The Print Shop: Should You Buy a Multifunction Printer for Photos?

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Inkjet multifunction printers are making a serious run at printing photos. In years past, manufacturers pushing similar devices have seemed unsure whether the MFPs were a better fit for the home or the office, but new multifunctions are positioned to compete head-on with stand-alone photo printers.

It makes sense to point the products that way since the digital photography market is immense. But how well do these devices print photographs?

In our tests for the PC World's October 2004 issue, inkjet MFPs generally delivered mixed results. This makes the emphasis on photographs--the most challenging of things to print--surprising. However, someone wants these devices: New inkjet MFPs are expected to outsell traditional photo printers this year for the first time, according to a report from IDC, a research firm (and an IDG company, like PC World).

So I expect more MFPs with photo-centric features to be announced soon. But will new models be improved enough to make them worth considering over a dedicated photo printer?

Head-to-Head Testing

To check the status quo, I printed a few glossy photos on a recently released Canon MFP and on a Canon photo printer: Canon's Pixma MP780 Photo All-In-One came out in September and costs $300; Canon's Pixma iP4000 photo printer, which we reviewed in November, costs $150.

Canon Pixma MP780 Photo All-In-One

The MP780 uses the same inks as the iP4000 dedicated photo printer; and, like that printer, it has 1856 nozzles in its print head and can print droplets as small as 2 picoliters. So you might expect its photos to look as good as those from the iP4000. The good news is, you'd be mostly right.

The MP780 printed photos with vibrant colors and sharp details. The differences between its photos and those printed by the iP4000 were subtle. Pixels were more noticeable in the MP780's prints, so photos with a blue sky and other flat surfaces didn't look quite as smooth. The differences were minor, though; overall, I was very impressed.

However, the MP780 did appear to have a slight problem feeding 4-by-6-inch paper--something we've also seen with some photo printers--which produced some vertical banding near the trailing edge of the paper. This banding didn't show up when the same image was printed on letter-size paper, however.

Mixed Results

If other MFPs performed similarly, you wouldn't give up much in photo quality for the convenience of a multitalented machine.

Still, my overall impression was mixed. I tried some of the MP780's other functions and found that copies and scans of photos weren't nearly of the same caliber as the prints I made from digital files. Copies had a washed-out look, as did the prints I made from a scan, lacking both the strong color and sharp details of the original. As for copying text documents, the MP780 did a decent job; though as you'd expect from an inkjet, the letters looked a little rough around the edges. The same was true when printing these documents from files: The MP780's text quality just isn't the stuff of serious business correspondence.

Making a wise MFP buying decision centered around photographs still depends on understanding the trade-offs you face, just as it did when the purpose of the purchase was for dealing with office documents. These devices definitely save space on your desk. But spending $300 on an MFP that prints high-quality photos may be worthwhile only if your copy and scan needs are simple.

Take Note

An MFP with an Office Slant: I recently took a look at Lexmark's X7170, which the company calls an "office device." Read "Lexmark MFP Falls Short on Copy Quality" about its impressive speeds but disappointing quality.

Everybody Loves Ink: Who's not selling ink cartridges these days? This month Staples plans to launch a nationwide campaign for its inkjet cartridges, including new cartridges for some Canon and Epson printers. Also joining the third-party ink fray is Paper Mate, which began rolling out its AccuSharp inkjet cartridges in January.

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