Stylus Photo R180 full review

You wait ages for a large-format photo-printer and what happens? Two come along-once. Epson and HP have both launched new A3+ inkjets aimed at the photography market. Being marketing creatures, both try to segment and target photographers in pro, semi-pro, pro-sumer, consumer, keen amateur type pigeon-holes. But if you’re keen enough on photography to pay the £399 price tag of these printers then you’re in the right segment.

How many different inks do you need to print a perfect picture? These two printers have a total of 16 between them – not including Epson’s gloss optimizer. So it seems that now that everybody has figured out that measuring quality by the number of dots a printer can spit out is a bad idea: the number of inks is the new measurement in the inkjet arms-race. Going on numbers alone, the HP Photosmart 8750 would win, with nine inks in three cartridges, plus a plethora of special grey cartridges, blue optimized cartridges, and blacks. There are various different configurations making the grand total pretty much as many inks as you like.

Epson’s Stylus Photo R1800 has a mere seven inks plus the gloss optimizer. Each ink is in a separate cartridge, which should minimize waste. The gloss optimizer has the ability to add even more glossy shine to gloss or semi-gloss paper. The PC driver lets users apply the gloss to particular parts of the image. The effect is the same as you might see on some magazine covers that use a spot varnish. It’s very effective and sadly missed in the Mac driver, where it’s a simple on/off choice. Traditional photographers that favour the ultra-glossy look for photographs will enjoy it.

The result of having so many inks is to increase the colour gamut – the range of possible colours printed. This in turn means banding and grain patterns are a thing of the past with both printers. If there are any unwanted artefacts, they’re more likely to be from an over-compressed image, low-resolution original, a poor camera, or poor shooting; with perfect printing, flawed images are more visible.

The 8750 has special ink cartridges to make mono printing better, and a cartridge with extra blues to extend the colour range in that traditionally weak direction. This will undoubtedly make the world of difference for some images, and not much in others.

To test the colour performance we printed a number of different images on a number of different media on both machines. When using high-end inkjets such as these, and indeed everyday ones, it’s vital to use both the recommended ink and paper. When inkjet ink is designed, it’s made to work with the company paper.

This isn’t just some shyster scheme to get you to fork over more money to the printer manufacturers – there’s a lot of science involved with both ink and paper, especially photographic paper. Using third-party papers that often claim compatibility with all printers, is asking for trouble. Kodak is a prime example, making questionable claims for image permanence using any ink from any printer. If you want to be sure that your images stay put without fading and look the way they are supposed to, the only way is to use recommended inks and papers. It’s expensive, but both these printers will produce prints that will outlive all of us if printed this way.

Connectivity for each printer is decent: Epson has USB 2.0 and FireWire, and the HP ups the ante by offering USB 2.0 and Ethernet for full networking capability. The HP also sports four memory-card slots, and a PictBridge USB connection.
The different connections didn’t make much impact on print speeds, photo-printers are rarely speedy. Big photo-printers are even less speedy, as the more coverage on the page the longer it will take to print. There are other factors that affect print speed, such as paper, print quality, resolution used and the computer used.

This renders any print speed tests as unreliable and vague at best. However, on average an A3 page with 90 per cent coverage took around three and a half minutes to print at a normal setting on both printers. Using the top high-resolution settings this figure went up to eight minutes, again on both models. This might seem slow, but photo-printers are all about quality, with speed playing second fiddle in importance.

With nothing to separate the printers in terms of speed, quality should have been the deciding measure. However, like-for-like comparisons of output showed only the slightest differences in quality with both getting perfect marks. To achieve a perfect score in our tests there must be no visible banding, grain or colour cast on the output and no visual artifacts either. I’m certain there are differences in colour gamuts, with the HP having the advantage of optional special inks. But to tell the difference you would need an expert eye and probably a colourimeter. That’s not to say that photographers with very demanding needs wouldn’t benefit from the wider colour gamut, just that the lay person almost certainly wouldn’t notice the difference.

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