GROUP TEST: Photo Printers

As is the rule with technology, photo printers continue to improve in quality while their prices steadily fall. Photo printers today are not only very affordable, but they output high quality photos, and most do so quickly.

With photo printers it’s important to determine your expectations of quality, as well as taking print speeds and yield into account. A rule of thumb is that independent ink cartridges will normally give you better quality as well as a higher page yield, as you only have to replace the colour cartridges that are empty. A good photo printer should also last for a few years, as proven by the oldest contestant in our group test; a printer that came out four years ago.

So do some research and choose a printer that will meet your needs. We take a look at two mid-level printers, as well as looking at two printers aimed at enthusiasts. If you want great quality you’ll have to pay for it, but at least it’s not an arm and a leg.

Canon Pixma iP4600

Canon hasn't changed too much in its Pixma series printers since last year, and the iP4600 looks and feels like a small upgrade to the iP4500. Being a single-function photo printer, we expected rather good results from Canon and we weren’t disappointed.

Keeping with the now-familiar style, the iP4600 is a square, rather dull-looking printer, dipped in the absolutely over-used piano black finish that attracts fingerprints. Using a five-ink system consisting of black, photo black, yellow, magenta and cyan, the iP4600 was easy to set up. Canon has also implemented LED lights in their cartridge system to tell you if you’ve inserted the ink correctly. Canon’s software suite is also unchanged and it sometimes feels a little intrusive. We aren’t fans of the clumsy way it handles photo organising either.

The 9600 x 2400 dpi resolution was the highest of the printers we tested, something that became evident in the end result. Relatively stingy on the extras, Canon has only added PictBridge to the iP4600, and you won’t find a memory card reader or LCD screen on it. The printer has a paper cartridge in the front for plain paper and the standard feeder in the back for photo paper; it adjusts the paper feed automatically depending on what you’re printing.

While we expected good quality prints from Canon, we weren’t expecting it to be as fast as it was. The iP4600 was the fastest printer in every single test we ran, taking just 15 minutes to print our seven A4 prints. It also excelled in the document testing, printing out ten black and white pages in one minute and 24 seconds. We tested all our printers from cold starts, and the timing includes warm up time.

Quality wise, the Canon was unbeaten in our tests. The prints came out true to colour and with excellent depth and sharpness. This was something of a surprise given its speed, but compared to the other prints we were very impressed. We tested the Pixma on a range of photo paper, and it performed every time.

We had some instances where the wrong paper source was selected, and the front tray also gave us some problems with double feeds.

If we had to pick a winner in these tests it would be the Canon iP4600. Not only will you get excellent quality prints, you don’t have to wait around forever to get them. Home users and enthusiasts alike will enjoy the quality and speed, be it for highly detailed A4 prints or a bunch of 6 x 4 snaps from your latest holidays.

Kodak ESP-5

Kodak isn't currently experiencing a bit of a revival in the printer market, after a brief joint venture with Lexmark in 1999. The company introduced its first printers here last year, aimed squarely at the middle and lower end of the market. All Kodak’s printers have a multifunction design, i.e. with a copy and scan lid on top, and include card readers and LCD screens. The ESP-5 sits in the middle of the market somewhere, and is marketed towards home users rather than amateur photographers.

The first sign of a printer not necessarily specifically designed for photos, is a two-cartridge system. Like the HP C4580, Kodak has chosen to use a black and five-colour cartridge system. Installing the cartridges is easy as pie, and the bundled software was actually the favourite in our tests. Kodak has produced software with a very small footprint that will cover most, if not all, of your printing needs in an intuitive and unobtrusive way. Organising photos through the software felt comfortable and was easy to learn.

A large, 3-inch LCD screen folds up from the top of the printer, while the front accomodates the PictBridge port and card reader. It’s worth noting here that there is no back tray for the ESP-5, you load paper in the front tray only. This quickly became a problem when we started the photo testing; if the photo paper is too thick it will jam in the feeding mechanism. We had to switch to a thinner photo paper from Kodak which worked fine, but keep in mind that this printer might not work with whatever printer paper you have at home.

The ESP-5 was the second fastest printer in our tests, averaging about two and a half minutes per A4 print. It slowed down in our document printing, but maintained a relatively high speed through the 6 x 4 prints as well. While HP’s tri-colour cartridge ran out of ink, the Kodak had about half its ink left after all the testing was done.

