy form that resembles a car battery. The PictureMate lineup’s appearance has changed a lot over the years. The original model ( ) was shaped like a small, rounded boom box. Most Macworld editors agree that this new design is not as aesthetically pleasing as that of previous generations.

Sporting a cool silver-and-white case, the Pixma mini320 has a retractable carrying handle. When you’re using the printer, you can simply push the handle in so it’s out of the way. Though this printer does a good job of protecting its control panel with foldable covers, I was surprised that no cover protected the printer’s memory-card slots. Their location on the right side of the printer allows dust to enter.

Like its interface, the Selphy CP740’s design is by far the simplest in this group. A small, rectangular box with rounded corners, the CP740 was the only printer in the group that had no flip-up LCD screen. Rather, the 2-inch display is fixed on top of the printer, surrounded by control buttons. Like the mini320, the CP740 leaves its memory-card slots unprotected. Also, getting used to the input tray’s anomalous design could take some time if you’re accustomed to ink-jet printers. Instead of simply standing up paper in a vertical tray, you must place the paper in a small, covered tray, open the tray’s lid at an angle, and shove the tray into the paper feeder.

Features

You won’t see much variety in terms of extra features for this group of printers. The only one with a notably different capability is the PictureMate Zoom, which includes a built-in CD burner. This feature would come in handy if you ran out of ink or paper or you just wanted a quick way to distribute all your photos to family and friends at an event.

Epson PictureMate Zoom PM 290
For special occasions when you’re nowhere near a power outlet (say, at a beach party or cookout), the PictureMate Zoom and mini320 both offer optional batteries that you can purchase separately.

Memory cards

Most compact photo printers support a wide range of memory cards, freeing you of the need to connect via USB to your Mac. The PictureMate Zoom supports CompactFlash (Types I and II), Memory Stick, Microdrive, MultiMediaCard (MMC), SDHC, Secure Digital, and xD-Picture Card. The two HP printers support most of that lineup, along with the Memory Stick Duo.

The mini320 and the Selphy CP740 add the Memory Stick Pro to that list—but they omit the xD-Picture Card, which leaves many Fujifilm and Olympus photographers out of luck unless they purchase a separate card adapter.

If the CP740 doesn’t support your camera’s memory card, you have another option: the printer includes a special retractable USB cable that will connect with PictBridge-compatible digital cameras.

Paper

Compact photo printers were originally designed to print 4-by-6-inch photos, but today most of them can print other sizes too. Both HP models, for example, can print up to 4-by-12-inch panoramas—which comes in handy for people who enjoy snapping landscapes. The flexibility in print sizes these two printers offer will appeal to the flourishing scrapbook and photo hobbyist communities.

The Pixma mini320 can also print several photo sizes up to 5 by 7 inches. This range isn’t as impressive as that of the two HP printers, but the option to print 5-by-7-inch photos is practical.

I mentioned earlier that the PictureMate Zoom was the top performer in quality and speed. Disappointingly, it can print only 4-by-6-inch photos. With compact printers, you’ll probably be printing in this size most often, but the limitation is still unfortunate.

HP Photosmart A826
The Selphy CP740 was the most disappointing when it came to paper size—it can print 4 by 6 photos only as postcards. Canon offers just one type of paper for the CP740 in this size—and it isn’t exactly photo paper, but rather 4-by-6-inch postcard paper, so that the back of every photo you print at that size includes address lines and a box where you can stick a stamp. Because the CP740 is a dye-sub printer, it requires a special type of paper, so you can’t get away with using another vendor’s paper or generic photo paper. I found this limitation frustrating, as the CP740 is advertised as a photo printer, not specifically as a postcard printer. And its prints are pleasing enough so that I’d want to print more than just postcards.

Print price

The PictureMate Zoom was the only printer to use the traditional CMYK cartridge found in most modern ink-jet printers. Thus, the PictureMate Zoom produced the photos with the most accurate colors, the best shadow detail, and the deepest, truest blacks. Ironically, the PictureMate Zoom’s cost per print is the lowest of the bunch. Epson offers an economical ink-and-paper combination pack containing one cartridge and 150 sheets of 4-by-6-inch glossy photo paper, putting the cost per print at 25 cents.

Compare this to the mini320. For $30, Canon offers a similar combination pack containing 100 sheets of glossy photo paper and an ink cartridge, making the cost per print 30 cents. Last year, Canon offered the same combination pack for the mini260 model ( ) for $28, which means that the cost per print has gone up 2 cents. That may seem insignificant, but at 30 cents per print, the mini320 is the most expensive to use of all the compact photo printers we reviewed.

HP offers the same ink-and-paper combo for both the A826 and the A626. At $35 for 120 sheets and one ink cartridge, the price per print calculates to 29 cents for these printers.

The Selphy CP740 has a modest price per print. Canon sells its ink and postcard paper combination pack, yielding 108 prints, for $30; the price per print comes to 27 cents.

