Great pictures, small packages

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.]

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