How to Shop for a Photo Printer
We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words--but your digital photos don't say much when they're stuck in a virtual shoebox on your hard drive. Okay, maybe you print out your images from time to time on an ancient ink jet printer--the one that wakes the baby and turns Aunt Martha's face orange--but it's time to upgrade. Or perhaps you're ready to buy your first printer, but don't know where to start.
Whatever your scenario, you're in the right place. In this story, we'll explore the most important decisions you'll face when shopping for a photo printer. We'll look at the various printer types, what you'll get for your money, what the specs mean, which features are worth having, and finally, what you'll spend on ink and paper.
Things to Consider Right Away
First of all, if you're buying this printer primarily for use with your digital camera, you may be wondering whether you have to buy a printer from the same company that made your camera. The short answer is, no, you don't. Any printer will print your photos. So the $99 Epson Stylus C84, for example, will print photos from a Canon Eos Rebel camera. See PC World's review of the Epson Stylus C84.
Second, consider how you'd like to get your pictures from your camera to the printer. The most common way of doing this--and the way most basic printers work--is to print the pictures from your PC after you've downloaded them from your camera or from a camera card reader, such as a Lexar Media reader, that is connected to your PC.
Remember, though, that many ink jet printers, including the $100 Canon I475D Desktop Photo Printer and sophisticated multifunction devices like the $350 HP PSC 2510 Photosmart All-in-One come with built-in card readers that can take the digital files from your camera's card and print them right away, without using a computer. See PC World's review of the Canon I475D Desktop Photo Printer.
Another option, which Canon's I475D also offers, is the ability to transfer the pictures from your camera to the printer by connecting them together with a USB cable. To use this method, both your camera and the printer must support PictBridge (for details, see More Specifications: PictBridge). For now, just think about whether you want to be able to print pictures without using your PC.
But simply getting your pictures to the printer isn't the entire battle. To get the best possible photo quality from your printer, you should try to have both your camera and your printer support additional standards. For more details on these issues, see Two Important Standards.
What Do You Want Out of Your Printer?
You'll find that you have a number of different printer types to choose from: general-purpose, photo, portable, snapshot photo, and multifunction. Faced with so many choices, you have to ask yourself how you plan to use the printer.
If this new printer will be the only one you'll use, and you'd like to produce decent-looking text documents as well as high-quality photos, then you'll most likely need a general-purpose ink jet printer like the $150 Canon I860 Desktop Photo Printer, the $400 HP Deskjet 9650, or the $70 Lexmark Z615.
For the latest reviews and product pricing, check out PC World's Top 10 Ink Jet Printers.
On the other hand, perhaps you have a trusty old laser that handles all your text printing, and your new printer is going to be dedicated solely to printing photos and color graphics. If that's the case, then you can start by looking at photo-centric printers like the $179 Epson Stylus Photo R300, the $200 HP Photosmart 7760, or the $100 Lexmark P707.
Then again, if your home office or small business needs a device that scans, faxes, copies, prints text, and can produce great-looking photos to boot, you'll find some good multifunction ink jet printers, including the $250 Epson Stylus Photo RX500, the $150 HP Officejet 4215 All-in-One, and the $200 Canon MP390. These three models haven't been tested by PC World; however, none of the multifunction printers previously tested by PC World excelled at every function. If you're willing to trade stellar quality on one or more of these functions for the convenience of having one device that does it all, you should select one that excels at the function you plan to use most.
You may have a more specific purpose in mind: If you need to print while on the road--because you're a real estate agent, say--you'll want to check out mobile printers such as the $350 HP Deskjet 450wbt and the $250 Canon I80. But if you only want to print 4-by-6-inch photos, then you can limit your search to portable snapshot printers like the $199 Epson PictureMate, the $200 HP Photosmart 245, or the $380 Canon CP-330.
Another possible scenario: You want an inexpensive printer for photo and color graphics printing, and a certain member of your family insists on having something that will print directly onto CDs and DVDs. The $99 Epson Stylus Photo R200 and the $179 Epson Stylus R300 fit the bill.
For additional reviews of the latest printers in these different categories (except multifunction printers), see PC World's upcoming "Printers for Every Purpose."
