Owning a digital camera is a considerable financial investment. Although it’s easy to view your digital photos on a computer screen, there’s nothing quite like a good quality glossy colour print. Until recently, the combination of a digital camera and a colour printer was no match for an old-fashioned film camera and film processing.
But there are now printers on the market which, if given a good enough digital image to work with in the first place, are pretty close to delivering results of a quality comparable to conventional photo prints. The latest digital cameras are also capable of delivering some very acceptable images.
Choosing a printer depends on a number of factors. What’s your main concern – picture quality, convenience and versatility, or running costs? Here we look at half a dozen photo quality printers that have very different strengths and weaknesses. Some are designed solely for printing photos, while others are all-rounders capable of printing charts and letters to the bank manager as well.
There are two main printer types: inkjet and thermal dye sublimation. The former fires microscopic droplets of ink at the paper and the latter literally melts tiny dots of coloured wax from a thin film onto the paper in several passes. As we will see, although dye-sub, as it’s known, has traditionally been the best photo quality choice, especially for professional pre-press printing, the cheaper and more versatile inkjet has been honed into a formidable challenger. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.Fujifilm’s NX-70 is a technically interesting solution. First of all it is the only printer we looked at which has no PC interface – it’s designed specifically to be used by itself. Secondly, the NX-70 uses a unique technology called thermo-autochrome. The special paper used by the NX-70 actually contains the ink dyes in layers which make up a coating on the surface of the paper. There is no separate ink delivery system.
An image is imprinted onto the paper using a combination of UV light and thermal treatment. This selectively unlocks the ink embedded in the paper’s surface, so forming an image. The down side is that picture quality isn’t fantastic. Whites tend to be creamy rather than pure and there is a slightly pastel quality to the results. You’re also left with large borders on the 6×4 inch paper.
Fujifilm supplies a variety of paper options, including borderless for smaller picture sizes, and sticker paper. Thermo-autochrome paper is also relatively inexpensive, costing £7.99 for 20 sheets. Be warned, if your camera doesn’t use a SmartMedia memory card, the NX-70 is not for you as this is the only memory format it supports.
To summarise, the Fujifilm NX-70 is cheap to run and quite versatile, but image quality is not its chief selling point.Open the PM100 box and what do you find? – a printer that looks remarkably like a Lexmark Z11. This isn’t surprising really, because it is a Z11, but with a memory card reader bolted on. The kit also includes a medium resolution Kodak DC215 camera.
This is Lexmark’s second stab at a photo printer with a built in card reader, the first being the Color JetPrinter 5770. Alas, the Z11-based PM100 is fundamentally flawed. Unlike the 5770, the Z11 is based on a single inkjet cartridge system which is not enhanced for photo printing. Although it has a class-leading resolution of 1200dpi, the dots produced are relatively large. Picture grain is quite evident, which affects tonal quality, although colour accuracy was quite acceptable. The Z11 mechanism is also very slow, taking over four minutes to produce a 6×4 inch print. An A4 print takes around 10 minutes.
While the PM100 does not require a host PC for direct printing from memory cards and, in this case, both Compact Flash and SmartMedia types are supported, it can be used as a document printer with a PC via its standard parallel port. However, you will need to swap between a black-only cartridge and the colour cartridge as the carriage only holds one cartridge at a time.
The PM100 Kit is all about affordability and when you consider that the DC215 camera, which is really quite good for its class, sells for around £200 by itself, the PM100 printer itself is practically given away. Unfortunately, it’s the printer which lets this kit down.HP has traditionally travelled down a unique design path compared to other inkjet manufacturers. The PhotoSmart P1100 is no exception. Paper is loaded via a sheet feeder underneath the unit. The P1100 also comes supplied with a duplex adapter for printing on both sides of plain paper automatically. Unlike most ink jet printers which claim to be photo-capable, HP sticks with three basic colour inks and black instead of adopting additional intermediate colour inks.
Still a rarity in inkjets, the P1100 includes memory cartridge slots for printing directly without having to involve a PC. Both SmartMedia and Compact Flash cards are catered for. A small LCD panel shows options and status for when using the printer without a PC. Parallel and USB ports are provided for connecting to a PC.
