IntroductionLately, anyone who's paying attention has seen a stampede of multipage ads in national magazines, meant to brand the term 'digital photography' in the mind of the average consumer. Indeed, the allure of taking photos with a digital camera and printing them how and when you like is hard to resist. It's in this context that we view the latest round of photo printers that produce photos as large as 8-x-10 inches. Straddling the often fuzzy line between consumer- and professional-level devices, these products offer features such as direct printing from camera storage media with no computer or image-editing application required (see the boxout on page 51”). But most are also capable of producing output that would please the hardcore Photoshop geek. In this roundup, we looked at two new printers from Canon – the i905D and the i965, both £250 – Epson's £129 Stylus Photo R300 (left), Hewlett-Packard's £249 Photosmart 7960, and Lexmark's £59 Z705. We also included an outlier, the £399 Olympus P-440, which uses dye-sublimation, rather than inkjet technology to produce prints. We used several criteria in judging the photo printers. The quality of the output had to be at least as good as that from a one-hour photo store, without your having to jump through hoops to get it. The printer needed to be affordable, not just to buy but also to maintain. And we wanted the winner to be reasonably speedy; otherwise, you may find that it's faster to walk to that one-hour photo store. What's inside
All of the inkjets use six inks for photo printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, light cyan and light magenta. The Epson and Canon devices use individual cartridges for each ink – a potential money-saver since you can replace just the ink that's run out – while the Lexmark and HP printers use one tricolour cartridge for cyan, magenta, and yellow, and a second cartridge for the light photo inks. With the Lexmark, you swap out the light-photo cartridge when you need to use the black-only ink cartridge. On the HP, the black ink is the only one you swap out: colour and special photo inks are always installed, and a third cartridge slot holds either a black-ink cartridge for text or a special photo-grey cartridge (included) for black-&-white photos. The Olympus P-440 is a dye-sublimation printer that uses cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes with a clear coating applied over the colour to prevent damage from fingerprints. Unlike inkjets, dye-sublimation printers use the same amount of resources regardless of the size or colour composition of the output. The fixed cost is just under £2.50 per print. A photo printer isn't much use if what you see on your monitor doesn't resemble what you get from the printer. To test colour accuracy, we printed our standard test image to each printer using three different colour-matching methods: the printers' default settings, ColorSync colour matching, and a custom ColorSync printer profile created with GretagMacbeth's Eye-One Photo colour calibrator (£995 plus VAT; www.i1color.com). The test image is a TIFF file saved in Lab colour, so the printer profile is the only one that affects the colour reproduction. The test image contains fine details in highlights and shadows (shiny metal and coffee beans); memory colours (colours we can identify as right or wrong because we know what colour something is supposed to be – a red bell pepper, for example, in an image of fruits and vegetables); and a variety of textures from cloth to plastic to wood grain. It presents a considerable challenge. The verdict
Our judges (a panel of experts made up of Macworld editors) gave the Epson R300 the highest marks for colour fidelity at the default settings, followed by both Canon printers and the Photosmart 7960, all three of which produced similar results (and which would benefit from better included colour profiles). The Olympus P-440 didn't fare quite so well, particularly when printing dark blues, but nonetheless produced acceptable results. The Lexmark Z705 was the only printer whose results were deemed unacceptable, with strongly oversaturated reds that made the cherry tomatoes in the test image look as if they were grown near Sellafield. The Lexmark was the only printer that really needed a custom profile. At the default printer-driver settings, the Lexmark produced some truly garish colours that our judges unanimously agreed were poor. Printing with the custom profile improved matters dramatically, but it's certainly unrealistic to expect buyers of a £59 printer to resort to a £995 profiling solution. Even with the custom profile, the Lexmark print still didn't approach the colour fidelity that the other printers produced without any profile. Detail matters
A closer examination of the prints made with custom profiles put the Canon and Epson printers at the head of the pack, followed closely by the HP Photosmart 7960, which didn't do quite as good a job on dark colours. The Olympus P-440 produced decent but unspectacular results, with too much contrast and too little highlight detail. The two printers that produced outstanding detail were the Canon i965 and the HP Photosmart 7960. Both claim resolutions of 4,800-x-1,200dpi, but the Canon uses a much smaller droplet than the HP – 2 picolitres versus 5. (A picolitre is one trillionth (or one millionth of a millionth) of a litre). The i965 showed noticeably better detail than its i905D sibling, although they have identical resolution and droplet-size specifications. The i905D tied with the Epson R300, which claims to have a higher resolution – 5,760-x-1,440dpi – but uses a slightly larger 3-picolitre droplet size. The Lexmark Z705 again fared poorly: it uses a much larger 7-picolitre droplet, and our test panel gave it the lowest marks of all the printers for detail reproduction – it completely lost details such as the serrations on a knife blade or the texture on a clove of garlic. The Olympus got the second- lowest rating in terms of detail; images from dye-sublimation printers just aren't as sharp as those from inkjet printers. The inkjet printers all offer multiple resolutions. The highest takes a lot longer to print than the second-highest one, so we asked the panel to compare prints from each inkjet at the highest and second-highest resolutions on glossy paper to see if they could see any difference. All told, we could detect no difference between the two resolutions (which is good news if you want high-quality prints quickly). While we suspect that the vast majority of consumers will use these printers for colour photographs, we were intrigued by HP's claim that the Photosmart 7960 can also produce “stunning black-&-white” photos (though to do so you must swap out the black cartridge for the special photo-grey cartridge, which ships with the printer). Our judges rated the black-&-white prints from the Photosmart 7960 as good, as they did with both Canon printers, but the difference largely boiled down to a choice between the HP's black-&-white with a reddish cast versus a much less appealing green (from the Lexmark) or cyan cast (from the Epson and Olympus). Although the HP was the best of the lot, we can't recommend any of these printers for serious black-&-white use. The printers varied widely in the speed with which they produced prints. At the second-highest resolution, which normal printer owners will probably use most often, the undisputed speed champ was the Canon i960. (The Olympus P-440 has only a highest resolution.) The i965 produced an 8-x-10-inch print in a blistering 1 minute and 29 seconds. The Canon i905D took second place, closely followed by the Epson R300. The HP Photosmart 7960 was a little slower. The Lexmark took more than twice as long as any other printer, in all sizes at all resolutions. The Olympus P-440's leisurely performance on 8-x-10 prints surprised us – speed is usually regarded as the main advantage of dye-sublimation technology. The Olympus printer did print 4-x-6 prints quite quickly, however (see the benchmark for speed comparisons).