Jet set, go!

Introduction

Just about every computer that lives at home is connected to an inkjet printer. This creates a huge market for printer manufacturers and, consequently, the stakes are high. Fortunately for consumers, this means prices are low and quality high. Manufacturers that have effectively perfected photo-quality printing are examining new ways to improve performance and quality. Many of the inkjets we tested boast more features than a Blockbuster superstore, sporting everything from laser-guided head-alignment to 2,880dpi resolution and duplex prints. This month, Macworld tests the widest range of inkjet printers we’ve ever tackled. The key performance yardsticks – speed and quality – were measured, and available features assessed. One of the factors we measured – ink-cartridge lifetime – produced some interesting results, and we now have a good idea of the long-term cost of ownership for each model. First, let’s dispel a number of spurious inkjet-performance stats often peddled by manufacturers seeking a competitive advantage in this crowded market. Resolution
One of the most misunderstood printer-performance yardsticks is resolution. At 300dpi (dots per inch), output will lack the detail of that at 600dpi – that much is straightforward. However, once you start getting into print resolutions above 600dpi, you’ll nearly always be printing at a resolution higher than that of your image, which need never be greater than 600dpi. Epson is the current leader in the resolution arms-race, upping the ante to a whopping 2,880dpi on its Stylus Photo range. Ever tried working with an image of 2,880dpi? It would hog 2.8GB of valuable hard-disk space and take an aeon to print. Quality
An illustration of how higher resolution doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality is demonstrated by the Hewlett-Packard (HP) inkjets. If you force them, HP printers can print at 2,400dpi. However, this only means slower printing speeds and no quality advantage over the default 600dpi settings. This is because HP uses its PhotoRET technology to get smooth photographic colours. The results from a 600dpi print on an HP printer are close to a 2,880dpi print from an Epson printer. To judge our test results, we buttonholed a group of “average users” (our sales department) and also “expert users” (our art department). While inkjets are not entirely suitable for art pros – due to a lack of PostScript capabilities – they are fine for Web and Photoshop stuff. The standard across the board was extremely high, with even the more-affordable printers capable of high-quality photographic output. There are, though, qualitative differences from model to model. Speed
Emblazoned across most printer boxes are outrageous claims of how many pages per minute (ppm) can be outputted using the printer inside. Forget it – it’s meaningless. This is because print speed can never be measured in absolute terms, as it’s affected by so many factors. Not least among these is the Mac that is connected to the printer, and the OS on which it’s running. The more powerful your Mac and newer your OS, the quicker print times will be – as it’s the Mac that does much of the print-processing. Print speeds also vary on a job-by-job basis. An A4 image, for instance, takes far longer than a page of text. Similarly, a single word on a page takes longer than a full page of text. Guess which of the above three print-job types the manufacturers are likely to use in arriving at their arbitrary ppm numbers. The Macworld test page was designed to stretch the capabilities of the printers to the limit. We used the same G3 to process the print job, which was a 300dpi A4 page including both photographs, text and fine-line patterns – in keeping with the kind of jobs most people will be asking of their inkjets. Features
In a bid to outdo one another, printer manufacturers are beginning to run out of extra features to add. Because the usefulness of these features differs from user to user, we have simply listed them. The rule of thumb is, if the feature will be of use to you, then it’s worth paying that bit extra to have it. If, for example, duplex (double-sided) printing is something that will add to your printer’s value, then go for it. The same goes for the host of other features, including the ability to print photo-sized images and auto print-head-alignment. Cost of ownership
Nobody expects top-quality colour for free, but the variance in price is great, and is something any prospective inkjet customer should look at. We tested ink-cartridge life by getting each printer on test to output our test page on photocopier paper at the highest quality possible – then printed pages until the ink ran dry. You can view a thumbnail of the test page in the margin on page 86, or download it from www.macworld.co.uk/testcentre/ – but beware, it’s 6.4MB. One thing you should know is that print-head cleaning can use a frightening amount of ink – so avoid it unless it’s absolutely necessary. This is the most comprehensive inkjet test we’ve ever done, with 23 printers being submitted. Five years ago, there were just half-a-dozen to choose from, and two of those – both StyleWriters – were from Apple. The abundance of inkjets is due largely to two things: the resurgence of the Mac – in particular, the iMac – and the USB connections now found in all modern Macs. If you’re reading this and don’t have USB, then you should consider upgrading to a new machine, or at least get a USB card, which costs as little as £30. Because manufacturers now get away with a single USB connector for both the Mac and PC markets, all they need to do is write drivers for us. This has brought some new names into the fold, including Lexmark and Xerox. Epson has dominated the Mac inkjet-market over the past few years, with Hewlett-Packard’s absence in particular allowing it to establish a firm foothold. It also helped that Epson was able to offer an excellent range of products. Although it has maintained this excellence, it now faces some stiff competition. In the summer of 1999, Hewlett-Packard announced its return to the Mac market – after saturating every other market with its inkjets. It’s taken time for it to rein-in Epson – but that’s what its done, with both companies now offering top-notch products. Canon, which never quite left the Mac market, has often been runner-up in the inkjet race. This year, its S600 has been a great success, finally cracking the photo quality it has been claiming for five years. It’s just a shame Canon didn’t want to submit its S800, which could have done even better than the S600. However, Canon is now on an equal footing with Epson and HP in providing high-quality inkjets. That leaves just Lexmark and Xerox. Both companies are better known for their laser-printer ranges. Lexmark has made a substantial inroad into the inkjet market by bundling its low-cost inkjets with PCs. Even though these printers’ low prices (from £60) is reflected in their quality, they can still output amazingly good photographic prints on photo paper. The Xerox printers are a strange pair, offering almost identical features. It’s difficult to see what they’re aimed at – home or small business? – and the pricing is also confusing. The addition of an extra paper tray and not much else adds £50 to the price. This is steep, for either home or business use. With any inkjet, the cost of ink has always been a thorny problem. As you’ll see from our chart on page 89, the life of an ink cartridge can be short and sad. Sadder still is their price, costing as much as £50 a pop. Ink-cartridge prices vary, because they’re available from high-street stores, such as Dixons and Comet, as well as mail-order companies that advertise in the back of Macworld. The best value is with the double-sized cartridges from Hewlett-Packard, which offer more than double the ink-life. You can buy them direct from HP’s Web site. Canon’s individual-colour-ink cartridges also did well. Once you run out either of yellow, cyan or magenta you need to replace only the colour that’s run dry – not the whole lot, as with single cartridges. Epson’s performance on ink-life varies from model to model. Those that did best on quality – the expensive ones – were the biggest ink guzzlers. The cheapest model tested, the Lexmark Z12, was also the thirstiest. It managed only 42 pages before running out – one less than the worst Epson.
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