Kodak Announces New Multifunction Inkjet Printers

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Though Kodak has recently released several 4-by-6-inch snapshot printers (the EasyShare Photo Printer 500, for example), the company is now set to launch its first full-size printers in roughly five years.

The $150 EasyShare 5100 All-in-One and $200 EasyShare 5300 All-in-One printers are due in early March, while the $300 EasyShare 5500 All-in-One (equipped with 100-sheet memory, 33.6-kbps fax capability, and 35-sheet legal-size automatic document feeder) is slated to appear in May.

The Kodak EasyShare 5100 All-in-One
Each has two USB ports to print directly from a USB thumb drive or digital camera. To further simplify printing without a PC, the EasyShare 5300 and 5500 also have built-in media card readers and LCD displays (3 inches and 2.4 inches, respectively).

For paper handling, each model in the EasyShare All-in-One (or AiO) line has a 100-sheet input tray, a 20-sheet 4-by-6-inch photo-paper feeder, and a 50-sheet output tray. The duplex attachment (for two-sided printing) bundled with the EasyShare 5300 will be an optional extra for the other two models.

The Kodak EasyShare 5300 All-in-One
Another option--a Bluetooth 2.0 attachment--will enable wireless printing from Bluetooth-equipped notebooks, PCs, camera phones, and digital cameras. All models will feature the same printing speeds and letter-size CCD scanner for copying; they will also support the Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Mac OS X operating systems.

Besides being available directly from Kodak itself, units in North America will be sold exclusively through consumer electronics retail giant Best Buy. (Kodak also plans to release the printers in certain European countries in May and in Australia and New Zealand later this year.)

Why It's Taken So Long

I recently met with Eastman Kodak to discuss the announcement and asked Bob Ohlweiler, marketing manager for inkjet systems, why the company had waited until now to produce full-size inkjet printers again.

The Kodak EasyShare 5500 All-in-One
His reply: "Inkjet photo printing at home has only recently gone mainstream with consumers. Our entry into the home inkjet printing market makes a truly unique contribution by solving the three key problems with inkjet printing: high ink prices, photos that don't hold up to lab quality standards, and ease of use."

Here's how the company plans to address these issues.

Ink Cartridges and Pricing

Each new EasyShare AiO printer uses the same dual-cartridge system: one black and one five-ink color tank. The color cartridge features true photo black, cyan, magenta, yellow, and a protective ink designed to cover clear spaces on a print to provide uniform gloss and improved stain protection. Interestingly, the colors, and not just the black, are all pigment-based (as opposed to dye-based); pigments generally produce darker text and more vibrant and longer-lasting photos. A full-capacity color cartridge (which will retail for $15) and full-capacity black cartridge ($10 at retail) will be included with each printer.

Those replacement cartridge costs are quite competitive, and Kodak will also aggressively seek to lower the cost per photo by selling two types of value packs. Along with a full-capacity color cartridge, the $18 Standard pack will include 180 sheets of standard 4-by-6-inch glossy paper (for a cost per photo of 10 cents), while the $20 Premium photo pack provides 135 sheets of slightly thicker 4-by-6-inch glossy paper (for a cost per photo of 15 cents).

To put that into context, the current industry average cost per photo is about 25 cents. For instance, HP's $36 02 Series 150-sheet Photo Value Pack includes the six custom cartridges required by models such as its full-size PhotoSmart D7160 printer, for a per-photo cost of around 24 cents. Canon says that its CL41/CL52 ink tanks combined with 50 sheets of Canon Photo Paper Glossy produce photos at a cost of about 28 cents each. For its compact P350 Photo printer, Lexmark's $29, 100-sheet 4 X 6" PerfectFinish Photo Printing Kit includes a #45 color cartridge and produces photos for about 29 cents each. Similarly, Epson's $38 PictureMate 200-Series Print Pack produces 150 glossy 4-by-6 prints for about 25 cents each.

With Kodak's system, per-photo costs would rise that high only if you use its top-of-the-line, thicker, and more porous Ultra Premium paper. This paper is sold only on its own, in packs of 100, for $21. You'd need to buy the $15 color cartridge separately, which, on Ultra Premium Paper, produces 105 4-by-6 photos. Bottom line: Printing on Kodak's Ultra Premium Paper costs 35 cents per photo, while its value packs produce prints for 10 or 15 cents each--half the industry average.

For text, Kodak claims the individually available black cartridge can produce about 350 pages of normal mode text on a letter page (based on industry-standard 5 percent coverage). That comes to roughly 3 cents per page for ink costs alone.

Print Quality and Speed

When I met with Kodak to check out these new models, I wasn't able to use my own image files, but the test prints we produced together--mostly borderless 4-by-6-inch photos--had bright, natural colors. Because the glossy photo paper Kodak will be offering is porous, it also dries quite quickly, which keeps prints from sticking together on an output tray. Kodak also claims that its pigment inks produce photos that won't fade for 100 years.

Overall, the photos the new EasyShare AiO printers produced during my briefing looked quite strong. (I intend to test a unit, compare its output against that of other models, and report these findings to you as soon as I can.)

Though final independent tests remain, Kodak seems confident. Susan Tousi, Kodak's research and development manager for Inkjet Systems, claims that each model "produces Kodak Lab-quality photos that are equal or higher in quality to traditional silver-halide prints."

Tousi also explains that each new model uses the same print engine and the same permanent print head a user installs once for the life of the printer. The print head produces prints in 6.5-picoliter droplets for the black, yellow, and protective inks, and 2.7 picoliter droplets for the remaining colors.

The small size of the color droplets reduces the need for light cyan and light magenta inks, which many other photo printers employ to help create smooth color transitions. However, rivals such as Canon have used a combination of 1-picoliter droplet sizes and light/photo cyan and magenta inks in a single printer before. Our current second-ranked multifunction inkjet printer, Canon's $400 MP960, is one example.

The print head also uses a large number of ink nozzles--3840--which makes for increased printing times. Kodak claims its AiO models can print 32 pages of draft-mode text on plain paper per minute, and deliver a 4-by-6-inch borderless photo (at default maximum settings) in 28 seconds.

Ease of Use

To simplify printing for users, the EasyShare AiO models include a sensor to read a watermarked code on the back of Kodak's paper and automatically enter the best print mode. Each model also has a top-side detector to determine if a sheet is plain paper or glossy, and adjust settings accordingly.

However, the downside to this automated help--as some may consider it--is that Kodak's software drivers won't allow you to choose a printer quality mode yourself. When I pointed that out to the Kodak team, they explained that the company had spent a lot of time working on how to best put a print down, and were confident that most everyday users wouldn't mind.

In the weeks to come, look for a hands-on evaluation of one or more Kodak EasyShare All-in-One printers on PC World's Printer Info Center.

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