Prints charming

Introduction

Unlike business printing, home printing tends to value quality above speed – which is why the consumer printing market is ruled by ink-jet models, and not laser printers. Here, we take a look at the current crop of ink-jets for home and office work. Epson has traditionally dominated this arena, with little competition. But with notable releases in the past year, both Hewlett-Packard and Canon have become key ink-jet players. Although Epson still has the largest range of printers, at least it’s being outstripped in certain areas. Printing technology revolves around useage. Laser printers offer fast and furious text output, ideally suited to office donkey-work. Ink-jets offer a more sedate pace, and the pay-off is high-quality colour images. Ink-jets lack the luxuries associated with laser printers – such as ethernet networking – because most are an expense not justified in home use. Also, PostScript is almost never found in ink-jet printers, making printing from vector-graphics applications or page-layout programs best avoided. There are a number of solutions to the PostScript problem, but most are software-based and make the printers even slower. The area in which ink-jets excel is photographic-quality printing. Even five years ago, manufacturers were claiming their printers capable of photo-quality images – which back then, was stretching the truth. Now, though, images from certain models are indistinguishable from a real photo. Jet speed Printing speed on laser printers is a measure of print-engine capability. Ink-jet printers have little on-board processing, with the work being mostly executed by your Mac. This means if you have a slow computer, you will also suffer sluggish print speeds. All the printers tested here use a USB connection, meaning information-transfer is faster than on older Macs with serial connections. This means that print speeds are acceptable, even when printing at super-high resolutions. Occasionally, pages take longer – for instance, with high-coverage output and when printing to A3. Printer manufacturers often trumpet page-per-minute stats, something more meaningful when applied to laser printers than with less-predictable ink-jets. Ink-jets can output low-res, text-heavy documents with alacrity, but when processing an entire A3 page of high-resolution colour, print-speed is better measured in pages per-hour than per-minute. Our speed tests were carried out under lab conditions: the same files were printed from the same Mac – giving reliable speed ratios without pinning down page-per-minute figures for each model. Consumers would be better placed to assess various models if manufacturers were to do the same. Jet settings
Each manufacturer has its own proprietary printing technology, and each uses different methods to attain the best quality image. These methods rely on factors such as ink-type, paper and the way ink is fired at the paper. Epson uses a Micro Piezo printer head, capable of 1,440 dots per inch (dpi). There are two types of Epson printer: Color and Photo. The Color printers use a four-ink process, and the photo versions use six inks. The additional two inks are light cyan and light magenta, both used to build up a wider gamut of colour. One revolutionary feature of the newest Photo models is light-proof inks. Previously, ink-jet output was prone to fading, and so was unsuitable for the photographic market. After all, what’s the use of printing wedding photos that will fade after six months – unless you’re Melanie and Ian Beale? With the new inks, prints will remain colour-fast for a minimum of ten years. Although the 2,400dpi Hewlett-Packard 970cxi out-performs everything in the Epson range by almost 1,000 pixels per inch, HP says that printing at just 600dpi will deliver the same quality as this top resolution. This feat is achieved by HP’s PhotoREt III technology, which ensures each dot is itself made up from 29 drops of ink. This gives smooth, noise-free colour gradients. In our tests, the 600dpi print from the HP 970cxi compared favourably with the 1,440dpi print from the Epson. And because the HP prints at a lower resolution, it can output at almost twice the speed of the Epson working at full resolution. Canon has a third way of dealing with photo colour, allowing its BJC 6500 to be used for across-the-board printing jobs. It can handle a glossy photographic image, because the user can replace its inks with special six-colour cartridges, giving top-quality prints. This gives the best of both worlds: four-colour and six-colour printing in a single model. But the quality of the Canons failed to keep pace with even the low-end Epsons. On speed too, Canon lags behind most of the competition. Test jet
We tested every printer at every available setting, using three files: one was a 1,440-dpi photo collage; another, the same collection of images at 720dpi; and a printer-killer file of solid colours and marked gradients jumbled with monochrome photographs. That last file is almost impossible for printers to get right, and serves to amplify any minor glitches. To rate the output, a panel of judges was given these printouts to place in order of preference. We also judged prints using a magnifying glass and scanners, in order to get right down to dot-level precision. This illustrates exactly how the given quality is achieved. It’s all well and good a printer being able to output at 1,000dpi, but unless its dot-distribution is good, then resolution is worthless. Before, so-called photo-quality images were best viewed from a distance of about three feet. But modern photo-printers are able to hide the dots by layering inks, producing an almost continuous tone. Only a magnifying glass is able to unmask this and reveal the image’s underlying dotty-quality.
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