6 little printers duke it out
The new breed of 4x6-inch printers cut the computer umbilical cord, but are they worth it?
It's surprising how many pros and advanced photographers make their own prints and enlargements on inkjet printers. And why not? The image quality, print durability, and performance of these units have gone way up, while the prices keep falling. So why would anyone spend $150-$300 on a printer that can pop out only 4x6 snapshots instead of a desktop printer that prints documents, charts, and even 8x44-inch photo-quality enlargements?
Convenience! Fact is, most snapshooters live in a 4x6-inch world and dread the idea of turning on a computer (and mastering an imaging program) just to get prints from their digital cameras. The newest breed of 4x6-inch printers is aimed at them, and may even appeal to serious photographers in a hurry. Some include built-in card readers, and nearly all allow you to make prints straight from your digital camera through a USB cable. That makes them perfect for the kitchen, living room, or even a car (several have optional cigarette-lighter adapters, and the Canon CP-330 actually ships with a lithium ion battery). And yes, they'll still hook up to a computer when the need arises.
But should avid photographers take these little printers seriously? To find out, we ran six of the hottest models through our lab tests for color accuracy, image quality, and overall performance.
Showdown in the lab
True to their nature, all of the printers were easy to set up and use, especially the Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony models that feature built-in card readers. With these, you turn the power on, insert a compatible card, select an image-and out pops a print within minutes, no computer necessary.
For printing directly from an attached camera, all but the HP feature PictBridge, an industry-standard protocol that lets any PictBridge-enabled digital camera print from any PictBridge-enabled printer. (Only HP cameras can print directly from the HP Photosmart 245.) With PictBridge, just connect the camera to the printer through a USB cable, select images from the memory card, choose the number of prints, and, depending on the camera, even crop the image or change other printer settings. We hooked up a Nikon D70 to all of the PictBridge models and were surprised at how easy it was to get a print.
On the down side, color accuracy was noticeably lower in comparison with prints made using a computer connection, which all of these printers allow. For example, the Sony DPP-EX50 dye-sub printer produced beautiful 4x6s with excellent color accuracy (Avg. Delta E of 5.19) when connected to a computer, but dropped to below normal color accuracy (Avg. Delta E of 17.07) when attached to the D70. Direct printing from like-branded cameras fared slightly better, but still paled compared with the computer-powered performance.
Of ribbons and ink
While inkjets dominate the desktop-printer market, four of these six are dye-sublimation units. With dye-sub printing, colored ribbons are heated to transfer their ink to specially coated paper. A clear coat is then applied to improve durability. The result is a print that comes out dry, hard-to-tear, and water-resistant. The downside: dye-sub ribbons have only three colors, so blacks can be a bit muddy; contrast is relatively high; and the prints lack the wide color gamut of six- and eight-color inkjets.
On the other hand, HP's Photosmart 245 uses three dye-based inks (C, M, Y) and produces prints that need time to dry and careful handling. Epson's PictureMate uses six pigment-based inks, and produces water-resistant prints that may last longer on display than any of the dye-sub or HP prints.
These snapshot printers don't necessarily save you money on consumables. Paper and ribbons/ink for all but the HP come packaged together and average more per print than from a desktop inkjet or a digital minilab. The Epson PictureMate is the big exception-at 29 cents per print (including ink), it rivals the price from a minilab. You may also sacrifice some print speed compared with a larger desktop unit: the average 4x6 printer takes 1 min 30 sec for a borderless 4x6, while a full-sized desktop inkjet, such as the Canon i9100, takes just 50 seconds.
So, is a snapshot printer a better deal than a desktop printer? Well, it's hard to argue with the idea of making good-quality, 4x6 prints almost anywhere. And perhaps we'd all make more prints if we didn't have to boot up a computer. But convenience comes at a price, image quality, and performance premium that's not for everyone.