In the past two years, ink-jet photo printers have improved so much that their output can easily be mistaken for traditional photographs (for more on the pros and cons of printers and online photo services, see "Weighing Your Options"). Epson was the first company to reach this level of quality, but recent developments from Canon and Hewlett-Packard mean that there are plenty of good printer options. If you want to print your own images, you'll find that an ink-jet photo printer can provide you with more control and flexibility than an online service.
We tested a wide-ranging group of photo printers from Canon, Epson, and HP. For straight-ahead, no-frills printing, we looked at Epson's entry-level Stylus Photo 820 ($149) and Canon's speedy S900 ($399). We also evaluated three photo printers that can read digital-camera media cards and print without computer intervention: Canon's S820D ($399), Epson's Stylus Photo 785EPX ($199), and HP's Photosmart 1315 ($399). (For reviews of the Canon S800, Epson Stylus Photo 780, Epson Stylus Photo 1280, and HP Photosmart 1218, see "Ultimate Buyers' Guide: Printers," August 2001; for a review of the Epson Stylus Pro 5500, a professional-level ink-jet photo printer with archival inks, see Reviews, December 2001; and for a review of the Olympus P-400 dye-sublimation photo printer, read our online-only review.)
Epson Stylus Photo 820 and 785EPX
The Stylus Photo 820 and 785EPX represent minor evolutions in Epson's printer line--beyond slightly improved print speeds, lower prices, new case designs, and media-card support, they have few major changes. Like Epson's other current ink-jet printers, these models have a maximum print resolution of 2,880 by 720 dpi. It's rarely necessary to print at that resolution, however--it's slow and uses up more ink than the similar-quality 1,440-dpi print mode.
Both printers support borderless printing on five popular paper sizes, ranging from 3.5 by 5 inches to letter size (you'll still need to crop your image to the right aspect ratio). This feature mimics the edge-to-edge printing of traditional (and online) photo-processing services and eliminates the need for oversized, perforated paper that leaves rough edges. (This feature, however, is not currently supported in OS X--but Epson does have the widest array of available paper sizes in OS X.)
The Epson printers also offer fade-resistant inks, which the company claims will last 25 years (on specific paper types and under ideal storage and lighting conditions).
While both Epsons did well in the image-quality department, they weren't the fastest photo printers we looked at--the Stylus Photo 820 and 785EPX came in last in our speed tests.
Canon S820D and S900
Canon has lagged behind its photo-printer competitors, but the company's latest printers shrink the quality gap, and they're the fastest printers in their class.
The S820D and S900 have a maximum resolution of 2,400 by 1,200 dpi, and they have an important feature not found in any other photo printer priced under $1,000--individual ink cartridges for each color. Nearly all other ink-jet printers group three or five inks in a single cartridge that stops printing when any one color is out, no matter how much of the other inks is still available.
Following Epson's lead, Canon is using light-fast inks with these models and making the same claims of 25-year print life. Canon has also adopted 4-by-6-inch and letter-size borderless prints--which are not, however, currently available in OS X--with these printers. In fact, Canon's paper-size selection in OS X is woefully slim, limited to letter size, 4 by 6 inches, and various European and envelope sizes.
The S900 is the fastest photo printer we have yet tested, tossing out a 4.5-by-6-inch photo in best quality mode in 1 minute and 5 seconds--nearly twice as fast as the S820D, and nearly four times as fast as the HP and Epson printers. The only speed test the S900 didn't win was with the 10-page Microsoft Word document--a race the S820D won handily.
HP Photosmart 1315
Like the Epson printers, HP's Photosmart 1315 represents merely an evolution--most of the printer's enhancements are related to media-card support.
The Photosmart has a maximum resolution of 2,400 by 1,200 dpi and two paper-input trays, including a tray for printing 4-by 6-inch photos. (It doesn't support borderless printing, relying instead on perforated paper.) HP does offer true double-sided printing, available via an optional $80 duplexing attachment.
The Photosmart was slightly faster than the Epson printers in our speed tests, but it was no speed demon.
All of these printers connect via USB (even though none comes with a USB cable) and include very basic programs for image editing and printing. Each works in both OS 9 and OS X, though OS X support is not as full-featured.
