You use your color ink-jet printer to print photos, but do the results look good enough to frame? If viewing high-resolution images on screen isn't enough and you want to produce your own photo lab-quality prints, the Olympus P-400 is an investment worth considering.
The Olympus P-400 is a desktop printer that uses dye-sublimation technology, a process in which dye is heat-transferred to the photo paper in five separate layers: yellow, magenta, black, cyan, and finally, a protective overcoat. The actual output from the printer is so impressive that we nominated it for a Macworld Eddy Award in January 2001.
At First Glance
The P-400 is heavier and larger than your average desktop ink-jet printer, weighing about 26 pounds without the paper tray. The tray holds 50 sheets of photo paper and accepts the following paper sizes: A5 (7.64 by 6.4 inches), A4 (8.26 by 11.7 inches), standard perforation paper, and postcard perforation paper.
The P-400 accepts SmartMedia and PC Cards directly, so you'll have to use PC Card adapters for CompactFlash and Sony's Memory Stick Media. PC Card adapters must be purchased separately, although one usually costs less than $20.
The software driver is easy to install, but you'll need to purchase a USB cable (around $10) to connect the P-400 directly to your Mac. The manual includes step-by-step instructions and helpful illustrations to get you started.
Eyeing Your Options
The P-400's LCD control panel gives you control of paper size, media type, and image size. The interface is not exactly intuitive and takes some getting used to.
You can use the monochrome LCD screen to preview images, but it's small (about a square inch), so images can be hard to discern. We recommend previewing your images on a digital camera or printing them directly from your Mac. However, the LCD screen can be useful when you're selecting individual pictures on a media card and you're familiar with the images. To scroll through the images on a media card, you simply turn a dial.
The P-400 makes it easy to choose from a variety of layouts, including multiple print, album print, index print, and two different postcard-size prints. Whether you want to proof a number of pictures you've taken all on one sheet, or print 4- by 6-inch images to frame, the P-400 delivers instantly without software. Plus, it provides full color, black and white, and sepia filters.
A high-resolution, 8- by 10-inch image takes about two and a half minutes to print, less than half the time required by the fastest six-color photo ink-jet printers.
Prints in Shiny Overcoat
The output is remarkable. When we printed one and two megapixel photos, we found that shadow detail and color saturation were excellent. Overall, colors appeared less washed out than those produced by photo ink-jet printers. The P-400 also is extremely accurate in reproducing colors; original photos compared side by side with scanned-and-printed versions from the P-400 are nearly identical.
The Cost of Convenience
The P-400 ships with a starter kit that includes five sheets of A4-size photo paper and only enough ink ribbon to print four full sheets and one postcard during our initial test. Olympus claims that the P-400 can print 50 sheets (at a maximum print area of 7.64 by 10 inches) using one full-size ribbon, and in our tests, it printed about 43 sheets total, some 8 by 10 inches, others 4 by 6 inches and smaller. Considering the P-400's lofty $999 price tag, it would be considerate of Olympus to include a full-size ribbon (about $45). There is no warning when the ink ribbon will run out.
In addition, you'll pay a little more for prints from the P-400 than you would using a photo ink-jet printer: the estimated cost per print is $1.90. However, it's still a few dollars less than comparable 8- by 10-inch prints from an online service. At $999, the P-400 is more expensive than any other photo ink-jet printer, but at the same time, it's unique in bringing 8- by 10-inch dye-sublimation printing to under $1,000.