Thu, 08 Mar 2007 A3 colour photo printers
A3 printers can now match the quality of photographic prints. So if you’re planning to set up an exhibition in your living room, which one should you choose? Macworld puts three to the test
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With most camera manufacturers winding down the production of 35mm cameras and concentrating on their digital counterparts, you could say that traditional photography is dead – at least for the prosumer market, where digital SLRs such as Nikon’s D50 and Canon’s EOS 350D have really taken hold.
What many people expected is that prints would also go the way of the dodo, and in the comfort of our hi-tech homes, we’d view our snaps on our TV screens or computer monitors. While that does happen, it turns out that people still love owning real prints and the home-printer market is an exciting, vibrant place. High-street stores have jumped on the bandwagon and many one-hour photo boutiques now offer cheap digital prints that look every bit as good as their photographic cousins.
Chances are that professional photographers, if they’re not already shooting digitally, are scanning slides and negatives so they can tinker and fine-tune them in Photoshop or one of the new digital workflow applications such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (currently in beta) or Apple’s superb Aperture. These guys don’t want the bog-standard four-by-six prints churned out by the spotty kid at the one-hour photo store,
they want the digital equivalent of custom hand prints that can be exhibited or placed in a portfolio.
The high-quality, A3 market is an important one because it covers not just photographers, but also designers wanting to proof magazine spreads, architecture firms hoping to win clients with glossy 3D renders of new building designs, and anyone who needs to produce high-quality, short-run posters.
There is a huge range of output devices to suit every budget out there. Once upon a time dye-sublimation printing was the only game in town, producing high-quality results that inkjet and laser printers could only dream of. But in recent years those technologies have caught up with, and many cases surpassed, the quality and advantages of dye-subs. Sublimation printers are now, more often than not, relegated to photo kiosks and postcard-sized mobile photo printers.
For speed, colour accuracy, fine detail and flexibility, the A3 market now belongs firmly to inkjet printers and, to a lesser extent, colour laser printers. However, to demonstrate that not all printers are born equal, we looked at a sampling of devices from the major printer manufacturers and compared them performing a variety of tasks. The good news is that every printer did an excellent job, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail.
It’s clear from testing the printers that eight colours are where it’s at when it comes to vibrant, accurate colour, offering many advantages over the traditional print colours of CMYK. Often the printers will be printing directly from digital photographs shot in sRGB or Adobe RGB colour spaces, which are both substantially larger than the CMYK gamut and inevitably leads to clipping when printed using just four inks.
What’s also clear is that while the exact colour of the additional inks varied with each printer, the results were of a uniformly high quality. The Stylus Photo printer was probably the most accurate out of the box (although it should be emphasised that all of the printers can be tweaked to your own personal taste), while the Pixma Pro9000 delivered the richest results without feeling over-saturated.
Among the inkjet printers, the lowest resolution was the Photosmart Pro B9180’s 4,800 x 1,200 dpi, which for most users will be indistinguishable from the Canon or Epson. Serious graphics experts will perceive a slight increase in quality with the Canon and Epson printers, especially using the best settings, but the difference is marginal at best.
The biggest disappointment was the lack of a USB lead or other method of connecting the printers to a computer or the network. We’re surely not alone in finding this approach shortsighted and frustrating for the consumer, who has every right to expect some kind of cable bundled with the printer.
The winner was easy to pick. The Canon Pixma Pro9000 combines speed, quiet operation and superb results in a neat package that is competitively priced. And while the boxy design is not terribly attractive, the high-quality prints are. If you want to play the numbers game, and have the bragging rights to highest dpi, then perhaps the Epson is for you. However, the only real reason to choose one of the other inkjet printers above the Canon is if you want to attach the printer to a network, in which case, you should consider the HP Photosmart Pro B9180, which has an Ethernet port right out of the box. In every other respect, the Canon is the best of the bunch.