The models from Epson and Canon add light cyan and light magenta inks to the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks found in most mainstream ink-jet printers. The light inks help provide a wider tonal range, especially with flesh tones. Prints from the Photosmart, which uses the four-color system, were very good but not up to the level of its six-color competitors.
Prints from the Canon S900 and S820D exhibited excellent detail and very good tonal gradation. Although they were very close to the Epson prints in overall quality, they still came up short, according to our jury of experts, especially in terms of color accuracy--when compared with calibrated screen display--and tonal range. For example, skin tones looked more realistic in the Epson output than they did in the Canon or HP prints. Slight color shifting was more noticeable with the Canons, while the HP generally produced more-extreme color shifts and much more saturated prints--by using more ink, but this results in a look many people find appealing.
The Epson printers' magnificent tonal range is evident in images that include patches of graduated color (such as skies). Prints from the Canon and HP printers exhibited problems, such as artifacts, with these types of images. Also, when looking at glossy prints from the S900 and S820D with a magnifying loupe, we saw light banding in parts of some images, as opposed to the finely diffused dot pattern that the Epson printers achieve.
While the Canon printers are close to the Epsons in terms of quality, the Photosmart is hampered by its continued reliance on the four-color ink system. Although banding wasn't much of a problem, photos from the Photosmart were not as crisp as those from the Canon and Epson printers; the Photosmart's prints had bigger dots, blown highlights, and the extreme color shifts discussed previously. It is possible to get satisfactory prints from the Photosmart, but you'll have to prepare your images a bit to get them, and you won't have the wider tones to work with.
Of the three printers that include media readers, the Photosmart has the best set of built-in features: slots for SmartMedia, CompactFlash, and Sony's Memory Stick cards. Each of the Canons and Epsons ships with a PC Card slot and an adapter for CompactFlash cards, so you'll have to shell out additional cash if you have a Sony or Olympus digital camera. (The S820D also has a port for connecting a Canon PowerShot S30 or S40 digital camera for direct printing.)
HP is also the only manufacturer to include a built-in LCD screen for displaying images from the media cards (Canon and Epson each offer a smaller LCD attachment for an additional $99). The HP LCD is especially helpful if you want to crop images or manipulate color or saturation without having to waste paper. The smaller LCDs were too tiny to be of much use for anything other than simply viewing thumbnails.
All the printers with built-in readers have good options for printing images, including different paper types and sizes, multiple copies, and more. Inserted media cards will automatically mount on the Mac desktop, although we couldn't get this feature to work with the Stylus Photo 785EPX while running OS X (it worked fine with OS 9). Similarly, the Photosmart has an excellent Send To Computer button that automatically uploads all of the images on a card to your Mac; although this button didn't work with OS X, it was possible to automatically upload images via one of HP's software utilities.
If you want the convenience of directly printing from a card, HP offers the best overall interface, with Canon and Epson slightly behind (largely due to the omission of an LCD).
Macworld's Buying Advice
Epson remains at the top of the heap in print quality and color fidelity. If you want the best-possible color but don't want to do a lot of work, either of the Epson printers will be right for you. The Stylus Photo 785EPX's low cost and media support make it especially convenient, though lack of OS X support on the media reader is something to keep in mind.
The Stylus Photo 820, with its lower price--and Epson has been offering mail-in rebates that reduce the printer's price to $99--is hard to pass up. Its big downside is that it has the smallest ink tanks of any printer we tested, which means more-frequent cartridge changes than with any of the other printers we tested. If you have voracious printing appetites, we recommend the Stylus Photo 785EPX, which has bigger ink tanks, or one of Epson's other photo models, such as the Stylus Photo 890 or 1280.
We were impressed by the leaps in quality made by Canon--both the S820D and S900 offer a great mix of very good image quality and top print speeds. $399 is a lot to spend on one of these printers, given the competition, but if you want the extra speed and are willing to spend some time playing with your images, you won't be disappointed. If you're looking to save a little cash and don't need the S820D's media-card reader, look at the $299 S820.
HP's Photosmart 1315 is not a bad printer, but it pales in comparison to the other units we reviewed here. If you like the oversaturated look that HP specializes in, or if you're looking for a general-purpose photo ink-jet printer with excellent media-reader support, the 1315 is a solid choice. If you want a less expensive HP alternative, you might want to look at the Photosmart 1115; for $199, it provides slower print speeds and a media-card reader without LCD or Memory Stick support.