Back in Apple’s darkest days, Epson was the only major manufacturer of ink-jet printers for the Mac. Now that Apple is healthy again, Hewlett-Packard and Canon are moving into Epson’s territory with new Mac-based ink-jet models. But Epson isn’t resting on its Mac laurels; the company’s new $449 Stylus Color 900 offers unprecedented speed and print quality with an added bonusit works with older Macs that have serial ports, in addition to the new USB-equipped Power Mac G3 systems.
Two features distinguish the Stylus Color 900 from its predecessor, the Stylus Color 850: speed and image quality. Epson says the Stylus Color 900 is its fastest ink-jet printer; Macworld Lab tests show that while it doesn’t quite match the rated 10-ppm print speed, it’s a speed demon at lower resolutions.
We produced a variety of sample prints on both plain and photo-quality paper, at 180 by 180 dpi, 360 by 360 dpi, and 720 by 1,440 dpi. One unusual aspect of the printer is that its speed is nearly identical at 180 dpi and 360 dpi: an 18MB Adobe Photoshop image took 50 seconds to print at the lower resolution and 55 seconds at the higher setting. When we switched to the 360-dpi fine modewhich offers better image qualitythe same file printed in about 75 seconds.
We saw similar results when printing a seven-page QuarkXPress document: it took 98 seconds to print at 360 dpi in normal mode and nearly 4 minutes at 360 dpi in fine mode. However, the printer slows considerably at its maximum resolution of 1,440 by 760 dpi: the Photoshop file printed in about 10.5 minutes, while the QuarkXPress document took nearly an hour.
Epson has boosted the printer’s image quality by reducing the minimum ink-drop size to 3 picoliters, compared with 11 picoliters in the Stylus Color 850 and 6 in the more recent Stylus Color 740 (see Reviews, January 1999). The smaller drop size allows the Stylus Color 900 to generate variable-size dots for sharper edges and enhanced photo quality.
Although it’s a four-color printer, the Stylus Color 900 produces photographic images whose quality appears to equal or exceed that of images printed on the six-color Stylus Photo 700. Even printed at 360 dpi on plain paper, images looked very good. Printed at full resolution on photo-quality glossy paper, the images were spectacular (although one sample photo in our test suite appeared a bit dark when we used the default settings). Text, line art, and photos all showed sharp edge detail, and text printed on plain paper was virtually indistinguishable from laser-printer output.
Thanks to the smaller drop size in the Stylus Color 900, you’ll see the biggest difference in photos with lots of fine detail. With softer images, you won’t see as much difference between the Stylus Color 900 and the Stylus Color 740 (which also uses variable-dot printing).
The printer uses two ink cartridges, one for black ($33) and the other for cyan, magenta, and yellow ($40). Epson says the black cartridge is good for 840 pagesassuming 5 percent coverage at 360 dpiwhile the color cartridge produces 570 pages at the same resolution. This works out to less than 4 cents per page for black and about 7 cents for colorquite reasonable for an ink-jet printer. However, with a three-color cartridge, you have to replace the entire unit if even one color runs out.
Epson ships the printer with its standard driver software, which includes tools for adjusting output and checking the printer’s operating status. You can reposition output on the page; bump cyan, magenta, and yellow channels up or down using a curves function; and check the ink level in each cartridge. The driver automatically adjusts output to match the media type you’ve selected; you can also choose from Apple’s ColorSync or Epson’s built-in color-management software. Although the Stylus Color 900 produces CMYK output, you get the best results when generating RGB images, which the printer converts to CMYK as it prints the pages.
The Stylus Color 900 has no built-in network connections, although you can use the serial or USB ports to add it to an AppleTalk network. A $649 networked version with a built-in 10/100BaseTX card should be available by the time you read this. You can also add an Ethernet card to the base model.
Epson is offering an unusual software bundle in which you can choose any two Mac programs from a list of five: Dr. Solomon’s Virex, Lotus Organizer 97 GS, Sierra’s Print Artist 4.0, Berkeley Systems’ You Don’t Know Jack Volume 1, and Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The Stylus Color 900 continues Epson’s tradition of bringing groundbreaking ink-jet printing technologies to the Mac market. Its high speed and relatively inexpensive consumables make it a viable alternative to costlier color lasers for general business applications. However, it’s pricey for an ink-jet printer, and you lose almost all of the speed benefits when printing at full resolution. If you’re willing to compromise a little on speed and photo quality, consider the Stylus Color 740, which costs about $170 less.