Photo-quality printers make the grade

The GCN Lab asked printer
manufacturers to send units that produced photographic-quality output. Six companies
responded.


They also sent special paper, other media, ink cartridges, toner,
ribbon and other supplies.


We set up all the printers according to the manufacturers’
directions and adjusted software drivers to produce the highest-quality images possible on
the manufacturers’ glossy stock.


Seventeen image samples, most in high-density TIFF and Joint
Photographic Experts Group formats, were chosen to highlight specific printing
characteristics. We printed all 17 from the same PC, using Adobe Photoshop 4.0.1.


Six GCN editors, some with graphics responsibilities, individually
judged seven sample images each, without knowing which images came from which printer or
even which companies had submitted test units. The judges rated overall quality including
color depth, accuracy and clarity.


Jason Byrne, GCN senior editor for reviews, and lab assistant Donovan Campbell
contributed to this report.


Like babies, photo-quality printers are cute, high-maintenance and
sometimes cranky.


Over the last few months, six of these babies have been spitting out
impressive photographic work in the GCN Lab. All produced eye-popping color; some had true
continuous tone—output so smooth that it was impossible to discern any dot patterns
or banding.


The prices start around $300 and reach almost $10,000. Quality
differed, but it was startling how well the $499 Epson Stylus Photo EX ink-jet printer
performed.


And the high-end Fuji Pictrography 3000’s output so closely
resembled a photo that it was impossible to tell the difference between the two.


The Epson and Fuji printers earned Reviewer’s Choice designations.
Most users also would be delighted by three of the others: the Canon BJC-7000, Olympus
P-300U and Kodak DS 8650 PS.


Photo-quality printers work by ink-jet, dye-sublimation and other
methods.


Ink jets spray tiny dots of liquid ink onto a page. Most photo-quality
ink-jet printers have six colors: dark and light cyan, dark and light magenta, yellow and
black. The Canon adds a seventh: light yellow.


Dye-sublimation printers transfer color from semitransparent ribbons
via heat. The two such printers the lab examined had cyan, magenta and yellow ribbons;
another version of the Kodak printer could have black, too.


The Fuji Pictrography occupied a third category all to itself. Like
early instant cameras that produced a peel-off image in 60 seconds, the Pictrography used
spools of photographic paper to record a so-called donor image. Discarded donor paper had
to be removed occasionally from the printer’s trash bin.


The printers’ resolutions did not necessarily correspond with
image quality. The Epson claimed 1,440 by 720 dots per inch, the Fuji 400 dpi maximum. But
even at the Fuji’s lowest setting of 267 dpi, an image appeared sharper than at the
Epson’s highest setting.


That’s partly because the Fuji, Kodak and Olympus all came
remarkably close to true continuous-tone output. The Fuji’s photos were so close, the
lab found fault more with the digital image than the printer.


A dot pattern did show on printouts from the three ink-jet printers,
although it took a discriminating eye and close inspection to see it on the Epson.
Considering their low cost, the ink-jets really delivered.


Of the tested printers, three ink-jets and one dye-sublimation printer
cost less than $500. The Olympus P-300U, however, is limited to 4- by 5 1/2-inch glossy
paper.


The Fuji Pictrography and the Kodak DS 8650 PS each cost more than
$7,500. The Ko dak gave good quality and versatility through PostScript Level 2 and an
Ethernet card.


Special paper for these printers can cost as much as $2.25 per sheet,
but the price is justifiable for blazing colors that leap off the glossy stock.


Slowness is a different issue. Each manufacturer states a number, such
as 31/2 pages per minute for a document with a certain percentage of color coverage. But
not one printer took less than a minute per photo to print sample images. All averaged 3
to 5 minutes per photo.


Speed concerns aside, buyers of photo-quality printers primarily want
quality, so that is the focus of this review.


GCN Lab editors printed 17 images from various sources to each printer
from the same PC. Some were scanned photos, others were digital artwork. All had different
composition and format. The test printers all successfully output the 17 samples at the
maximum resolutions of their individual drivers.


A panel of six GCN editors, some with graphics responsibilities, judged
a selection of the sample images based on color depth, accuracy and clarity. Their ratings
were compiled into the grades that appear in the table.


The judges said all the printers produced good images, although the
Fuji, Epson, Kodak and Canon units eclipsed the other two by a wide margin. Judges
remarked that the Olympus output appeared less than sharp and the Lexmark’s colors
needed greater depth.


At almost $10,000, the Fuji Pictrography 3000 falls outside the
mainstream market, but it delivers remarkable quality for high-end digital imaging from
satellites or similar sources. For all practical purposes, the output is a photograph.


