Printer parade

WHAT'S HOT

Photos: Thanks to innovations in ink and the affordability of color lasers, a range of options exists for putting pictures to paper.

What's Hot

April 29, 2004|By Kevin E. Washington | Kevin E. Washington,SUN STAFF

It's hard for me to say which technological achievements over the past decade are most impressive. I'm a serious digital camera and camcorder buff, but in reality, I could do many of the same things using film cameras and analog video cameras.

But the technological advances that allow me to print photographs at home and have a copier on my desk for under $100 continue to wow me.

Printers, thanks to innovations in long-lasting or durable inks and direct connections to flash memory and digital cameras, have become the most-used peripherals in my home.

Scanning 23-year-old pictures of the college intramural sports teams I played on and printing them for friends have made me a hero in their 40-something eyes. And while I might be able to e-mail the scanned photos, my friends are most impressed with the fact that I can send them something they can place in their scrapbooks 23 years after the fact.

Not only does the quality of photographs from inkjets continue to improve, but the price of color lasers, which make fast work of text, has also become reasonable for home computer stations.

Meanwhile, printer manufacturers continue to try to eliminate the computer from the printing process by placing slots for every possible flash memory card on their printers - so once you edit the photograph in the camera, you need only plug the memory card into the computer to print your images.

If you're really interested in a card reader and also want a printer that doubles as a scanner/copier, look no further than the Epson Stylus CX6400 ($199), one of the three-in-ones that I found so useful. The quality of the photo prints is good - high compared to printers from two or three years ago - but not the best of the printers here.

It will spit out about 4.5 pages per minute of plain copies and take upward of three minutes for a good photograph - although if your primary need for a printer is photo printing, you'll want to skip all of the extras here.

I really liked the CX6400's memory card readers. The three slots will handle a variety of cards, making it unnecessary for me to plug a digital camera or memory card reader into my computer. It will read Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro, Compact Flash I and II, IBM Microdrive, Secure Digital, Multimedia Card, xD Picture Card and SmartMedia cards.

You can print a sheet showing thumbnails of every image on a memory card, allowing you to do what you need to do without a computer. You can even scan directly to a memory card. The Epson also uses DuraBrite ink, which is made so that you can pour water over your prints without a smear.

The other three-in-one I tried is the Lexmark PrinTrio Photo P3150 ($99), which provided much of the functionality of the CX6400 - minus the DuraBrite ink - for half the price. If you're not obsessed about text that doesn't run in a rainstorm, the P3150 may be a better bargain. This printer, too, has multiple slots for flash memory cards. I liked the flatbed scanner here a little more than the CX6400's - the scans were a tad sharper.

Lexmark's All-In-One Center software also edges Epson's Smart Panel program, providing the basics for scanning and manipulating photographs.

The Lexmark's photo output was not quite as good as the CX6400, and neither one is as good as the other photo printers in this review. Compromise is part of the package when you have so many tasks to handle.

The best photo printer in this group is the Canon i9900 ($499), which produces prints that just blow you away. This is one of the new, eight-color printers - and you'll pay for the quality you get. Not as expensive as Epson's best inkjet photo printer, the Stylus 2200, it certainly costs more than most of the photo inkjets out there while challenging the 2200's picture quality.

Canon has added two inks to the usual lineup of six: green and red. Most photo printers ship with magenta, photo magenta, cyan, photo cyan, black and yellow. The new inks add a bit more to the color range, especially if you're printing outdoor scenes. Matched with Canon's Photo Paper Pro, this printer's quality prints are virtually unbeatable at the price.

The printer connects to a computer with either Universal Serial Bus 2.0 or IEEE 1394 Firewire cables. I didn't have enough USB 2.0 slots open to do most of my tests using the faster connection, but I didn't find a problem using the old-fashioned USB 1.1 port. You can print directly from PictBridge-compatible digital cameras if you so choose, too.

The other great photo printer in this lot is the Hewlett Packard HP Photosmart 7960 ($350). It, too, uses eight ink colors, but instead of green and red, it adds gray photo ink and another shade of black.

The improvement in picture quality here involves black-and-white photographs. Anyone who has printed black-and-white pictures with an inkjet has noticed a light color cast from the mixture of inks that creates gray. With a photo gray cartridge, you get a more accurate black-and-white print.

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