Buyer's Guide 2009: Portable Printers

Making 4×6-inch, photo-quality prints at home and on the go has never been easier. There are several excellent snapshot printers on the market. Most are reasonably priced and easy to use. Many print directly from your camera or memory card, allowing you to make prints without booting up your computer. Some even run on battery power. And all of those that we’ve included here produce great-looking prints. How to choose, then?

What Size?

Two considerations: the size of the printer and the size of the largest print it can make. Some printers, like the Canon Selphy CP760, which measures about 7.9×3.3×5.6 inches, are truly portable. The compact size makes it great to take to a party or family gathering so you can make on-the-spot prints for everyone. Print size for this class of printer seldom exceeds 4×6, but some stretch to 4×8 for panoramas, and many offer other interesting smaller sizes, including wallet-size, stickers and labels.

Inkjet or Dye-Sub?

Inkjet printers spray minuscule droplets of ink to create the image. They heat ink that’s confined in a tiny cavity to extremely high temperatures until it literally explodes and blasts itself through a small opening in a microscopically thin stream. The volume of ink is measured in picoliters and, naturally, the smaller the volume, the tinier the dot. All else being equal, smaller ink dots mean better prints.

Dye-sublimation printers heat a thin ribbon of ink until the desired color layers fuse with the paper. The process requires strict control, so the paper and ink are always sold as a set, generally a sealed cartridge that delivers a fixed number of prints. You can’t use ordinary paper, but you don’t have to buy separate ink cartridges either. Generally a bit slower, dye-subs deliver extraordinarily high print quality and unsurpassed archival characteristics.

Cost of Operation

Inkjet operation costs less per print, ranging from around 29 cents each up to half a buck. Dye-sub checks in around 39 cents or so and creeps upward toward 65 cents. Some printers use proprietary consumables; be sure to check the availability and cost of the required supplies.

Connectivity

PictBridge printer communication protocol allows any PictBridge-compatible printer to work with any PictBridge-compatible camera, regardless of manufacturer. It’s one of the few things camera manufacturers have standardized across ranks. The key point is that it provides a means for cameras to communicate with printers without having a computer spliced in between—important if you’re looking for portability.

How Long Will Prints Last?

The final consideration is permanence. How long an inkjet or a dye-sublimation print will last is the subject of great debate. Some manufacturers are claiming 100-plus-year “archival durability” and have the theoretical research to substantiate their assertions. One thing we know for sure is that the permanence of modern dyes, pigments and inks is infinitely more advanced than the technology we used only a few short years ago. With proper storage and limited direct exposure to bright light, we can expect all of our prints to last for several generations.

Models To Consider

Built for travel, the Canon Selphy CP770 dye-sublimation printer includes an attached basket that holds the necessary paper and ink cassettes, power supply, optional battery pack and other items in one slick, self-contained unit. The small size, light weight (3.2 pounds) and optional rechargeable battery enable true on-the-go printing. Automatic editing functions can optionally detect and repair red-eye, enhance brightness and improve color and exposure. The Selphy CP770 prints directly from most memory cards and digital cameras, PDAs, cell phones and IrDA (infrared-equipped) devices. The optional BU-30 interface accepts Bluetooth communications. List Price: $149.

The micro-priced Canon Selphy CP760 costs less than $100, but uses the same dye-sublimation technology for brilliantly colored, durable prints that are said to last up to 100 years. It features a 2.5-inch LCD monitor for image viewing and offers various special-effects options and useful editing functions like Portrait Image Optimization, red-eye reduction, brightness/contrast control and more. The CP760 will print directly from memory cards, PictBridge digital cameras and Bluetooth camera phones (with optional adapter). It also will print 4×8-inch panoramas and stickers, and when used with certain Canon PowerShot cameras, ID Photo Prints and index prints from video clips. List Price: $99.

The Epson PictureMate Dash personal photo lab features a generous 3.6-inch LCD to preview images and supports all major memory card formats. You can connect any PictBridge-enabled digital camera or Bluetooth cell phone to create 4×6 borderless inkjet prints in as little as 37 seconds each. There’s also a USB connection so you can plug in a thumbdrive or external hard drive full of images and start printing. On-screen editing functions include red-eye removal, crop, resize and colorization—all without a computer. Prepackaged paper comes in matte and glossy finishes. List Price: $149.

You may have heard of Hi-Touch because of all of the awards its dye-sub printers have earned. The HiTi S420 Photo Printer is a 4×6-inch dye-sublimation printer that prints at 403 dpi (dots per inch) resolution, which produces a print that’s the approximate equivalent of a 6400 dpi image from an inkjet printer. Using HiTi’s exclusive LinkPrint Direct Printing technology, printing is possible from a variety of storage devices, including flash memory cards and USB drives. HiTi’s innovative color ribbons feature Magic Coating technology, which applies a transparent coating to the photo after the color sublimation process is complete. This layer provides protection against moisture, UV radiation and fingerprints. Estimated Street Price: $249.

Start with a humongous, seven-inch touchscreen LCD, add full 4800 x 1200 dpi resolution and the ability to print up to 5×7 inches, price it at under $200, and you have the HP Photosmart A826 Home Photo Center thermal inkjet printer. That’s a lot of features, and the list doesn’t stop there. The large LCD screen doubles as a digital photo frame with touch-and-print convenience—see an image you like during the slideshow, touch the screen and you have the print. You also can draw or write captions on photos with the included stylus or personalize your prints by adding any of the more than 200 borders, graphics, frames and special effects. It’s bigger than a bread box and weighs nearly six pounds, so you won’t be carrying it to class, but it’s perfect for the office where you can show off your photos—and print them—all from the same high-quality device. Estimated Street Price: $199.

The Sony DPP-FP95 Picture Station stands apa
rt from the pack by providing direct HDMI output that allows photos stored on memory cards to be displayed in HD on a widescreen HDTV. The printer is equipped with media slots that accept most memory-card formats, plus a PictBridge USB port for direct printing from compatible digital cameras. Menu-driven, icon-based printing functions provide automatic image enhancements, and there are colorful photo backgrounds perfect for scrapbook makers. Also, you can make an Index Print of thumbnail images directly from a memory card—a handy reference if you keep all of the image files from one card in a single folder. Estimated Street Price: $199.

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