Using a silver-halide donor image, the Fuji’s thermal engine
transfers cyan, magenta and yellow process colors to produce 16.7 million colors in
flawless continuous tone. That said, the mammoth unit has quirks.


The Fuji requires a SCSI-2 connection, which transfers image data up to
six times faster than the speediest parallel port. But it was odd to find a 6-foot SCSI-2
cable on a printer, and it took a couple of days’ work to print the first sheet.


The Pictrography would print only from Adobe Photoshop. One third-party
software package claimed to enable printing from non-Photoshop applications and across a
network, but the lab could not make it work.


Even printing from Photoshop was impossible until Fuji sent the lab a
new plug-in for Photoshop 4.0; the 32-bit plug-in posted on Fuji’s Web site had
crashed Photoshop. Company officials assured the lab they would make the new version
available for download.


The plug-in, although it worked, could use some tweaking. Printing in
red-green-blue mode, an image file had to be 3,800 pixels by 2,759 pixels or smaller.
Otherwise, the Pictrography simply would not print it.


Printing at 320 dpi, the image filled the page except for a small
border. At the maximum 400 dpi, the image appeared off-center at the upper left of a
letter-sized page.


The Pictrography would accept only one image to print at a time because
it had no queue. Quality was better with color matching on.


The idiosyncrasies an noyed the lab until the first breathtaking pages
popped out. Fuji should improve the software drivers and make printing a little easier.


Fuji also sells a Pictrography 4000, which prints up to tabloid-sized
images.


Media versatility makes the Epson Stylus Photo EX a remarkable deal.
From 4- by 6-inch photo paper to panoramic 11 '- by 44-inch tabloid
sheets, the Stylus Photo EX prints on just about anything—even woven canvas.


Although its output could not compare with the Fuji’s or the
Kodak’s, dot pattern was invisible except on closest inspection. Print samples looked
bright, and even the most subtle elements were discernible. In one sample, the main
subject appeared shadowed, but rumpled cloth and other features that could not be seen in
the other units’ printouts were visible.


The Stylus Photo EX, introduced in late April, was pretty easy to set
up with step-by-step instructions and strong software. But the user needs better control
over which applications to load and which to avoid.


The Stylus Photo EX required an all-or-nothing attitude—the lab
had to load all the add-on applications, which took up 21M, just to get the essential
software drivers and 3.5M print monitor.


The Canon BJC-7000 came relatively close to the Epson but lacked its
skillful handling of blends. On images of flesh or sunsets, the Canon’s transitional
tones shifted abruptly. It laid down heavier dark tones than the other printers,
especially in shadowed areas.


The BJC-7000 took second place for its output, but in many other areas
it equaled the Epson.


The Kodak DS 8650 PS bettered the Canon in output quality but, like the
Fuji, needed software and hardware improvements. It accepted SCSI, parallel and Ethernet
connections, yet networking it and getting it to print took effort.


The Kodak printed a photo fine over the network but always wasted two
extra pages—one with nothing on it and another with a PostScript error described as
an "offending stack." No amount of rebooting or reinstallation got rid of the
error.


The drivers gave little help in tweaking the output. The PostScript
driver interface, standard in all PostScript printers, had few options.


Another baffling error occurred when we loaded 81'2- by 12-inch paper
sent to the lab by Kodak, and the printer would recognize it only as 8 1/2-by-11 paper.


Installing the cyan-magenta-yellow ribbon in this dye-sublimation
printer also proved awkward. The 8 1/2-inch-wide strip fed off one spool and onto another.
On some documents, the colors at the beginning were never as deep as those toward the
middle and end.


The dye-sublimation Olympus P-300U had an easier-loading ribbon whose
spools were encased in plastic. But the output looked nowhere near as sharp as the other
printers’. Olympus output generally looked a little fuzzy and was limited to 4- by 5
1/2-inch prints.Smaller photos would have been fine had the Olympus driver been capable of
reducing any image to appropriate printing size. It chopped off the sides and printed the
middle.


The Lexmark Color Jetprinter 7200 handled paper poorly and jammed at
least half the time. Someone had to sit by the printer to make sure that paper fed
straight through and didn’t catch on the door as it exited.


Lexmark’s newest ink-jet, the Color Jetprinter 5700, handles paper
as the company’s Optra laser printers do. Lexmark needs to fine-tune the exit to
prevent jams.


The Jetprinter 7200’s ink also failed to dry fast enough.


Large images invariably lost some of their ink to the paper-feeding
rollers. Also, I had to avoid any stacking as pages tended to stick together and, when
separated, peel off ink from other pages. Perhaps Lexmark’s paper was insufficiently
absorbent.


The Lexmark, the least expensive of the bunch, produced fine but not outstanding
images. Banding appeared in blends, even in uniformly colored areas.

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