Kodak's ESP-7: Print Quality Varies with Paper Type

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Kodak's ESP series All-in-One ink jet printer is all about saving money. Kodak's strategy is to sell replacement ink at a fraction of the cost per page of some competing printers. But does it provide good image quality for photos? And what is the total cost per page when you include paper as well as ink? After all, if you must use expensive high-end photo papers to get the best results, there go your savings.

I describe my findings with Kodak's ESP-7 all-in-one printer below, but you can also see for yourself. The ESP-7 image gallery lets you compare the ESP-7's image quality on a variety of papers with a commercially produced print and the original JPEG file (see my caveats under Testing below before jumping to any conclusions) .

Image quality and performance

As you might expect, the output from a $200 ink jet printer does not compare with what you get from a commercially produced print. Even a 28 cent do-it-yourself print at the Kodak kiosk at Wal-Mart produces noticeably better image quality.

But the ESP-7 comes reasonably close. The prints are slightly lighter, with less rich colors. You get the best image quality from the ESP 7 when you use a premium photo paper (such as Kodak Ultra or Staples Photo Supreme high gloss paper).

Two years ago I tested the ESP-7's predecessor, the EasyShare 5300, in a head-to-head comparison against the HP C5180. At the time I was testing Kodak's claim of lower cost ink. My tests showed that ink costs for photo printing with the Kodak unit, at 7 cents per 4 x 6 print, were about one third of the consumables cost for the HP unit.

Overall the images generated on the ESP-7 are lighter and less vibrant than the same image I printed on the now discontinued HP C5180. However, while the HP generated image was brighter and richer, it wasn't accurate to the original. In the HP versus Kodak image comparison the HP print is not just more vibrant: It's over saturated.

But if the HP image was over saturated, the Kodak image appeared to lean the other direction a bit, and it's the same with the ESP-7. Another reason why the Kodak image colors aren't as vibrant may have to do with Kodak's use of a pigment-based ink process rather than the dye-based ink process used by HP and most other ink jet photo printers. Kodak claims that the pigment-based ink lasts longer without fading than do traditional prints - a claim backed up by print permanence testing results generated by the well regarded Wilhelm Imaging Research. Competitors claim that their print longevity has improved, particularly when you use their specialty photo papers. But again, paper choice can add significantly to cost.

Image quality varied with the choice of photo paper, but not by much - with the exception of plain copy paper. On that medium, image quality was substantially degraded and colors were very dull indeed. Reviewer Susan Silvius at PC World criticized the ESP-7 for its poor image quality on plain paper as well as for its relatively slow printing speeds. I also tried using Kodak's plain paper, called Kodak Ultimate Paper, but the paper costs more and delivered no better results.

PC World testing shows that some competing printers are faster and offer better image quality on plain paper. You'll have to decide how big a deal this is for your needs. When I print snapshots I typically print to an everyday grade photo paper. While other printers may do a better job printing photos on plain paper, frankly, it's not even close to what you get on paper designed for photos.

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