First Look

Pandigital Portable Printer Uses Heat, Not Ink, for Photos

At a Glance
  • Pandigital Portable Printer

The Pandigital Portable Printer ($130, price as of 3/10/2010) is a snapshot printer that uses direct thermal printing technology, similar to a fax machine or a receipt printer, but its output is in color rather than in chunky black letters. The prospect of ink-free color printing is intriguing, but this compact printer is otherwise unremarkable. It prints very slowly, its photos are mediocre in quality, and its special paper is expensive.

Pandigital Portable Printer
The Portable Printer is a small, white, slender box. On the right side is a bay for inserting the ten-sheet paper cartridge. Paper exits to the left of the machine, so you'll need more than 6 inches of clearance on that side.

This device is the first snapshot-size printer to use Polaroid's Zink technology along with special 4-by-6-inch paper that contains layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow dye crystals. Heat causes the dyes to create full-color images. Although you don't buy ink for this device, the paper alone is no less expensive than the ink-and-paper combinations for competing snapshot printers. My online shopping showed an average cost of 37 cents per print, compared with 25 cents per print for the Epson PictureMate Charm and 34 cents per print for the HP Photosmart A646.

Loading the paper is harder than it should be. You have to load the special "Smartsheet" page at the bottom of your paper stack; this thick, dark-blue sheet cleans and calibrates the thermal printhead. Unfortunately, the instructions for loading the Smartsheet and paper are unclear in the setup guide and only somewhat better in the user guide. You could try to figure it out yourself from the markings on the tray; but since they're just stamped into the light plastic, they're practically unreadable.

The printer's features are very limited. You manage the 1.44-inch color LCD on the top via a few simple buttons. You can view one photo at a time on the LCD and choose to print one, two, or four of the same image per sheet. On the PC, a driver lets you select the number of copies (which you can also do from the LCD), scale from 20 percent to 100 percent, and change the level of brightness, contrast, or color saturation using rough increments of 'low', 'normal', and 'high'. You can also type a title for a photo, which the unit will print in colored text on the top of the image.

We're hoping to put the Portable Printer through formal tests in the near future. In my hands-on tests, the Portable Printer's photos weren't worth the wait. And I did wait--an average of 78 seconds per print, in fact. The Canon dye-sublimation printers we've tested are also very slow, but two inkjet-based models that cost about the same are faster: The Epson PictureMate Charm averaged just 44 seconds per print, and the HP Photosmart A646 took about 55 seconds per print.

The prints themselves showed certain, consistent flaws regardless of the subject matter: a washed-out look, a lack of subtlety in very dark areas, and an odd blue-green tinge around the edges, which was especially noticeable in photos with lighter backgrounds. (Pandigital says that the last issue is a firmware problem, and that a fix is in the works.) Every other snapshot printer we've tested created better-looking photos than this model.

The Pandigital Portable Printer showcases an intriguing technology. Unfortunately it does not compete well with similarly priced inkjet or dye-sublimation products.

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At a Glance
  • Pandigital Portable Printer

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