- High-quality continuous tone output at up to A4 size.
- Expensive and slow, both to print and to read files from the built-in SmartMedia and PC Card slots.
Most people automatically think inkjet when you mention 'photo printer', but that's not the only option. The P-400 from Olympus is an A4 dye sublimation photo printer that produces output the untrained eye would assume was a conventional photograph. Of course, this all happens at a price. The machine itself costs £850.21 (ex. VAT) (£999 inc. VAT) and A4 prints work out about £1.90 each. However, considering that a photo lab can charge around £9 for a 10in. by 8in. print, you would soon recoup the cost of the P-400 if you used it a fair amount.
The P-400 is equipped with SmartMedia and PC Card slots, and can produce prints directly from SmartMedia and CompactFlash cards (the latter via an optional PC Card adapter). You can select the images you want, the paper type and the size of print (standard, postcard, photo album, index print, and so on) using a small (32mm square) monochrome LCD panel. You can also select the number of copies you want, and the number of images per page, allowing you to print postcard-size prints, two per A4 page, direct from your removable media. The maximum printable area per page is 258mm by 194 mm, at a resolution of 314dpi.
Unfortunately the LCD screen is not very clear, and lacks backlighting. Also, the P-400 took up to 90 seconds to move between images on our test media, the only sign of activity being a small blinking light as it accesses the card. Since there is not even an audible warning when the card has been read, all this makes direct printing from SmartMedia or CompactFlash a slow and painful process.
The nature of the dye-sublimation process means that you need to use special paper, and this makes the P-400 unsuitable as a general-purpose office printer. Olympus supplies paper in A4, A5 and L formats, as well as an A4 card that can be used to print postcards, two per page.
The P-400 is a four-pass printer, applying yellow, magenta and cyan, followed by a protective clear coat, from a long 'ribbon' cartridge. Loading a new ribbon consists of manually fitting the two rollers containing the flimsy plastic ribbon into the plastic carrier, which is fiddly but not difficult. However, when the ribbon manages to stick to the paper and thoroughly jam the printer, as it did on the sixth print we attempted, the £60 ribbon was completely torn, and only rescued by very careful cutting with a scalpel and rethreading onto the carrier.
Output from the P-400 is excellent and would certainly fool the untrained eye into thinking a print was a photograph, with the weight and feel of the paper adding to this impression. Colour balance is generally good, although the electric green feathers of a local Mallard duck were somewhat muted compared to an HP inkjet. The continuous tone print (as opposed to the dithering of an inkjet) does mean you don't get the slightly grainy appearance that many inkjets produce in light-toned areas. The only downside, other than the up-front cost, is that the P-400 is slow enough when reading large (2MB or more) files from the card reader to make it unusable for anything more than occasional prints. You will generally want to control most printing from a PC, via the parallel or USB interfaces.
The P-400 certainly produces impressive output, but the four-pass dye sublimation process is inherently slow, and as a result the P-400 is not for everyone.