Prices and Features
A good printer will cost you anywhere from $50 to $400, depending on features. Though you should be skeptical of budget-priced printers that seem too good to be true, some models costing $50 to $80 have performed well in PC World tests, such as the $80 Canon I455 Desktop Photo Printer and the Lexmark Z615. Spending more money up front won't necessarily get you more attractive photos or a faster printer. The specs you'll see that describe these attributes are dots per inch and pages per minute.
Any ink jet printer worth buying has a pretty high dpi ratio, which refers to how many dots of ink per inch a printer lays down on the paper. You shouldn't buy a model that can't print color at 4800 by 1200 dpi or higher, though most current models do. The same goes for black; most printers max out at 600 by 600 or 1200 by 1200 dpi. But a higher dpi doesn't ensure a sharper print. PC World has seen a 600-by-600-dpi printer generate sharper text than a 1200-by-1200-dpi model.
While you're printer shopping, you'll probably hear about ppm until you're cyan (blue) in the face. But the bottom line on pages per minute is that the specs and your real-world experience will probably vary wildly. In PC World tests, most models print at a fraction of their specified maximum speed. Expect to see manufacturers tout speeds of anywhere from 15 to 22 pages per minute (text), and 10 to 16 pages per minute (color). Once you get the printer home, however, it's more likely you'll be printing text at about 5 ppm and color graphics at around 1 ppm. In PC World tests, most ink jet printers took anywhere from 1 to 4 minutes to print a 5-by-7-inch glossy photo at best-quality settings.
To get an idea of a printer's real-world speed, check out PC World's test results in product reviews. For example, see the $100 HP Deskjet 5150 test report--the HP Deskjet 5150 is one of PC World's latest Best Buys.
The Ink Itself, Part 1
When you buy a printer, you'll usually get one set of ink cartridges with it. Some ink jet printers, like the $100 HP Deskjet 5150 and the $80 Lexmark P707, use two ink cartridges at once. This setup usually consists of a three-color cartridge and a black cartridge. For best results when printing photos with either printer, you must buy a special $25 photo cartridge, which you swap with the black cartridge.
The three basic colors that printers use are cyan (blue), magenta (red), and yellow--abbreviated to C,M,Y; black is shortened to K. Photo ink cartridges usually contain light cyan and light magenta, designed to reproduce a broader range of subtle hues and shadings of light and shadow. Most photo printers use six or more colors, usually in individual tanks. For example, the $200 Canon I960 uses six individual ink tanks, so no need to order an optional photo cartridge. The $200 HP Photosmart 7760 has optional gray ink, making it a good choice for photographers who are fond of printing black-and-white photos.
So, are six- or eight-ink photo printers better than four-ink models? Well, there's no hard and fast rule that says "yes" in every case. For example, the four-ink Canon I455 Desktop Photo Printer printed photos just as attractive as more expensive models that use six or eight inks.
Of course, the cost of replacing ink cartridges can add up quickly: For example, HP's inks for the HP Deskjet 5150 cost $20 for a black cartridge and $30 for the color cartridge. Replacement inks for the Canon I560 cost $14 for the black and $12 each for the three single-color tanks. For a typical page of color graphics (not glossy photos), expect to use anywhere from 8 cents' to 14 cents' worth of ink. In PC World tests, printers with individual cartridges tended to have a lower per-page ink cost than models that use a tricolor cartridge.
The Ink Itself, Part 2
You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a printer that uses individual ink cartridges. The $99 Epson Stylus C84 and the $99 Canon I560 both use separate ink tanks, for instance.
Another specification you'll see touted is estimated page yields. Page yield is supposed to tell you how many pages of text, graphics, or photos an ink cartridge will produce before it runs dry. But how many prints you get out of your printer's ink cartridges will likely vary, depending in part on what you print and on what quality settings you use. You may save money buying high-capacity ink cartridges, if they're available.
For the nitty-gritty on ink costs and page yields, see "The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing."
Every manufacturer will tell you that its proprietary ink is the best ink imaginable. The truth is, with the advent of digital photography, most ink jet manufacturers have gone back to the drawing boards and refined their inks for printing photos on photo-quality paper. For example, Canon's $480 I9900 Photo Printer and the $400 Epson Stylus Photo R800 both include new ink colors designed to produce a better array of colors.
Printers cost more when they come with features like an extra-wide paper tray, a tray for 4-by-6-inch paper, camera card slots, a direct-print port, six- to eight-cartridge printing, and a built-in mini LCD--from $50 more up to hundreds of dollars more.
We talked before about built-in camera card slots. If you want to put your camera's memory card right into your printer--whether to print directly from there or to transfer the pictures on the card to your hard drive--this is a feature to look for. The $80 HP Photosmart 7260 has card slots, for example. Just make sure the camera card slots in the printer will work with your camera's memory card before you buy the printer. Most printers with card slots accept all the common kinds of camera cards, but it's always wise to double-check.
If you want a photo printer that you can use without your PC, you can opt for a printer with an LCD screen. LCD screens will drive up the printer's price by at least $30 to $50, and the screens are almost always quite small, usually only 1.5 inches by 2 inches or so. These screens are useful for previewing your photos and performing basic photo-editing tasks. The $240 Canon I900D, for instance, comes with a 2-inch LCD.
More Specifications: PictBridge
While we're on the subject of getting your pictures from the camera to the printer, you need to know about PictBridge. You'll see this spec listed in printer (and camera) product descriptions. PictBridge is a camera-to-printer transfer protocol that is supported by the Camera & Imaging Products Association. The protocol is widely used by many camera and printer makers.
If you want to print pictures from your camera without turning on your PC, and you don't even want to take the memory card out of your camera, check if your camera supports PictBridge. If your camera is PictBridge-compatible and you buy a PictBridge-compatible printer, then you can print pictures simply by connecting the camera and printer together with a USB cable, no PC required.
When you're doing your research, remember to find out what accessories actually come with the printer. Note that almost no photo printers come with connection cords of any sort, so make sure you have a spare USB or parallel cable lying around, or be sure to pick one up when you get your printer. (Parallel cords cost about $4 to $5, and USB cords cost roughly $7 to $20.)
You also need to think about the printer's software. Along with the printer's drivers, many photo printers come with extra software in the form of fun stuff like greeting card templates, photo albums, and image-enhancement tools (for cropping pictures, removing red eye, and so on). Some manufacturers are more generous with their software bundles than others. If you're torn between two similar printers, the software extras may sway your decision.
Remember that your new printer may not come with paper--some models include just a handful of sample sheets. Printing good-quality photos requires photo paper; there's just no way around it. For basic glossy photo paper, expect to pay about $10 for 20 sheets of 8-by-10-inch stock and about $6 for 20 sheets of 4-by-6-inch paper. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to use your printer manufacturer's brand of paper, and to make sure you use a paper type that was designed for the printer. Most ink jet printer makers brand their own papers.
Two Important Standards
During your shopping spree, you'll encounter the terms EXIF (exchangeable image file format) and PIM (Print Image Matching). EXIF and PIM are two standards used by camera and printer manufacturers to help ensure that digital images look good on paper.
EXIF- and PIM-compatible cameras record information about their settings when they take pictures. Printers that support the same standards have software that can read this information--such as whether the flash was used--and apply it to the print job. If your camera is only a year or two old, it probably supports one (or both) of these standards. Having a printer that supports the same standard can take some of the guesswork out of creating beautiful photographic prints.
Kick the Tires
The final test is to see some printers in the flesh. When you visit retail stores, be bold. Lift the printer's cover and look inside--check for card slots and see how many ink cartridges it uses. Play with the lid, the hinges, and the paper trays to make sure they're sturdy. Some stores won't have actual working printers available, but if they do, give them a workout and see how loud they are, just for the fun of it.
If you can't make your own print for comparison, look carefully at the print samples. Of course, these tend to look flawless--you'll be hard-pressed to duplicate their perfection. But look for defects such as blurriness and weird colors, especially in the flesh tones. They could be a subtle hint of much more pronounced irregularities you'll see in your prints. And while you're in the store, take a trip down the paper and ink aisle, and find out what you'll be paying for paper and inks before you buy.