6 Tips for Picking a Photo Printer

Photo printers come in all shapes and sizes. Here's how to figure out which one is right for you.

A Snapshot Printer Offers Simplicity and Fun

Choose a snapshot printer if you want walk-up convenience and simplicity. Snapshot printers do not need a PC to operate; just insert a media card or connect your camera to the printer, and you can select and print photos quickly. These models are small enough to carry with you to a party, and some offer a battery option for truly portable printing at a picnic or other outdoor event.

As a rule, the less-expensive models permit only basic editing such as red-eye removal along with (perhaps) clip art, sepia-toning, or borders. Higher-end models also let you add captions, draw on the image, and print layouts such as albums or calendars, among other things. But don't pay for the extra features unless you really intend to use them (or want to impress the neighbors).

A snapshot printer uses one of two technologies: the commonly known inkjet, or dye sublimation, which involves transferring ink from a continuous roll to paper. We have tested both kinds of printers and recommend that you buy an inkjet-based model. Dye-sublimation technology (which the pictured Canon Selphy CP790, for example, uses) creates a lot of waste but gains no noticeable advantage in image quality.

Displays Make Photo Selection and Editing Easier

Most photo-oriented printers now incorporate a color display so you can view and select photos for printing. They vary in size, but obviously bigger would be better (and more expensive). A few displays also have a touch-sensitive interface, which feels more natural as you navigate on-screen options. The display on this HP Photosmart Premium TouchSmart Web All-in-One Printer, for example, lets you use apps from Google Maps or Snapfish, among others, to print Web content directly.

PC-Free Printing for Instant Gratification

Some photo-oriented inkjet printers and all snapshot printers can print a photo without being connected to a PC. This feature delivers superior convenience and somewhat faster gratification. If you habitually employ editing software to fiddle with your photos before printing them, however, this feature won't mean much to you. The Epson PictureMate Show snapshot printer pictured here can use its display as a digital photo frame.

Ports and Slots Offer Convenience

Look for a model equipped with a media slot that accommodates your camera's storage card type, or that has a PictBridge port for connecting your camera via a cable. Some PictBridge ports also accept USB key drives; the printer's specs should indicate whether it can handle key drives. This Canon Pixma MX860, for example, stashes its media slots behind a door on the front panel.

Pick Your Paper Size

Are you satisfied to print 4-by-6-inch images exculsively, or would you like the option to print images at larger sizes? All snapshot printers can print on 4-by-6-inch photo paper; in addition, HP's models can print on 5-by-7-inch and 4-by-12-inch photo paper. A full-size inkjet printer offers the greatest media flexibility, accommodating paper sizes from 4 by 6 inches to 8 by 10 inches--or even larger if you choose a wide-format model.

HP's Photosmart A646 Compact Photo Printer accepts three paper sizes: 4 by 6 inches, 4 by 12 inches (panoramic), and 5 by 7 inches.

A Full-Size Inkjet Printer Offers More

A full-fledged inkjet printer like the HP Officejet 7000 (shown at left) is your best choice if you'd like to print other things besides photos. All of the inkjet models we've tested can print a good photo on photo paper; the quality of their plain-paper printing varies widely, of course.

Though a typical four-ink model (with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks) can print a good photo on photo paper, you'll get a better range of colors if you choose a model that uses photo inks such as light gray, light cyan, and light magenta. Some inkjets come with a dedicated input tray for loading photo paper. Most likely you'll also want integrated media slots or a PictBridge port to simplify the task of uploading photos for printing.

More About Inkjet and Snapshot Printers

For more information on specific models, check out our Top 5 Inkjet Printers and Top 5 Snapshot Printers charts.

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