The new Stylus Pro 3880: What can it do for you?

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Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Printerville.

The news dropped the other day: Epson unveiled an upgrade to its photo inkjet printer, the Epson 3800. That left me wondering what the real news was. On the surface, the new 3880 model offers a few incremental improvements over the Stylus Pro 3800, adding the Vivid Magenta inks, an improved printhead, and new screening algorithms. The case design, print engine, and ink system (with its spacious 80ml cartridges and 8-channel head that requires switching of matte and photo black inks) are identical to the 3800, which is testament to that printer's design and its success in the market, as well as the relative maturity of the photo printer industry.

The Stylus Pro 3880 will be priced at $1,295; a Graphic Arts Edition, which comes with a ColorBurst RIP for proofing and design applications, will be available for $1,495. Epson expects both models to ship in October; if Epson's past history is any indicator, we would expect a few early units to get snapped up quickly, with wide availability by the end of this year.

Here's a rundown of the new features in the Stylus Pro 3880:

  • Vivid Magenta inks These two inks (vivid magenta and vivid light magenta) will give the 3880 a slightly wider gamut over 3800's stock UltraChrome K3 inks, especially in the blues and the violets. They will also help with black-and-white printing to provide much more neutral prints, when used in conjunction with the printer's new screening technology. These inks debuted more than two years ago in the high-end Stylus Pro 4880, 7880, and 9880 printers, and Epson even leap-frogged the 3800 last summer, incorporating the set in the $800 Stylus Photo R2880.

  • Improved screening The new screening algorithm, called AccuPhoto HD2, is probably the most important enhancement to the Stylus Pro 3880. Epson says that this technology provides "smoother color transitions and better highlight and shadow detail" on photographic prints, even at lower print resolutions. It should also further reduce the dwindling instances of metameric failure, a condition in which the the human eye detects a shift in color when viewing a print under different light sources. AccuPhoto HD2 is the result of an ongoing partnership between Epson and the Rochester Institute of Technology (which also resulted in the Stylus Photo R1900's Radiance technology). When used in conjunction with the printhead and the UltraChrome K3 Vivid Magenta inks, we should see much richer prints on a wide variety of media, with smoother transitions and improved shadow detail.

  • Ink-repellent printhead While the 3880's printhead utilizes the same 8-channel design found in the 3800, Epson has updated the printhead to include the ink-repellent coating found in higher-end and consumer-level photo inkjets, which will help minimize ink clogs and spatter over the life of the printer.

Here are some other notable features:

  • Print resolution up to 2880-by-1440 dpi with a minimum ink droplet size of 3.5 picoliters;
  • Nine inks (eight printing) including the aforementioned vivid magenta inks, cyan and light cyan, yellow, two light-density gray inks (light gray and light light gray), and two black inks, matte and photo black. The black inks share one channel to the printhead, and automatically switch when you move between glossy and matte (or fine-art) papers;
  • Maximum cut sheet size of 17-by-22 inches (with panoramic sizes available through the custom print dialog box), and borderless printing from 4-by-6 inches to 17-by-22 inches;
  • Three paper paths, including a straight-through path for media up to 1.5mm thick;
  • USB 2.0 and Ethernet (10/100) interfaces;
  • Compact size: 27 inches wide, 15 inches deep, and 10 inches high (with doors and trays closed).

What's missing?

There is bound to be some disappointment with this announcement, especially from photographers looking to the 10-ink UltraChrome HDR inks in the Stylus Pro 7900/9900 wide-format printers, or the 12 inks in HP's Designjet Z3200. But, while you might get a slightly larger gamut with more inks, it's highly unlikely that it would be worth the extra mass and expense for a desktop printer that already has sterling print quality.

Epson Stylus Pro 3880

The real issue that will come up is the ink waste when swapping inks, but in the two-and-a-half years that I've used my 3800—and spoken with many, many 3800 users—it really has been a minor issue. Yes, in an ideal world, we would all want a 9-channel printhead with no ink waste whatsoever, but the reality is that, on the 3800, this is a problem that rarely gets in the way, thanks to the 80ml cartridge capacity, which makes it much more economical to print. (And don't think that there isn't ink waste in all inkjet printers; there is.)

Does it change the market?

Over the past 18 months, there has been a pretty steady drumbeat of anticipation for an update to the Stylus Pro 3800. Not a week goes by where I don't get at least two or three emails from readers looking to buy a 3800 and worrying that they'll get caught off guard with an announcement from Epson. My response is always the same: "It's a great printer, and if you need it now, buy it now," and I can't see any reason that will change with the 3880 release.

The Stylus Pro 3880 is definitely an incremental update to the Stylus Pro 3800, but it shouldn't be dismissed as a placeholder upgrade. The new inks, when combined with the AccuPhoto HD2 screening, should represent a slight, but noticeable improvement in print quality for discerning artists and photographers, especially with tricky images, black-and-white prints, and anything being offered for sale. And the 3800's basic design has been proven again and again as the go-to desktop printer for the professional photographer.

Part of this is a tacit acknowledgement that we're running out of room when it comes to big enhancements in photo quality; the bar has been set pretty high by Epson, and we just aren't going to see the type of generational print quality changes that we saw in the early parts of this decade. (It's worth noting that both HP and Canon have raised the output quality level of their professional printers as well.)

As much as we all might want some magical desktop photo printer that costs next to nothing and produces prints for even less, the fact remains that the Stylus Pro 3800 was a great product that sat uniquely in the market, with no real competition. The Stylus Pro 3880 should slip effortlessly into its place.

The big question is whether HP or Canon decide that the 17-inch desktop market is now worth playing in: both companies have been extremely silent while Epson has maintained a sizable lead in the market. Epson has proven that there is a middle ground for the professional photographer who prefers a more compact unit with economical printing over wide-format, roll-fed photo printers.

[ Rick LePage is a former Macworld editor and now runs the photo printer site Printerville .]

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