Buyer's Guide 2008: Photo Printers

With such a wide range of photo printers on the market today, printing at home is an even more appealing option for getting your digital images out of the camera and onto paper than it has been in the past. Overall improvements in technical specifications, image quality and longevity, combined with prices that are lower than (or at least equal to) previous models, makes this year’s crop of photo printers an excellent value proposition. But with variety comes the need to make decisions about the type of photo printer that’s best for you.

Snapshot Or Mega-sized Prints?

Perhaps the most important criterion for choosing a photo printer is the maximum-sized prints you plan to make. If you’re happy with snapshot-sized prints (5×7 inches or smaller), a compact dedicated photo printer may be your best bet. These little printers are so small-and some come with handles and optional battery packs-that it’s easy to carry them around.

On the downside, media options for dedicated photo printers are limited in both surface type and size, so if you want versatility, then a desktop model is a better choice. Not only can you print larger photos on a desktop printer, but you have a wide variety of paper types and surfaces to choose from, including some magnificent fine-art papers.

There are two size options within the desktop category: standard (up to 8.5×11 inches) and wide format (up to 13×19 inches). Most desktop printers can output panorama-sized prints as well, and it’s rare to find a model that doesn’t offer edge-to-edge borderless printing.

While automatic duplex printing isn’t necessarily at the top of the list for photographers, printing on both sides of a single sheet of paper without having to manually turn the paper over and refeed it into the printer can be helpful for creating portfolios or digital scrapbook pages.

Since you may want to use a desktop printer for text documents as well as photos, it’s always handy to have multiple paper trays so you can keep your favorite photo paper in one tray and plain paper for text printing in another. And, if you like to experiment with different weights of paper, a wide-format printer-with multiple paper feeds-is almost a necessity.

Inks, Inks And More Inks

There are two basic types of inkjet inks: dye-based and pigment. While printer manufacturers continue to bridge the gap between the two in terms of vibrancy, longevity and paper compatibility, dye-based inks still have an edge over pigment inks in color gamut, while prints produced with pigment inks have the potential to last longer. Given the proper storage conditions and the right ink/paper combination, however, both dye-based and pigment prints can easily last for several decades or more.

The only photo printers that don’t have multiple individual ink cartridges are dedicated photo printers. Some use a single color ink cartridge, while others employ the dye-sublimation process, which uses heat to transfer color from a film-like tape to paper. Otherwise, desktop printers use multiple individual ink cartridges with a minimum of four inks (CMYK-cyan, magenta, yellow and black) for dye-based printers. Others use several additional inks, including light (or photo) magenta and light (or photo) cyan; red and green cartridges are sometimes included for extra vibrant prints. If you’re interested in black-and-white prints, models with multiple black and gray inks deliver the best monochrome output.

From Digital File To Print

There are any number of ways to get your digital image files out to the printer. You can hook the printer up to a computer via USB or FireWire cables or you can plug your PictBridge-enabled camera into the printer’s PictBridge port.

Some printers, both compact and desktop models, are equipped with media card slots and ports for USB flash drives so you don’t have to plug the printer into anything but an AC outlet. Even then, some dedicated photo printers come with rechargeable battery packs so you can take them with you to events.

While a limited number of photo printers offer a WiFi wireless connection, others can accommodate an optional Bluetooth adapter or use infrared. These are helpful options if you want to reduce wires or share a printer with multiple computers. If you have a home network, you also may want to check out a printer that has a built-in Ethernet port.

COMPACT MINI-PRINTERS

Although some dedicated photo printers use dye-sublimation technology, the Epson PictureMate line uses inkjet inks. Like its siblings, the PictureMate Flash is equipped with multiple media card slots for direct printing, but this model also has a built-in CD-RW drive. Plus, there’s a USB port to hook up external devices like hard drives or USB flash drives. You can view, edit and add creative effects to your images on the printer’s 2.5-inch LCD, carry it around by its handle or install the optional rechargeable battery for prints on the go. Estimated Street Price: $199.

The Canon SELPHY CP740’s price tag is one of the lowest for a printer in this category. This inkjet printer has a footprint of only 7×2.5×5 inches and weighs a mere two pounds, so it’s easy to take with you to parties and family gatherings. In addition to multiple media card slots and a two-inch LCD, the CP740 has a handy built-in cable for connecting your camera and a USB port for computer printing. You can even print remotely from a compatible camera phone via infrared or an optional Bluetooth adapter. Estimated Street Price: $99.

Another dedicated photo printer using inkjet technology is the HP Photosmart A716. Equipped with a wide variety of media card slots, the A716 also features dual USB ports so you can hook it up to a computer or connect external USB devices, including flash drives. It has a 2.5-inch color LCD, lots of creative editing options and, uniquely, a 4 GB internal hard drive. You can hook the printer up to a TV and run a slideshow-or even edit and print images-with the bundled remote. An optional rechargeable battery is available so you can take the printer on the road. Estimated Street Price: $199.