When it comes to quality, the Kodak didn’t do so well. Our test photos came out looking a bit washed out, and lacked colour intensity. Finer detail was relatively clear, but when looking at the prints side by side with those from the other printers it became clear that they weren’t up to scratch. The prints also seemed to have a slight sepia tone to them, rendering pure white into a beige colour. Documents printed on standard copy paper produced better results, with colour documents looking particularly good.

All-in-all the Kodak ESP-5 fails to impress with its photo prints, but as a simple printer that you’d use to print the odd holiday snap it will do just fine.

HP Photosmart C4580

He supplied us with the cheapest printer of the bunch, priced well below the two most expensive contestants. That said, printer technology has become a relatively affordable commodity, and you will get good results even at low prices. There are some drawbacks though, and quality doesn’t account for everything.

Out of the box, the HP ships with a simple two-cartridge configuration. One supports black, while the other contains the trifecta of yellow, cyan and magenta. The C4580 also works as a multifunction device, with an embedded scanner and copier. Multifunction abilities like these are so cheap to include these days, you can expect most photo printers to include them in the future. In addition to the scanner/copier functions, the HP also features a card reader and a small LCD screen for previews. There’s also the now-standard PictBridge USB port, as well as wireless 802.11g capability for those with a wireless network.

HP’s software has changed little over the years, but it’s solid and gets the job done without interfering too much with other installed programs. It’s worth noting that the scanner did a decent job of scanning photos, although we experienced some loss in colour accuracy.

Somewhat surprisingly, the C4580 was the second slowest printer in our test, bar the black and white prints. Printing one A4 photo page took almost four minutes. The 6 x 4 size was more acceptable at just over one minute per print. Unfortunately for HP, it was the only printer to run out of colour ink during our testing. While the black cartridge will last longer, the tri-colour cartridge would need replacing quite often if you were to print on a semi-regular basis.

Quality wise, the HP surprised us. It seems taking its sweet time paid off, and the prints came out relatively detailed, although they appeared to be washed out in some places. We also had some issues with the transition between light and dark, but skin tones came out very well. The printer didn’t fare so well in the document tests, where the colour tended to blot a bit on the page and colour was oversaturated.

In the end, we wouldn’t recommend the C4580 to anyone whose main priority was to print photos. Page yield is important if you plan on printing out all your holiday snaps, and while the quality was tolerable, it doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd. If you’re after a no-fuss multifunction that can print the odd picture or two, the C4580 is a fair choice.

Epson Stylus R800

The Epson Stylus 8000 is far from a new printer, this model first saw daylight back in 2004. It’s not often we review older models here at PCW, but we made an exception for the R800 on the grounds that it can still hack it with the younger models. When it was first introduced the R800 was a ‘prosumer’ type model, so instead of dropping it from its product line Epson has simply adjusted the price down over time.

Setting up the Epson is simple. The first hint that there’s something different about the printer is during the ink installation. The R800 takes eight different ink cartridges; yellow, magenta, cyan, matte black, photo black, red, blue and hi-gloss pigment ink. The hi-gloss ink adds a constant level of gloss onto the paper. This was revolutionary for its time, but advances in photo paper quality have left it somewhat redundant. Installing the cartridges is easy as pie, with clearly marked insets.

You do get some extras with the R800 that we would normally associate with a professional printer, such as the ability to handle rolled paper. By inserting two round clips, the printer will print straight off a roll of paper. This is an advantage if you’re looking to print art or, more commonly, panorama pictures that extend beyond the A4 size.

Epson’s software has changed quite a bit since the R800 was first released, and the drivers have been adjusted accordingly. As with the other manufacturers, Epson doesn’t distinguish between printers when it comes to software; you get the same package with both low- and high-end printers. The package has standard features like photo management, touch ups and layout options.

Speed wise, the R800 definitely acted its age. It was by far the slowest printer we tested across the board. A single A4 page took over six minutes to complete, while a 6 x 4 print took almost three minutes. In comparison, the Canon iP4600 was almost three times faster.

Of course, speed isn’t everything and we did focus on quality in these tests. The initial results were very good and the R800 showed excellent colour reproduction and detail. We saw no discernable differences between prints with the hi-gloss ink applied or without, as the glossy photo paper we used took care of that. Colours and sharpness were excellent, but we did find the prints to be a bit on the dark side, and some detail was lost in darker areas of the photos. Skin tones were true to life and there was no over saturation of colours.

Overall, the R800 is an older workhorse that can still outshine some of its newer competitors. You don’t get many extras with this printer, other than the ability to print on CD/DVD and the aforementioned ability to print on rolls of paper. Despite that, we would recommend this printer to photographers with the facility to manually adjust brightness, in image editing software like Photoshop, before printing.

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Jan Birkeland

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