The P1100 is very quiet in operation and it’s commendably quick – a 6×4 inch print is finished in under two minutes and an A4 print takes just over four minutes. Colour quality is good, as is sharpness and tonal reproduction. The P1100 is a good photo printer, but not an outstanding one like the Epson Stylus Colour Photo 870, or indeed the Canon BJC-8200. However, if you want an exceptionally good document printer as well as a good photo printer in one versatile package, the P1100 is well worth considering.Canon is a huge brand in the worlds of conventional, digital and video photography. The CD-300 uses dye-sub technology to produce 4-inch wide prints from a variety of image sources. You can plug in your video camera or any other suitable video source, you can connect the CD-300 to a PC via a parallel printer port or you can print directly from PCMCIA or Compact Flash memory cards. If your camera uses a SmartMedia memory card, you can obtain a PCMCIA adapter. If you aren’t using your PC, you can use a TV as a monitor.
Two paper sizes are available: 6×4 inches and wide-format 9.5x 4 inches. Prints are borderless thanks to pre-perforated media. You get 36 sheets of paper and enough ‘ink’ in a cassette supplied as a single pack, which has a combined cost of £18, or 50p a sheet. That may seem very expensive compared to mail order £2.99 plus free film processing, but it’s easy to forget that this way you’ll only print the relatively small number of pictures you actually wanted in the first place.
Overall, the 300dpi picture quality was very good; 6×4 inch pictures emerged after a couple of minutes and the printer was easy to use, though the on-screen preview system was annoyingly slow.Like the Canon CD-300, the Olympus P-330E is a thermal dye-sub printer which can be used on its own with a TV monitor or in conjunction with a PC. Again, it can be used to grab stills from a video source, like a camcorder. For use with a computer it has a Mac-compatible serial port as well as a PC-compatible parallel port. The P-330E only takes SmartMedia memory cards, which is at odds with Olympus’ current policy of supporting Compact Flash as well as SmartMedia on some of its camera models.
In non-PC mode, the P-330E has a fast and easy to use graphical user interface using an external TV screen as a monitor. Prints are A6 in size and they emerge in just 110 seconds. However, there is no option for borderless prints. Media cost is also rather high at £39.99 for 60 prints; that’s 67 pence per print. Image quality is good, with accurate colours and sharp detail, but each print has a laminated finish with a rather odd sheen.
The P-330E is a handsome piece of kit, but the bottom line is that the similarly priced Canon CD-300 is more versatile, cheaper to run, has slightly better picture quality and supports Compact Flash cards.The big star to stand out from this bunch is the Epson Stylus Color 870 Photo. If you can provide it with good enough images to print, you will get results almost indistinguishable from ‘real’ photos. Plus, it’s a very competent office printer as well. To have beaten the impressive Canon BJC-8200 Photo in almost all departments is testament enough.
If you don’t want a printer which depends on a PC and you’re happy with 4 inch wide prints, the Canon CD-300 is the best bet. However, we have heard that Epson is to release a card reader-equipped version of the 870 later in the year. This could mark the end for dye-sub printers in the consumer arena.
HP’s Photosmart P1100 deserves a mention. It’s a superb plain paper office printer with double-sided printing capability. It’s marketed as a top of the range photo printer, but really it’s an office printer, par excellence, which can print photos too. It’s beaten easily by both Canon and Epson inkjet models previously mentioned on photo quality alone, but as an all-rounder it’s worth considering.Being an inkjet printer capable of taking plain A4 paper, the USB and parallel port-equipped Epson Stylus Color 870 Photo can be used as a document printer as well as for printing photos. It’s not the fastest or sharpest in its class for ordinary document printing, but it’s perfectly adequate.
However, as a photo printer, the 870 continues and exceeds the enviable reputation of its class-leading predecessor, the 750 Photo. Colour accuracy and tonal reproduction are first class. The 1440x720dpi piezo-electric print head is capable of firing droplets which become virtually invisible when using Epson’s special glossy photo paper. There is also a total absence of banding.
The 870 is also very fast as it is capable of printing bi-directionally even in high quality print mode. A 6×4 inch print takes under 90 seconds. A print that fills most of an A4 sheet is completed in less than three and a half minutes. Epson fans will also be pleased to hear that the 870 is a lot less noisy than the old 750.
Only one inkjet printer on the market comes close the 870 in photo terms – Canon’s BJC-8200 Photo (here’s one we reviewed earlier). The Canon can match the Epson for tonal quality and fineness of grain, but the 870′s speed, colour reproduction and contrast are better. The 870 is also substantially cheaper to buy. Running costs should be pretty similar, though the waste-conscious will welcome the Canon’s separately replaceable ink tanks.
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