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Print at home or order in?

Online printing services will deliver your favorite photos right to your door within a few days. But they’re not your only option for putting those pixels on paper. Thanks to the prevalence of small, affordable desktop printers, it’s easier than ever to print your own photos at home. Many of these printers will even print stacks of borderless 4-by-6-inch prints just like the ones you’d get from a service. So which route is right for you?

Photo-Printing Services

How It Works Photo-printing services use a combination of digital and traditional film printing technologies to create your prints. The digital data that you submit is used to expose a piece of photographic paper. That paper is then processed and developed just as if it had been exposed through a piece of photographic film.

The Good The advantage of a photo service over a desktop printer is that the prints you get back will have a truly continuous tone, which means that you’ll never see individual pixels or printer dots (though with low-resolution prints, you might see other annoying artifacts). In addition, the prints you get back from a photo-printing service tend to be far more resistant to fading and color shifts than what you’d get out of a home printer—although that’s becoming less of an issue, thanks to today’s long-lasting inks and papers.

Then there’s convenience. With a photo-printing service, you upload your images and then get back to your life while you wait for your prints to arrive in the mail. You don’t have to worry about choosing papers, trimming borders, or clearing paper jams.

The Bad If you don’t like the results you get from a particular service, you can’t tweak the image and reprint it without a lot of hassle and more waiting. And for larger print sizes, doing your own prints is usually a little more cost-effective, especially when you add in the cost of shipping and handling.

Photo Printers

How It Works Ink-jet printers spray tiny droplets of ink onto a page. By combining several (between four and seven) different colors of ink, they create the illusion of a continuous-tone print.

The Good If you need prints in a hurry, or if you want to tweak your prints to perfection, then you’ll be better served by printing yourself. If you discover that you don’t like the color or that the image seems soft, you can make adjustments and print the image again. For low-fuss printing, consider getting a printer that prints only 4-by-6-inch prints, such as the $250 Epson PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition or the $200 Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 375 Compact Photo Printer. These compact printers can print from your Mac or directly from a media card. However, getting good results may take several test prints. This will mean using more ink—the most expensive part of the printing process. Still, the per-print costs for these printers come to around $0.29 per page, which makes them competitive with photo-printing services. And you won’t have to pay shipping fees.

The Bad Making your own prints is more work than ordering from a service, especially if you’re hand-correcting your images. Of course, that labor pays off in better image quality, but if you need to quickly crank out dozens of snapshots, doing your own printing may not be a reasonable solution.

In the end, you can think of these printers as a home darkroom. When image quality is paramount, it may be better to do it yourself. When you need many images with little effort, you should probably go with a photo service.

The Epson PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition can print 4-by-6-inch prints from just about anywhere, thanks to an optional battery pack.
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