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Feeling the competitive heat from Hewlett-Packard (HP), Epson has improved its ink-jet printer line with faster, sturdier, and quieter offerings. Macworld Lab tested the $199 Stylus Color 760 and $279 Stylus Color 860, and concluded that the printers should appeal to SOHO users with USB-equipped Macs. The Stylus Color 760 replaces Epson's Stylus Color 740; the Stylus Color 860 is slightly faster, but otherwise identical to the Stylus Color 760.
With the Stylus Color 740, you had to print images at 1,440 dpi to get excellent photo quality, and printing at that resolution was a slow process. The new printers feature a number of enhancements, including a smaller droplet size and a more-accurate printhead, that allow them to produce photo-realistic images relatively fast at just 720 dpi. Both printers can also print at a slower 1,440 dpi if you want additional detail.
Epson positions these printers against HP's DeskJet 882C and DeskJet 895C (see Reviews , September 1999), but we were more interested in comparing them with a more recently introduced model, HP's $399 DeskJet 970 (see Reviews , January 2000), Macworld's Eddy Award winner for Best Printer/Imaging Device (March 2000).
Although the DeskJet 970 remains an excellent general-purpose printer for homes and small businesses, our testing showed that both Epson models offer marginally better photographic quality when printing at the manufacturers' recommended resolutions: 720 dpi for the Epson printers and 600 dpi for the DeskJet 970. The Epson printers' color accuracy especially impressed us, although tweaking the colors is a little tricky because you have so many options, including Apple's ColorSync and Epson's Photoenhance3 color-management systems. Ironically, we got the best results by turning off the color-correction and color-management options. The HP DeskJet 970 produced sharper-looking prints at comparable resolutions, but our jury determined that its color was a little flatter than the Epson's.
The Epson printers were also somewhat faster than the DeskJet when printing a 26MB, 8-by-10-inch Photoshop image at 720 dpi: the 860 took 4 minutes, 2 seconds; the 760 took 4 minutes, 22 seconds; and the DeskJet 970 took 5 minutes, 2 seconds. However, when printing plain text, the DeskJet 970 remains the speed champ, printing a 10-page Microsoft Word document in 300-dpi Normal mode in 1 minute, 11 seconds, compared with 1 minute, 49 seconds for the Stylus Color 860 and 2 minutes, 41 seconds for the Stylus Color 760, both at 360 dpi.
Text quality at 360 dpi is adequate for letters to friends or interoffice corre-spondence, but you should print résumés or formal correspondence at a higher-quality setting. Printing the same Word document at 720 dpi on Epson's photo-quality ink-jet paper, our jury rated text output as excellent. Expect to wait, however: the Stylus Color 860 took 15 minutes, 19 seconds, while the Stylus Photo took 16 minutes, 20 seconds.
Both printers are quieter and more solidly built than their predecessors, although neither is as quiet as the DeskJet 970. Thanks largely to the high-quality servoless stepper motor that moves the printhead, Epson rates the noise level at 42 dB, compared with the 45 dB of the Epson 740. The cases are constructed of a higher-grade polystyrene that reduces rattle and vibration noise while giving the printers a sturdier and more-pleasing look. The Stylus Color 860 also has a tinted panel through which you can watch the printhead move. However, the 860's printhead, with its slightly faster print speed, is also noisier when printing at high resolutions; at times this was a bit annoying, especially when we were printing on film.
One sad note for users of older Mac systems: Epson, the last holdout to provide serial ports on its printers, has finally abandoned them. If you have an older Mac, you'll need a USB adapter to use these or any other new ink-jet printers. However, both printers work with the $159 Axis 1440 print server, which provides Ethernet connectivity.
Epson bundles both printers with Polaroid PhotoMax Pro image-editing software and ArcSoft Photoprinter SE photo-layout software. You can choose two additional software titles, such as Diablo or Corel Photo-Paint, for $7.95 shipping and handling.
The HP DeskJet 970 remains the best general-purpose printer, but at $199 (after a $30 rebate) the Stylus Color 760 is a great value for high-quality photographic printing, especially if you already have a laser printer for producing text documents. The Stylus Color 860 offers marginally faster output, but most users will probably find the speed not worth the extra $79 outlay.
RATING: PROS: Fast, accurate color output; excellent value. CONS: No serial port; slows down when printing high-quality text. COMPANY: Epson (800/463-7766, http://www.epson.com ). COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $199 (after $30 rebate).
RATING: PROS: Fast, accurate color output. CONS: No serial port; slows when printing high-quality text. COMPANY: Epson ( http://www.epson.com, 800/463-7766). COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $279.
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