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ImagePROGRAF iPF5000 large format printer

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The explosive growth in digital camera sales has created a rich and competitive market for photo printers. And, while most of us are content with the quality photo printers available for under $500, there are many photographers who want more: the capability to print on a wide range of photographic and fine-art papers at large page sizes; more efficient ink systems based on pigment inks; museum-level print longevity; and control over all aspects of the printing process.

Epson has been the dominant force in this fine-art market segment, with its Stylus Photo R2400 and Stylus Pro printers. The Epson printers’ pigment-based UltraChrome K3 ink set uses eight inks to print on an extensive range of glossy- and matte-finish papers, with print life up to 200 years on some papers, according to testing done by Wilhelm Imaging Research, the recognized leader in longevity testing.

Now, Canon is taking on Epson directly with the imagePROGRAF iPF5000 , a 12-ink printer priced at $1,945. While we think there are some rough edges that need Canon’s attention, this new printer really does represent the first true competition to Epson at this level of the market.

Easy set-up and installation

The printer is large and requires two people to get it into place, but set-up is quick and easy, and it connects to your network via Ethernet, or to a specific Mac via USB 2.0. The print engine, ink system, and print carriage are solid, but the paper cassette, manual-feed guide, and output tray are made out of thin, flimsy plastic, which detracts from the printer’s quality and made us worry about their longevity.

Canon not only includes standard Mac OS X (and OS 9) print drivers, but also a plug-in for printing directly from Photoshop. The plug-in is a joy to use—you can change the page size and paper type, switch between monochrome and color output, and more. It also lets you print images in 16-bit mode, which Canon says provides smoother tonal gradations and better prints than can be had with Apple’s print driver, which has an 8-bit limitation.

Like the Epson 4800, the iPF5000 has a maximum print width of 17 inches. Print length is variable: the standard unit can print on sheets up to 17-by-22 inches in size. To print beyond the 22-inch length, or to print borderless images, you’ll need the optional ($250) roll-feed attachment. In addition to a 50-sheet paper tray, there are two manual-feed slots, including a straight-through path for thick media types.

The iPF5000’s Lucia ink set is comprised of 12 individual ink cartridges: red, blue, green, gray, photo gray, cyan, photo cyan, magenta, photo magenta, yellow, regular black, and matte black. The maximum number of inks used at any time is 11, however. If you are printing on glossy or semi-gloss paper, the iPF5000 uses the regular black ink; if you use matte or fine-art paper, the printer uses the matte black ink. The inclusion of both matte and glossy black ink tanks eliminates the need to swap ink cartridges when printing on different paper types, a welcome change from the wasteful cartridge-swapping process used by Epson’s current pigment-based printers (Epson’s recently announced Stylus Pro 3800 uses a similar ink system that doesn’t require cartridge swapping.)

We were impressed overall with the printer’s conservative ink usage. We printed more than 150 feet of 17-inch roll paper, and approximately 100 letter-size pages before we had to replace any ink cartridges, which is excellent, especially considering the $75-per-cartridge cost. (The cost per page for large-format printers is much better than with smaller desktop photo printers, which have tiny reservoirs of ink that require frequent replacement.)

Proof is in the printing

We printed on glossy, semi-gloss, fine art, and matte papers—and were impressed with the print quality. Images exhibited little or no visible dithering unless you got extremely close to the paper, and the color reproduction was excellent. And, if you’re looking for truly neutral black-and-white prints, the iPF5000 does as well as the Epson, with little or no visible color casts under different lighting conditions (a phenomenon known as metamerism).

We saw some visible surface scratching from the print rollers on sheet-fed glossy paper, something non-existent on the roll-fed glossy paper. There was also some slight bronzing on glossy paper—where some areas of a print become reflective due to the amount of ink on the page—but this was rarely objectionable.

In the end, most observers felt that the prints from the iPF5000 were comparable to the Epson 4800 on nearly all media types. We did find, however, that to get the best prints possible we needed to create custom printer profiles for Canon’s media—they’re just not as good out of the box as Epson’s. Plan on taking some time to get your bearings and tweak a few settings; but it’s possible to get great prints out of the iPF5000.

In addition to the print quality, the iPF5000’s print speed is impressive: an 8-by-10-inch image printed in 2 minutes and 7 seconds at medium quality, and in 3 minutes and 21 seconds in the highest-quality (16-bit) mode. A 17-by-22-inch image took only 5 minutes and 41 seconds at the highest-quality setting, nearly half the time the same image took to print on the Epson 4800.

A few rough edges

While the iPF5000’s print quality and print speed are the issues that will matter most to print professionals, there were a few minor details that detracted from our overall impression. First and foremost was the manual, which is HTML-based and can be found on one of the many CDs that come with the product. It was hard to navigate, had Windows screen shots in some places that described Mac-specific operations, and was generally of little help. Luckily, the printer’s operation is straightforward and the driver functions are easy to understand, so you won’t need to work with this unwieldy document often. Also, the printer’s control panel display, which was largely helpful, would occasionally display messages that seemed to require user action, but in reality did not.

Last on our list of things we would like to see fixed is the fact that the automatic roll-paper cutter isn’t really automatic. For some roll-paper types, the iPF5000 has a built-in paper cutter that will trim the sheet automatically when the print has been completed. For other paper types, the printer stops, and the control panel flashes at you, demanding that you hit the Stop key to cut the paper. Canon’s reasoning for this is that you don’t want an expensive sheet of paper dropping to the floor, but it makes it hard for people who want to print 100 copies of an image and go off to do something else. What’s worse is that it appears as if you can override this feature in the print dialog box, but selecting this option does nothing. While we understand Canon’s reasoning, we think that the resourcefulness of the printer’s audience outweighs its concern for the well-being of their prints.

It is also worth noting that some of the software that comes with the printer is only for Microsoft Windows. One of the applications, PosterArtist, is quite nice (and worked via our Windows-equipped MacBook running Boot Camp), but in reality, it’s a product that pales in comparison to Photoshop and Illustrator, and we really didn’t miss it.

Macworld’s buying advice

Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF5000 represents a leap forward in the race to develop the ultimate photo printer. As noted, there are a few things we don’t like: the added cost of the roll attachment (which comes standard with the Epson 4800) and the non-automatic roll-cutter feature, as well as the poor manual and the Windows-only extras. However, the real things that most users will care about—print quality and longevity—are very good, indeed. When you pair that with the inclusion of both matte and glossy black inks (which makes moving between paper types the breeze it should be) and the ease of printing directly from within Photoshop, you have a great competitor in a growing market.

[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor-at-large. ]

Canon ships a plug-in with the imagePROGRAF iPF5000 that bypasses Apple’s print driver and lets you effortlessly print from within Adobe Photoshop.Among the features in the Photoshop plug-in is support for borderless printing (on roll paper only), but you can change the page size and have the driver resize your image to fit the new size.The plug-in also offers extensive control of both monochrome and color settings, with on-screen representation of your images to preview before you print. The monochrome mode lets you print your images with neutral or adjustable warm or cool tones, while the color mode lets you adjust saturation, color, and gray tones.
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