[Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from Printerville, a Web site that provides information about photo printers and papers.]
More than a decade ago, I tested Epson’s first wide-format, photographic-quality, inkjet printer, the Stylus Pro 9000. At the time, there were a number of companies that offered wide-format proofers and signage printers, and the 9000 competed well in that space, but Epson was as interested in the nascent fine-art printing market, which was dominated largely by Scitex’s Iris printers.
Over eight months of testing the 7900, I found few surprises (good or bad), but that’s to be expected in a product line with more than 10 years of development (and success). What I did find, is a printer that is at the top of the heap with regard to photo quality, performance and paper handling, with a handful of negative issues that will matter only to few people. (While I did not test the 9900, most of my comments will apply to the wider model.)
UltraChrome HDR and more
The biggest changes in the 7900 are all on the ink delivery side. First and foremost is Epson’s 11-color UltraChrome HDR (high dynamic range) ink set, which adds orange and green to the standard nine-color pigment ink set that Epson has been using for years. Epson claims that the HDR inks (when combined with the improved HDR screening algorithms required for the new inks) give the 7900 the widest color gamut of any inkjet printer on the market, and both my eyes and gamut plots backed up these claims.
To get those inks onto the paper, the 7900 incorporates the MicroPiezo TFP printhead first introduced with the Stylus Pro 11880. This 10-channel head has 360 nozzles that produce variable-size ink droplets as small as 3.5 picoliters, as well as an ink-repelling coating that is designed to minimize clogs. At an inch wide, the TFP printhead is larger than those in previous Epson wide-format printers, which also means increased printing speeds.
As is the case with most of Epson’s UltraChrome pigment printers, the matte and photo black inks share a single channel to the printhead. This means that when you switch between glossy and matte (or fine art) paper types, the printer must purge the black ink channel and switch to the appropriate black ink. The amount of ink used during this process is minimal, and at this level (where most prints are designed either for sale or for proofing) I really don’t think this is an issue, but it is worth noting.
While the HDR inks and new printhead are the obvious “big features,” the 7900 has a few usability and productivity enhancements worth mentioning:
- The roll-paper loading mechanism has been completely redesigned. Gone are the metal spindles and plastic adapters for 2- and 3-inch paper cores; in their place Epson has built an ingenious system into the printer that lets you easily add and remove rolls without worry.
- The paper cutter has been replaced with a true rotary cutter, and has been moved from the printhead to its own track at the paper exit point. This smart move minimizes the chances of paper dust contributing to printhead clogs.
- The handling for cut-sheet paper types is wonderful. Adding any size sheet from letter-size up to 24 inches wide is simple and rarely results in misfeeds (a constant problem that I’ve had with HP and Canon wide format printers).
- The control panel on the top of the printer has also been redesigned. The larger, color LCD makes it easier to see how much ink is available, and there are clearly marked buttons for switching between black ink types and adding roll paper. It’s not a huge change over previous models, but the improvements are nicely thought out and welcome.
The 7900 is a behemoth: at nearly 200 pounds, you’ll need at least three people to set it up and get it into place. Luckily, once it has been assembled, you can move it around easily. The printer has both Ethernet and USB interfaces; most operations will likely use a networked setup, and getting the 7900 connected is a breeze. Epson also includes a utility with the 7900 that lets you check the Web for firmware updates, and will add them as needed.
The 11 ink cartridges that ship with the printer contain just about enough ink for you to load the ink lines and print a few samples, so make sure you’ve invested in a set of additional cartridges for long-term printing. Epson was smart about the ink capacities in the 7900, offering 150 ml, 300 ml and 700 ml options, and you can mix and match any capacities. At 40 cents per ml, the 700 ml cartridges are hugely economical, but your printing volumes might be better served with the lower capacity cartridges.
With previous wide-format models, Epson included a management utility that tracked print jobs and ink usage, which is a necessity for any shop that charges for prints. With the 7900, Epson has moved away from the dedicated utility to a Web service called myEpsonPrinter.com. This service has been in a public beta period for nearly a year, but Epson has gotten it to the point where it is quite useful for tracking media and ink usage. You can easily track multiple printers; set ink, media and overhead costs (including tax information); view charts of usage; download Excel spreadsheets of usage data; and more. Overall, I’ve found it quite useful, although I do wish that Epson provided a standalone utility for tracking jobs, and a number of other print shops with 7900/9900 models expressed similar concerns.