The Hi-Touch HiTi S400 dye-sub printer sports an unusual-but functional-design, along with interesting features. Not only does the printer’s hatch door close during printing to avoid dust, but an optional rear dust shield ensures that nothing mars the quality of the print. The S400 has a handset that incorporates the LCD and controls for viewing and editing images, which is actually very convenient. In addition to media card slots, the S400 can link up with a broad range of USB devices. Estimated Street Price: $318.

The Sony Picture Station DPP-FP90 is a compact dye-sub printer that features a large, high-resolution 3.6-inch LCD for viewing and editing images. In addition to one-touch quick fixes, basic editing tools and creative options, the FP90 utilizes Face Detection and Sony’s D-Range (dynamic range) Optimizer technology to improve exposures, especially
in portraits. Multiple media card slots and PictBridge connectivity are available. Estimated Street Price: $199.

STANDARD-SIZED PRINTERS

One of the latest standard-sized desktop printers from Canon, the PIXMA iP4500 is a basic inkjet model that offers four dye-based color inks and a pigment black cartridge. But the affordable and stylish iP4500 comes with two paper trays, so you can easily switch between two types of paper; duplex printing is available as well. Estimated Street Price: $129.

The Epson Stylus Photo R280 won’t put a dent in your budget and it may dazzle you with its ability to print directly onto printable CDs and DVDs. This six-color, dye-based inkjet printer is equipped with individual ink cartridges and Automatic Photo Correction for no-muss, no-fuss adjustments. Estimated Street Price: $99.

The new HP Photosmart D7460 is a little pricier, but with its media card slots and three-inch LCD, this printer offers solid stand-alone capabilities along with its USB computer connection. Better yet, the D7460 has built-in networking capabilities-wireless and Ethernet-so you can easily share the printer. It’s also equipped with two paper trays, one for 8.5×11-inch paper and one for 4×6-inch photo media. Estimated Street Price: $179.

WIDE-FORMAT PRINTERS

The wide-format, dye-based Canon PIXMA Pro9000 is equipped with eight individual ink cartridges (CMYK, photo cyan, photo magenta, red, green and photo black). The top auto feed holds up to 150 sheets of plain paper, but you’ll have to load fine-art or photo paper one sheet at a time. A front feed slot can accept single sheets of paper up to 1.2mm thick. The Pro9000 measures 26×7.6×14 inches and weighs a little more than 30 pounds, but the printer comes with a rear set of wheels, so it’s easy to adjust its position when you need to. Connectivity is via USB, and there’s a direct print port on the front for hooking up a PictBridge-enabled camera. Estimated Street Price: $499.

The Canon PIXMA Pro9500 is the company’s most affordable pigment-based, wide-format printer. The Pro9500 is a few pounds heavier than its dye-based sibling, but is otherwise quite similar, with the same footprint, connectivity and dual paper feeds. The Pro9500 utilizes 10 individual pigment-based cartridges-the same eight colors as the Pro9000, plus matte black and gray. The two extra cartridges give the Pro9500 enhanced black-and-white capabilities. Estimated Street Price: $849.

The dye-based, wide-format Epson Stylus Photo 1400 is a six-color printer (CMYK, light cyan, light magenta), with a footprint of 24.2×31.6×16.3 inches, and weighs just over 25 pounds. It features a maximum 13×19-inch print size, and like some of Epson’s other printers, can print directly onto CDs and DVDs. Estimated Street Price: $399.

On the pigment side, Epson offers the Stylus Photo R1800 and the Stylus Photo R2400. The R1800 utilizes the Epson UltraChrome Hi Gloss inks, consisting of eight colors (CMYK, photo black, matte black, red, blue) and a gloss optimizer. This combination of inks and the gloss optimizer delivers color prints that really pop. And, black-and-white output from the 1800 is quite good also (both photo black and matte black inks are installed at the same time, so you don’t have to physically switch them out). Estimated Street Price: $549.

The Epson Stylus Photo R2400 is compatible with the company’s UltraChrome K3 inks. In addition to cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan and light magenta, 2400 uses three black inks (hence the “K3” designation): black (either photo or matte), light black and light light black. Although the photo and matte black cartridges need to be changed out physically to match whatever paper type you’re using, the R2400 is well-equipped to output high-quality black-and-white prints. Estimated Street Price: $849.

HP’s most affordable wide-format pigment printer, the Photosmart Pro B9180 is reasonably priced, considering the printer’s built-in technology, like a densitometer for calibrating the printer to ensure color accuracy and consistency from print to print, and a system that monitors-and can compensate for-any problems with nozzle output. Its eight-cartridge ink set consists of photo black, matte black, gray, cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan and light magenta. Both black cartridges remain installed and the printer automatically switches between them, depending on paper type. As expected, its black and gray inks are ideal for black-and-white output. The B9180 is a front-loading printer, with a paper tray that fits cut sheet up to 13×19 inches and is equipped with a front-loading single-sheet slot for specialty and heavyweight media. The B9180 comes with both a USB and an Ethernet port. Estimated Street Price: $699.

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