3 printers give life to digital snapshots

Trade-offs: Taking a look at lower-priced devices that reproduce digital images - some simply, others with amazing bells and whistles.

January 01, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

If you bought an expensive digital camera with plans to create high-quality photographs at home on a rinky-dink printer, you may be disappointed.

For great photographic prints from your desktop, you'll want to invest in a photo printer with six colors of ink designed to provide smooth transitions and a professional look.

We looked at three photo printers in the consumer-friendly price range of $175 to $500 from Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Kodak - all of which produced higher quality prints than general-purpose printers.

The HP Photosmart 1218 Color Inkjet Printer, Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200 by Lexmark and Lexmark Z52 Color Jetprinter all connect via Universal Serial Bus cables to a PC. You don't need a high-powered PC to drive them - a 200 MHz Pentium or better with 64 megabytes of RAM will do. But all require running Windows 98 or ME. (Mac owners with G3 machines running OS 8.6 or later will be able to use both the Photosmart 1218 and the Z52.)

Of course, this being a new mil- lennium, two of the printers don't need a computer at all.

The best of the bunch - and most expensive - is the HP Photosmart. A friend advised me long ago not to fall in love with technology because something new is always around the corner. But the 1218 inspires love for what it can do right now. At $500, it is pricey, but you get what you pay for.

Photo quality was far better than the other two printers we tested. How good? At one point, I confused prints I had received from the Ritz Camera shop with a couple I had made on the Photosmart 1218. On closer inspection, the prints I created at home were a little richer in color because I had scanned the images into my computer and adjusted the brightness, contrast and color.

You don't need a computer to make prints with the PhotoSmart. You can pop in a CompactFlash, IBM Microdrive or Smart Media card and print images directly. But I couldn't crop or edit the pictures, or even see them unless I made an index print with thumbnails of all the images on my media card.

Although I didn't get a chance to test its infrared feature, HP says you can print photos, calendar information, e-mail and other documents by beaming them from a laptop, digital camera or other mobile device with an infrared port up to three feet away.

In an unusual feature for inkjets, the PhotoSmart does double-sided printing by producing one side of the page, allowing the ink to dry, then flipping the paper automatically for the second side.

Although it's mainly designed for photos, the Photosmart 1218 performs reasonably well with text-based documents, punching out a page of single-spaced, black-and-white text in little over a minute. A 5- by 7-inch photograph prints in little under five minutes.

The Photosmart 1218 also was the only printer we tested that will allow you to use a parallel port connection.

Kodak's PPM 100 (manufactured by Lexmark) also impressed us last spring with its ability to print directly from Smart Media and CompactFlash cards. The PPM 200 ($280) takes the feature a step further with the addition of a 1.8-inch color LCD screen and software that allows basic image editing before printing. In addition to media cards, the PPM 200 will print from a USB-connected Zip drive.

Being able to rotate and crop photographs, add borders and then print the pictures without the computer makes all the difference in the world. For some photographs that were too dark or too bright, the auto-enhance function on the image-editing menu performed wonders.

In fact, you can add text to a photograph and modify that text as well, using buttons on the front panel. Once you're ready to print, you can choose a print size and layout, so you don't have to waste a whole sheet of expensive glossy photo paper on one 3- by 5-inch print.

The PPM 200 comes with two ink cartridges, one for standard color (with cyan, yellow, magenta and black) and one for photographs (with light-cyan and light-magenta). The extra colors provide more realistic tones. The prints were very good for a printer in this price range.

Every shot I took with a high-resolution digital camera came out with sharp detail and natural colors, albeit not as good as the Photosmart 1218 produced. The HP prints with 2,400 by 1,200 dots of color per inch; the PPM 200 prints high quality photos at 1,200 by 1,200 dpi.

On the downside, you wouldn't want to use the PPM 200 for regular black-and-white text documents - it took more than three minutes to produce one page at 600 dpi. And you should check to see whether it will accept your high capacity media card in its slots; it will read 4 megabyte to 32 Mb Smart Media cards, but not 64 Mb cards.

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