Photo inkjet technology has reached a point where the leaps in print quality from generation to generation are no longer huge; they are incremental. With refined ink sets, better screening algorithms, and improved printheads, all three of the major printer companies (Epson, HP and Canon) have consumer-level photo inkjets that produce images of stunning quality.
At the professional level, however, changes in print quality, however small they might appear, are of extreme importance. Artists and photographers want the optimal print quality, with no visible “printer grain” and the widest possible color gamut for the best print reproduction on the paper that matters to them. They can see the difference between printers, and and this is where the 7900 shines. The addition of the orange and green inks widens the color gamut to the point where, on most media types, the 7900 edges out even HP’s Designjet Z3200. On semi-gloss papers, the blacks produced with the 7900 were beautifully rich and dark, while still being able to hold shadow detail.
During the review process, I printed on nearly all of Epson’s professional paper line, in both roll and cut-sheet form, as well as a wide variety of papers from companies like Red River, Moab, and others. On fine-art, matte or glossy papers, 7900 prints were consistently clean, with no visible printer dot patterns, clean, smooth gradations of color, and extremely high fidelity with images on-screen (in a tightly color-managed environment).
When printing at the highest quality (2880 dpi) setting, the 7900 produced some of the most outstanding prints that I’ve ever gotten out of an inkjet. When I showed viewers images printed at 1440 dpi and 2880 dpi, most viewers could clearly tell the difference: the higher resolution produced the smoothest color transitions with no printer noise. What was more fascinating was that many 7900 prints at 1440 dpi still looked better than prints from a Stylus Pro 3800 ( ) or Designjet Z3200 at their highest quality settings.
And while most photographers are printing in color, the 7900’s black-and-white print capabilities are just as good. Again, the improvements over previous Epson Pro printers are slight, but prints on all paper types were drop-dead neutral, and I spoke with at least two print shops that were printing largely black-and-white photographs, and felt that the print quality was the best they had seen out of an inkjet.
The wide printhead on the 7900 definitely helps with print speeds. On average, a 17-by-22 inch print took less then 5 minutes to print at 1440 dpi, and 7 minutes and 40 seconds at the highest quality setting. A 24-by-36 inch image took 10 and a half minutes to print at 1440 dpi, and 15 minutes and 15 seconds at 2880 dpi.
At all print sizes and settings, the 7900 printed slightly faster than HP’s Z3200, which had been the fastest comparable wide-format I have tested.
While the 7900’s feature set and print capabilities are excellent, it’s not a perfect printer. There were a few issues that came up during my review, most of which are relatively small, but they do bear mentioning:
- As noted above, some users will find fault with the fact you still have to switch between matte and photo black inks, but I have less of an issue with this in a printer of this class, and no 7900/9900 user I spoke with raised this as a problem.
- There was a fair bit of excitement regarding the optional spectrophotometer when the 7900 and 9900 were first announced, with many thinking that this would provide a way to profile papers (similar to that found in HP’s Z series printers). However, this option is designed for proofing with a RIP: none of the print shops we spoke with that were using a 7900 or 9900 for photographic output had the device installed. HP’s integrated spectrophotometer is a great enhancement, but most media vendors are providing high-quality ICC profiles with their papers. For me, this largely mitigates the need for a device inside the printer. However, like the black ink switching, this will matter to some users.
- Early 7900 units (mine included) were a bit aggressive in their auto-cleaning setting, but subsequent firmware updates have largely eliminated that problem (you can turn the auto-cleaning off, if desired). My 7900 still performs an unexpected auto-clean routine on occasion, despite my having turned the auto-check feature off, but it’s only a minor annoyance.
Macworld’s buying advice
Wide-format printers are among the most versatile and cost-effective printers available on the market. While the initial cost of entry is high, the economics often work out for professional photographers and fine artists who sell their work, even if they aren’t printing at 24- or 44-inch widths. The Stylus Pro 7900, with its UltraChrome HDR ink set, excellent print quality and highly flexible paper handling, is definitely the gold standard in wide-format photographic printing. While both Canon and HP make very good wide-format devices, Epson’s commitment and storied history in this market segment do matter, and the 7900 is pretty darn good proof of that.
[Former Macworld editor-at-large Rick LePage runs the photo printer site Printerville.]