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Photo printers

Money doesn't necessarily buy better quality with six-ink printers

Last Updated June 25, 2007

Buying a printer for a home or small office was relatively simple when the choice was limited to black and white. But with the advent of affordable colour and the boom in digital photography, printers have become a tricky peripheral to choose these days. They can range in price from less than $50 to more than $1,000, come in all shapes and sizes, sport widely differing features, and — most vexing — create prints of vastly varying quality.

It can be difficult to make a choice, but there's a good general rule to follow when it comes to inkjet printers geared toward digital photography: the greater the number of separate ink reservoirs, the better the potential for superior-looking prints.

The generally accepted number of colour cartridges required to deliver photo-lab-quality results is six. The more shades of ink the printer has to work with, the more accurate the results tend to be when the colours are blended to create a photo. With this in mind, I took a look at three popular consumer-oriented inkjet models — from Epson, Canon and Hewlett Packard — to see what kinds of features and capabilities manufacturers are offering the mainstream market these days.

Inkjet printers that clear the six-cartridge hurdle can now be found for under $200, though most are still in the $300-plus range. However, as I discovered while experimenting with the three printers below, don't assume that shelling out the extra cash for machines in this price range will guarantee better quality photos.

HP Photosmart D7360

The touch-screen menu system for selecting and editing photos on Hewlett Packard's Photosmart D7360 is a benchmark for ease of use.
The touch-screen menu system for selecting and editing photos on Hewlett Packard's Photosmart D7360 is a benchmark for ease of use.

Easily the most attractive of the units tested, the D7360, with a suggested retail price of $299, is sheathed in glossy white plastic. It features a touch screen interface for stand-alone printing (printing without having to turn on your computer), has a brilliantly designed paper tray that does away with traditional, noisy paper-guide systems, and includes a separate feeder for 4-by-6-inch photo paper. Plus paper is fed from the front of the machine rather than the rear, making it a good choice for cramped home offices.

Design kudos extend to the software, as well. Hewlett Packard's touch-screen menu system for selecting and editing photos is a benchmark for novice accessibility; step-by-step instructions ensure that the computer illiterate will be able to churn out prints mere minutes after setup. The PC-based printer settings menu is also highly intuitive, offering one-click options for a variety of printing tasks while providing the ability to drill down and get to settings meant for more advanced users.

HP claims it's the fastest home photo printer in the world, generating 4-by-6 photos in as little as 12 seconds. None of my test prints came out that quickly, but most didn't take too much longer.

However, the D7360 fared the worst in terms of actual print quality. I ran off the same series of photos in colour and black-and-white on all three units, and found the HP prints to be consistently less satisfying than those from the other two models tested. They had excellent sharpness, but the colours seemed slightly muted and they lacked an intensity and depth seen in prints from the other two machines.

That said, the D7360 prints were visibly superior to the same digital photos printed at a local drug-store photo lab. Suffice it to say the D7360 prints better photos than an entry-level machine, but it's not best in class.

Canon iP6700D

Canon's iP6700D has an easy-to-understand interface that allow rookies to make simple edits and automatic corrections to digital photos, while simultaneously giving more serious amateur photographers the ability to get down and dirty with manual colour management settings. Canon's iP6700D has an easy-to-understand interface that allow rookies to make simple edits and automatic corrections to digital photos, while simultaneously giving more serious amateur photographers the ability to get down and dirty with manual colour management settings.

Canon makes some pretty printers, but the iP6700D, with a suggested retail price of $249.99, isn't one of them. Roughly the same size as the HP D7360, Canon's unit is decidedly less chic, with its boring black and grey case and simple four-way menu selection dial.

That said, it does have a couple of utilitarian design perks that HP's unit lacks. There are both rear-to-front and front-to-front paper feeding systems (you can put plain paper in the rear tray and coated photo paper in the front tray, for example), and an optional optical disc tray for printing directly onto CDs and DVDs — the tray is stored separately and attached when needed.

The built-in and PC-based software nearly matches HP's in terms of effortless navigation. It has an easy-to-understand interface that allow rookies to make simple edits and automatic corrections to digital photos, while simultaneously giving more serious amateur photographers the ability to get down and dirty with manual colour management settings.

The prints from the iP6700D were praiseworthy. Blissfully free of visual "noise" and digital artifacts, colour photos had vivid hues. A dark chocolate sweater in one of my test prints had a richness that the other machines couldn't match, and the ocean in another shot was rendered an amazingly deep, convincing blue. Black-and-white photos were also impressive, although the images didn't quite jump off the sheet the way they did on prints rendered by the Epson, which I'll get to in a moment.

Though significantly less flashy than the HP printer I looked at, the less expensive Canon iP6700D is safely categorized as the preferable of the two if image quality is of paramount concern.

Epson RX580

The features, print quality and attractive price of Epson's RX580 make it a strong contender in the six-ink printer category. The features, print quality and attractive price of Epson's RX580 make it a strong contender in the six-ink printer category.

It's big, it's ugly, its USB port is inexplicably hidden inside the machine under the scanner bed (?!?), but the Epson RX580's utility, print quality, and attractive price — $169.99 — overcome its design faults to make it a surprisingly strong contender in the six-ink category.

The colour pictures I ran off using the RX580 were wonderfully lifelike, if not quite as vivid as those generated by the Canon. The black-and-white pictures it produced, on the other hand, were the best of the bunch; they had remarkably strong contrast and excellent neutrality — which is to say there were no unwanted hints of colour — for such an inexpensive machine.

Not only did it produce the best monochrome prints of the three printers I tried, the RX580 also comes with a diverse collection of useful hardware and software features, including a built-in scanner/copier, direct-to-CD and DVD printing, and a reprint/restoration mode for creating copies of damaged prints.

In evaluating this last feature, which uses the printer's scanner and its onboard LCD (no PC required), I found my test replicas to be a bit grainer than the original photographs. But with the restoration feature activated, I noticed a dramatic improvement in the lighting quality of the "repaired" prints. It's not perfect, but it's a feature that ought to appeal to those interested in preserving or distributing copies of aging family photos.

On the topic of PC-free printing, it's worth noting that prints generated directly from a camera or memory card were, surprisingly, second rate. Colours were dulled, contrast was reduced, and detail was lost. The good news is that since the RX580 is far too big to lug away from your PC and into the field, there seems little need to ever rely on PC-free printing. And it's apparently a shortcoming common in the class of printers; stand-alone prints generated on both the HP and Canon units suffered similar quality issues.

The RX580's bulkiness and hardware quirks might cause design-minded technorati to pass it by, but it would be their loss. A dirt-cheap price and outstanding print quality make Epson's unit the six-ink machine to beat — at least in this group of three.

Why stop at six inks?

A six-ink model might set you back a few dollars more than a basic colour printer, but the difference in photo quality is plainly obvious if you compare the resulting prints side by side. And keep in mind that a six-ink machine offers potential cost savings in the long run; whereas tri-colour cartridges typically need to be swapped out as soon as one of the three colours runs dry, wasting any remaining ink in the other colour tanks, machines with multiple cartridges that each contain a single tone let you squeeze out every last drop before requiring replacement.

And there's no need to limit your choice to the machines discussed here — this is just a cross-section of what's available. More and more consumer printers with six or more discrete ink reservoirs are reaching the market as the technology becomes more affordable, so it's a matter of finding a model with the price and features to meet your needs.

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