 

Compact Photo Printers Compared

Product Rating Price Number of inks Cost per print ¹ Print sizes (in inches) Memory cards Color print quality Black-and-white print quality
Canon Pixma mini320 3.5 mice $180 3 30 cents Credit card (2.13 x 3.39), 4 x 6, 4 x 8, 5 x 7, photo stickers CompactFlash, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, Microdrive, MultiMediaCard, SDHC, Secure Digital Very Good N/A
Canon Selphy CP740 3.0 mice $100 3 ² 27 cents Credit card (2.13 x 3.39), credit-card label sheet (2.13 x 3.39), credit-card minilabel sheet (2.13 x 3.39), postcard (4 x 6), 4 x 8 CompactFlash, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick Pro, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Microdrive, MultiMediaCard, MMCmobile, MMCplus, RS-MMC, SDHC, miniSDHC, Secure Digital, miniSD Good N/A
Epson PictureMate Zoom PM 290 4.5 mice $200 4 25 cents 4 x 6 CompactFlash Type I and II, Memory Stick, Microdrive, MultiMediaCard, SDHC, Secure Digital, xD-Picture Card (Type M/H) Very Good Very Good
Hewlett-PackardPhotosmart A626 3.5 mice $150 3 29 cents 4 x 6, 4 x 6.5, 4 x 8 photo card, 4 x 12 panorama, 5 x 7 CompactFlash Type I and II, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Duo, MultiMediaCard, Secure MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital, xD-Picture Card Good Fair
Hewlett-Packard Photosmart A826 3.5 mice $250 3 29 cents 4 x 6, 4 x 6.5, 4 x 8 photo card, 4 x 12 panorama, 5 x 7 CompactFlash Type I and II, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Duo, MultiMediaCard, Secure MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital, xD-Picture Card Good Fair

How we tested: We printed all test files from a SanDisk CompactFlash card inserted into the printer. A panel of experts examined samples of the printer’s output to rate its print quality as Superior, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor in comparison to the output of past compact photo printers we’ve tested. ¹Calculated using the price of the vendor’s photo-paper-and-ink package and dividing it by the vendor's estimated yield for a single ink cartridge. &sup2This printer uses dye-sublimation printing technology.—Macworld Lab testing by Brian Chen

 

Macworld’s buying advice

By far, the Epson PictureMate Zoom stood out as the strongest candidate of the five models. It printed the highest-quality photos at the fastest speeds. It provides a user-friendly control panel and interface, and its convenient carrying handle and battery option make it perfect for mobile use. Best of all, given its quality and top performance, the PictureMate Zoom is the least expensive of the five printers to use. Its only disadvantage is its print-size limitation, which its other fine features heavily outweigh.

What Is dye sublimation

When you think of printers, the words inkjet and laser usually come to mind. But some printers make use of older, less-common printing technologies. Dye sublimation was originally used in industrial and commercial applications for medical imaging, fabric printing, and so forth. Today, dye sub is also used for photographs and various media. The dye-sub printing process is complex yet intriguing.

Instead of using ink cartridges, a dye-sublimation printer utilizes a ribbon containing CMYO (cyan, magenta, yellow, and overcoating), which differs from the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) system used in most printers. Unlike ink-jet printing, dye-sub printing is a multistep process, in which a small heater inside the printer vaporizes solid dye, and the printer then transfers each of the colors onto the printable surface one at a time. When you’re printing a photo, you’ll see the printer roll a sheet of photo paper in and out repeatedly until it has transferred each layer of color onto the sheet, creating a picture composed of continuous tones.

With the ink-jet printing process, on the other hand, the printer sprays miniature droplets of liquid ink onto paper. If you inspect your prints closely, you’ll see that the printer leaves behind a huge mass of dots that constitute your image. Just how visible these dots are depends on the printer’s print resolution (measured in dots per inch, or dpi), among other factors. Many of today’s ink-jet printers do an excellent job of producing prints so that the dots are barely, if at all, visible.

Compact printer or online service?

Purchasing a compact photo printer isn’t your only option for immortalizing your memories. If you don’t crave instant gratification or you just don’t wish to add a printer to your desktop clutter, you can take advantage of online photo-printing services that develop and print your photos and ship them to your home.

We uploaded our test photos to two popular online photo-printing services—Mpix and Snapfish. The results from both photo services were very impressive. Photos from Snapfish appeared more tinted and slightly flatter than most of the test prints we produced on our compact photo printers. But overall, the Snapfish photos looked very professional, clear, and smooth; and though they were on the darker side, colors looked pleasing. Snapfish also produced the best black-and-white photos of all the print samples we evaluated. The Snapfish service uses a glossy Fujifilm photo paper, which makes photos look very high quality.

Photos from Mpix were vivid, with accurate colors and excellent shadow detail. Black-and-white photos from Mpix also looked attractive, although they had a slight brown color cast. Mpix printed on Kodak Professional Portra Endura photo paper, and the results were comparable to our test prints from the best compact photo printer in this roundup—the Epson PictureMate Zoom.

Which route you choose—purchasing a compact photo printer or using a photo-printing service—depends on how fast you need your prints. Keep in mind that if you choose to purchase a printer, you’ll be paying for the hardware, the paper, and the ink. Per-print prices from photo services vary. Snapfish, for example, charges 12 cents for each 4-by-6-inch print; Mpix charges 19 cents. And, of course, you’ll have to factor in the cost of shipping. The least expensive shipping method for Snapfish costs $1; Mpix’s slowest shipping method costs about $2.50, and this price increases depending on the number of photos you order.

If you print photos only occasionally, it may be more economical to use online photo-printing services. But if you’re a scrapbooker or photo hobbyist, or if you like to tuck a few pictures into the pockets of friends and family as you say good-bye, you’ll benefit from the purchase of a compact photo printer. A printer should save you money and time over the course of its life—and give you results comparable to those of a sampling of commercial online photo services.

[Brian Chen is Macworld’s assistant editor.]

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments