Photo Printers: The Price of Great Pictures

The Sony DPP-EX50 (left) and HP Photosmart 8450
Artwork: Marc Simon
Photo printers have greatly improved their print quality over the past several years, as most of the printers we've seen attest. They also cost less today than when they first appeared: The models in this roundup range in price from $150 to $399. But the ink and paper they use still tend to cost an arm and a leg. Most people purchase a photo printer in order to avoid the effort of going to an old-fashioned photo mart. However, in our tests of 11 printers--7 full-size desktop models and 4 smaller snapshot units--most made the photo mart and online photo printing services look like good deals.

The three major chains we surveyed (Ritz, Walgreen's, and Target) charge an average of 28 cents per print, with in-store pickup. To make 20 prints, the four online outlets we looked at (Ofoto, Snapfish, Shutterfly, and Yahoo Photos) charge an average of 35 cents each print, including shipping. In contrast, full-size photo printers averaged 66 cents per print and snapshot printers averaged 55 cents each, though costs varied widely, as detailed in the chart appearing in "Show Me the Money: How Ink and Paper Costs Add Up."

The Imaging Products Lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology tested ink and paper consumption for each inkjet printer on behalf of PC World. In IPL's tests, the Epson PictureMate was by far the cheapest at 23 cents per 4-by-6-inch print. The next cheapest option, the Dell Photo Printer 540, costs 39 cents per print--but to reach that cost, you must buy a $47 bundle of three print packs. Of the full-size printers, the most reasonable was the Canon Pixma IP4000R, at 46 cents per print. The Lexmark P915, on the other hand, will put a serious hole in your wallet: It used up 97 cents' worth of ink and paper per snapshot--and that was with its high-yield cartridges installed.

Print speeds also run the gamut from perky to poky. In speed tests conducted by the PC World Test Center, Canon's Pixma IP8500 printed 4-by-6-inch snapshots faster than any other printer--averaging just 39 seconds--but its text speed lagged. The Epson models were particularly slow at printing text documents, while the Lexmark P915 turned in a blistering 7.4 pages per minute.

Most of the inkjet printers here use dye-based inks, which are absorbed into the paper, whereas models that use pigment-based inks bond the inks to the surface of the paper. The one model that uses only pigment-based inks is the Epson Stylus Photo R800, but the two Canon printers and the Lexmark P915 use pigment-based black ink only for printing text.

Ports and Paper Options

Almost all of the printers offer a way to print photos without the help of a PC. Every printer except the Epson R800 has a direct-print port that lets you print from a compatible digital camera. Most models also have slots that read flash media cards; only the two Canons and the Epson R800 lack them. And most of the printers have an LCD screen for previewing your images and making simple edits, such as cropping and removing red-eye.

Having a photo printer with a built-in media card reader can also be convenient for uploading images to your PC. When you insert the media card from your camera, it shows up in Windows as a removable disk drive. Several models, including those from Dell and HP, also let you print images from a USB flash drive plugged into their direct-print port. The Epson Stylus Photo R320 is the ultimate in connectivity, letting you hook up a wide variety of USB devices, such as Zip drives and CD burners, for archiving your images.

Note: The reviews that follow have been expanded from our print article; we've also added a new section on making panoramic photos.

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