Tech guide: When printers ain't printers

Choosing the right photo printer can mean the difference between crystal clear prints or smudged impressions. Our tech guide lets you know what to look for in a photo printer.
Written by Calvin Siew, Contributor
Tech guide: When printers ain't printers
Choosing the right photo printer can mean the difference between crystal clear prints or smudged impressions. Our tech guide lets you know what to look for in a photo printer.

We've covered the inks, the papers and now, surprise, surprise, we're going to talk about the printers--specifically lasers, inkjets and dye-sublimation units. Fact is fundamental printing technologies, while continually improving, haven't changed much since the first machines rolled out sometime in the 1970s. In the end, you still end up with a box that takes paper and squirts ink all over it--only some do it better.

To illustrate our first point, querying the average Joe on the street about the differences between an inkjet and a laser printer will probably get you a usable answer. He'll know that lasers are typically faster and sharper, while the inkjets are more cost effective. However, ask him to differentiate between a photo printer and an inkjet that outputs photos will probably earn you a bewildered look.

In general, a photo printer is a printer that's capable of producing high-quality borderless prints in standard paper sizes. It can be made on the principal technologies of dye-sublimation or inkjet. Frankly, we don't think people care as long as those boxes churn out great pictures of their loved ones, and at an affordable price. So which and how do you pick?

Epson Stylus Photo RX510

Image quality and the resolution myth
When you decide to invest in a photo printer, you'll realize that such units are more costly than the average, run-of-the-mill inkjet. What you are paying extra for, among other things, are more resolution, stable inks, more sophisticated halftoning algorithms and hence better colour gamut from the combination of the two. It's also good to know that manufacturers tend to put in all the bells and whistles for such units.

Image quality is subjective, but for most people, colour is a good indication along with sharpness. There's nothing that irks an average person more than seeing dots blemishing an image of his face. These dots (or grains) usually result from lower-quality halftoning algorithms. As these algorithms create the illusion of continuous tone images by the different arrangements of collared dots, a printer with sub-par ones will exhibit plenty of unsightly grains and ickier colour gradations. Manufacturers tend to avoid such problems by producing 6-color units and reducing ink droplet sizes to make the dots lesser and smaller.

HP Photosmart 7960

While there's really no measure for sharpness, the general association is resolution. Photo printers typically tout resolutions as high as 5,760 x 1,440dpi (dots per inch). However, don't get caught up with all those numbers. Remember that what you're really after is good continuous tone photos. Dye-sublimation printers tend to sport resolutions beginning at a mere 300 x 300dpi, but because of how they output photos they usually bring out the best reproduction in terms of subtle and continuous tone images.

Buying what you need

Canon's CP-300
Even though photo printers are optimized for outputting pictures, most of them are perfectly capable of performing normal desktop needs as well. In fact, most photo printers do very well in our lab tests for text and graphics. So how do you tell which ones don't?

There are a couple of ways to find out. You could try and gather from the salesman what technology the printer uses--and pray he knows what he's selling--, or you could simply just check out the size of the unit. Any photo printer that's hardly larger than a breadth of letter paper can be ruled out. These typically print photos that are only 4R in size.

HP Photosmart 245

As we've mentioned before, photo printers usually come with a wealth of other features such as media card slots and PictBridge. So take the time to find out which ones you'll need or may require in the future. Most manufacturers have offerings without those additional extras and cost less to boot.

Common misconceptions
The majority of people tend to think that the exercise of printing photos is very expensive. However, prices of consumables (media and ink) have come down plenty within the last year. Right now, you can get D.I.Y. 4R prints for about US$0.29 (~AU$0.39) to US$0.41 (~AU$0.54), which is close to what you'll pay at the shops. However, once you get to the larger 8R photos, you'll find that it's much cheaper to print them yourself, giving you savings of about US$2.95 (~AU$3.90) per sheet.

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