Ink-jet printers made specifically for photo printing are getting plenty of attention these days, but why buy such a spiffy machine to print Web pages or e-mail? In these cases, a general-purpose ink-jet printer will suffice, and some even sport advanced capabilities. This month, Macworld Lab put five of these printers to the test, and one rose quickly to the top.
The $200 Canon i850 is the best all-around ink-jet we’ve ever seen. Although other printers in this group might print slightly crisper text or cleaner graphics, the i850 was good at printing both types of documents, and it produces amazing photo prints, even with its limited four-ink palette. The i850 took more time than the other printers to produce an 8-by-10-inch photo, but it was well worth the wait. You won’t get the continuous tones and smooth transitions that a six-color ink-jet produces, but the i850 comes close.
The $180 Canon S530D offers speedy prints of very good quality, but what sets it apart is the built-in media-card reader on its front. The reader allows you to transfer the contents of a digital camera’s media card to your Mac for editing, or print directly from the printer’s front control panel without interacting with your computer. (For a review of photo ink-jets with this capability, see Reviews, February 2003.) The S530D’s text was very clear. Its photo output, though a little dark, was also very good. We did see some banding in darker areas of photos and graphics when we printed on plain paper, but by using heavier — albeit more expensive — stock (matte photo paper in this case) we successfully eliminated this problem. In terms of print speed, the S530D won two of the three timed trials, with a very impressive showing of less than three minutes when we printed a photo at the printer’s Best Quality setting.
Epson Stylus C82
The $149 Epson Stylus C82 doesn’t claim to be a photo printer, mainly because its pigment-based DuraBrite inks don’t work well on glossy photo papers. These inks lay on top of the glossy paper, producing a somewhat dark and metallic appearance. But on matte paper, this printer does a very fine job, so if you prefer a matte finish, the C82 is a great choice. Epson’s pigment-based inks are long-lived and waterproof, making the C82 great for printing restaurant menus, for example. The C82’s printed text was a bit on the light side but very legible, even at tiny point sizes. In color-graphic documents, a visible dot pattern appeared in lighter areas, but the consistency of the C82’s prints helps keep this from being a distraction. The C82 was the fastest of the group in our PDF-document test and a close second in our Word-document test.
HP DeskJet 5550
The $150 Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 5550 is also a great all-around document printer that produces heavy but clean and legible text, as well as very good photos. And swapping the standard three-ink color cartridge for an optional $25 photo cartridge transforms the 5550 into a six-color photo printer — a boon for people torn between the continuous tones of a six-color photo printer and the expense and space requirements of having two devices.
When we tested the 5550’s ability to print our test photos in six-color mode, the printer produced better shadow details and skin tones than in four-color mode. Overall, we found the output to be pleasing, if a little oversaturated. HP’s lack of color correction options — you can use only HP’s ColorSmart or gray-scale settings — may frustrate more-advanced users.
The 5550’s print times in four-color mode were in line with those of most of the other printers we tested, but it did lag nearly a minute behind the rest in our PDF-document test.
Lexmark Z65 Color Jetprinter
The $149 Lexmark Z65 Color Jetprinter proved to be a great printer for both color and black text. Though it took quite a bit longer to print our Word document, the Z65 produced the cleanest, sharpest text we saw from any of the printers we tested. The Z65 was the only printer that did not show even one break in graphics with fine, curved lines. Unfortunately, its seemingly random dither pattern in light areas of printed images produced noticeable dots. Although we would have expected these results and even found them completely acceptable in earlier printers, advancing technology has raised the bar considerably. The Z65’s text and fine-line accuracy make it worth considering if you plan on printing photos only rarely. Otherwise, we’d have a hard time recommending it over any of the other printers in this group.