All inkjets can print photos, but professional speed and quality are worth paying for. Barry Collins finds out what the printer market has to offer.
T his group test is a little different from a regular PC & Tech Authority Labs test. Normally, we’d call in a selection of devices in the same category – such as compact tablets, budget laptops or workstation PCs – and identify the best picks in that particular sector.
In this Labs, we’ve picked a wider variety of inkjet printers (and one model that uses a different print technology altogether) to find out how much you have to spend to get the photo quality you crave. Is there any point in buying a dedicated photo printer that’s restricted to just a single task, or can you get the same speed and quality from a $250 all-in-one? What difference does having a greater number of individual inks actually make? And how much do you need to spend to get perfect colour accuracy? In this Labs, we’ll provide the answers to all those questions, so you can find the device that best suits your needs.
This month, we’ve tested a range of printers, from those supplied with as few as two ink cartridges, right through to high-end models with 11 individual colours, each contained in a different cartridge. The number of cartridges has implications for both colour accuracy and running costs.
Generally speaking, the greater the number of cartridges, the better the colour accuracy. Our tests include a portrait photo, where the light is cast from one side of the model’s face – a tricky test since the subtleties of skin tones are difficult to reproduce accurately. On the 11-ink Epson Stylus Pro 4900, all those tones are faithfully reproduced; on inkjets with only three or four inks, there’s far less subtlety, with the brightly lit side of the model’s face often burnt out to the point where it looks like the photo has suffered overexposure.
The difference is even more pronounced when printing black-and-white images. Our monochrome test photo has a smooth gradient in the background, which is beautifully rendered on the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 and Canon Pixma Pro-100. The latter has three inks aimed specifically at reproducing this type of image, in light grey, grey and black. Most cheaper printers add an unwanted coloured tint to the gradient, which spoils the effect and reduces the atmosphere photography enthusiasts crave and professionals require.
Many of the printers here have individual ink cartridges for each colour. The manufacturers promote this as a cost saving, pointing out that you need change only the individual colours when each one runs dry, rather than replacing one cartridge containing three colours as soon only one of its colours has been used up.
There’s a degree of truth to this, but three individual cartridges will almost invariably be more expensive than tri-colour models. A full set of eight inks for the Canon Pixma Pro-100 will set you back the thick end of $180, while replacing the two cartridges in the HP Envy 7640 costs only $54. Where possible, we give an indicative price of printing borderless A4 and 6 x 4in photos on each printer, to give you an idea of the running costs you’ll face.
Professionals may even want to consider bypassing inkjets altogether, in favour of the far more economical dye-sublimation printer in this test, the DNP DS80. Prints cost as little as half the price of the top-end inkjets, but that has to be balanced against the much higher initial outlay of the printer itself.
Another factor that will determine your choice of printer is the size of the prints you want to produce. There’s a glorious satisfaction to be had from seeing your photography on an A3+ (329 x 483mm) poster print, not least the justification of having spent a fair sum on your high-end print on A3+ you must opt for a dedicated photo printer – all-in-ones top out at A3, which is a few centimetres shorter in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Most consumer all-in-ones print no larger than A4.
What about printing documents? Most of these printers are perfectly capable of printing presentable documents on plain A4, especially the all-in-ones.
When it comes to the dedicated photo printers, however, you wouldn’t want to waste costly ink running off any more than the occasional job. The Canon Pro-100’s black ink cartridge is no bigger than its seven other colour tanks, and you’ll soon exhaust it if you’re regularly blasting through documents, which will be painfully uneconomical. The Canon Pixma iP8750, however, has a double-sized Pigment Black cartridge, which makes it more cost-effective for document printing. If you’re going for a dedicated photo printer, but need to print documents regularly, we suggest you consider partnering it with a cheap laser.
This particular Labs is unusual in that the less you pay, the more features you get. The cheapest printer in the group is the one with the most functions, including a scanner, fax and automatic document feeder for multipage scanning. Naturally, that comes at the cost of photo quality, so the key to this Labs is finding the printer that offers the right compromise between photo output, price and features to meet your particular needs. We’ve highlighted which type of user each printer is most suitable for in a box on each review.
How we tested
Each of the printers was tested on a Windows 8.1 PC connected to a colour-calibrated Eizo ColorEdge CG276 monitor. We printed the same series of test photos on each printer to assess image quality, colour accuracy and speed: the Colour Collective test chart, a studio portrait, a landscape image and a black-and-white product shot with a smooth gradient in the background. We printed borderless photos at A3/A3+ (where applicable) and A4, using the printer’s highest possible quality setting, to assess its photo output speed.
We also assessed the printers’ document speeds by printing a five-page colour brochure (the ISO/IEC 24712:2006 document) on those machines that are capable of printing on plain A4. Page costs are calculated using the manufacturers’ own yield figures where available.
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