Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Plugged In: Printers — A big decision for small businesses

Large-format printers are a breed apart. They’re physically larger, with a higher initial purchase price but lower ink costs, and can produce very high-quality prints at least 13-by-19 or larger.

All affordable large-format printers, even those designed for professionals like engineers and graphic designers, are based upon inkjet technology.

Only a few vendors make consumer-grade, large-format printers. Should you consider a large-format printer? A surprisingly large number of businesses might find one useful, even if you don’t need photographic-quality printing.

For example, most real property documents, such as aerial photos, plats and surveys, and most construction plans are intended to be printed at 11-by-17 or larger, and smaller copies are hard to read and use.

Most home and small-business printers can print letter-sized documents and photographs with varying degrees of quality. Such printers are usually relatively inexpensive to purchase but have very high ink costs per print.

For the routine printing needs of a small business, an inexpensive laser printer makes the most sense. Laser printers are faster and less expensive per page compared to low-end inkjet printers, but laser printers have two glaring weaknesses.

Even fairly expensive laser printers are limited to prints not wider than standard 8.5-inch-width letter and legal paper, although an office store like Soldotna’s UPS store can often print the occasional larger image, for a price. Secondly, laser printers do not do a very good job printing color images, especially photographs.

If you want to make high-quality, large, color images at home or in your business, then you’ll need a large-format printer.

There are several good models currently offered in the $200 to $800 range. Unfortunately, since the bankruptcy of CompUSA last year, you can’t find any of these products on Southcentral store shelves for immediate purchase. You’ll need to buy them from a reliable Internet vendor like www.amazon.com or www.newegg.com.

Consumer-grade large format printers usually make prints up to 13-by-19. Somewhat more expensive printers can use 17- or 18-inch-wide paper while professional models can handle 24-inch or wider rolls of high-end paper.

Only three vendors, HP, Canon and Epson, sell readily available, consumer-grade, large-format printers. All of them produce quality systems but the right choice depends upon your needs.

HP pioneered several of the most important printing technologies, including laser printing and photo-grade inkjets. For many years, HP basically owned the market for business printers.

Epson focused upon very high-quality photographic printing. Canon put out excellent models in both of these areas but tended to be underappreciated.

There are a few basic printing concepts that are useful in determining which printer is best for you. Generally, printers with a larger number of separate ink colors produce more natural-looking photographs and detailed color images.

At least six different ink colors, including light magenta and light cyan, are needed for high-quality results. Printers that use larger (27-milliliter or more) separate cartridges for each color are much more economical to use. If you want to make high-grade, black-and-white prints for exhibition, then you’ll need a printer with at least two, preferably three or four, shades of black, gray, light gray, and light, light gray. Almost all printers now use the USB 2.0 computer interface.

Paper handling is important, too, because paper jams and scratched prints are a true annoyance. Printers with a straight-through rear paper feed, like that used by Canon and Epson, are usually more reliable. HP’s tray and folded paper path approach is usually more troublesome when making larger prints and photographs.

Using rolls of paper with an automatic roll feeder attached to the printer is much more reliable and far more economical in the long run, sometimes saving as much as 75 percent to 80 percent in paper costs.

There are two general types of high-grade printing inks: dye-based and pigment-based. Pigment inkjets are generally usable on many different brands of photo and fine art paper and are considered to be less prone to fading.

Dye inkjets are a slightly older technology that often can provide more brilliant colors but generally must be used with certain types of paper specified by the printer’s manufacturer. Dye-ink prints are more vulnerable to moisture damage and thus must be handled with greater care. Except for HP’s archivally rated Vivera inks, dye-ink images are not very resistant to fading over the years.

However, in comparison, traditional color prints made from film usually fade more quickly than dye inks.

For consistent and economical results, the entire printing system from monitor through printer should be regularly checked, calibrated and “color managed” so that what you see on the monitor is what you get on the print. Printers should be used, or at least cleaned and calibrated, regularly to avoid problems.

Be sure that you know what you’re getting into with a larger-format printer. They’re big, heavy and need a lot of tabletop space, with sufficient room to allow top loading of 19-inch or larger cut paper. Getting consistently high-quality prints and good economy from large-format printers will require some study and effort on your part.

Unlike cameras, whose models usually change from year to year, specific printer models are usually marketed without significant changes for two to four years. High-grade inkjet printing is a fairly mature technology and improvements from model to model are usually incremental, rather than revolutionary.

Be careful when purchasing: The real cost for these printers is in the ink and many of them ship with low-capacity, quickly exhausted “starter” cartridges. Before you know it, you’ll be spending another few hundred dollars for real ink cartridges. Such practices are something of a scam that vendors occasionally do with some large-format printers.

The following models are among the more common large-format printers, warts and all. All prices were current on Amazon.com as of March 2. There were no new printers of consequence introduced at the annual photo marketing show, PMA, last week, so printers listed here should be current through at least early summer. There is no one perfect choice, so shop carefully and know your own needs and technical limitations. Replacement ink sets for most printers listed here can be ordered through Stub’s Office Supply in Soldotna.

  • Canon Pixma 9000 ($410). This is an eight-dye ink printer that is excellent for color photos up to 13-by-19. Because it does not have a second gray cartridge, it’s less useful for exhibition-grade, black-and-white prints. I own the predecessor to this model and it has been fast, reliable and easy to use, so long as you use Canon’s own printer software to control the look of final output. This would be an excellent choice for most users. My only complaint is that Canon’s small ink cartridges increase the price per print.
  • Canon Pixma Pro9500 ($760). The Pixma Pro 9500 is a 10-pigment ink, 13-by-19 printer that includes several levels of black. This printer has been criticized for very slow output speed but the output is very nice. Given the choice in this price range, though, I would get the Epson 2880, especially if doing a lot of black and white.

  • Epson Stylus Photo 1400 ($214). This is the least-expensive, large-format, 13-by-19 printer from a major vendor. It uses six dye inks and is a good choice for a low-cost, general-use business and photo large-format printer for color images. It is not intended to print exhibit-grade, black-and-white images. Low-capacity ink cartridges significantly increase the cost per page.
  • Epson Stylus R1900 ($549). The R1900 is a 13-by-19 printer using seven pigment inks plus a gloss optimizer. It’s basically designed to produce high-quality, glossy photos and includes a manual roll feed that allows you to print longer panoramic photos while reducing your paper costs. Similar to the Epson 1400, the R1900 does not have an intermediate gray level ink, reducing its suitability for fine art and black-and-white photos. Low-capacity ink cartridges significantly increase the cost per page.
  • Epson Stylus Pro 2880 ($735) includes the full Epson K3 eight-pigment photo ink set, including three levels of black and gray. Its output is considered to be the best of any printer under $1,000. If you need to do occasional 13-by-19, exhibit-grade photos, including black-and-white images, then this is the printer for you. However, it has been criticized because its expensive, low-capacity ink cartridges increase the cost per page.
  • Epson Stylus Pro 3800 ($1,095) is a 17-by- 22 printer that, although a 3-year-old design, is still considered to be the best all-around fine art printer in its size and price range. The 3800 is a large printer using much more economical, high-capacity ink sets that include three levels of black/gray for optimum black-and-white printing. Unfortunately, it does not have a roll feed option but paper handling is considered to be quite good. Output quality is excellent, but this is really intended as a high-quality, fine-art printer rather, than a production business machine.

  • HP 8350 ($290) is HP’s least expensive, 13-by-19 large-format printer that includes a photo gray option for better black-and-white images but it has mixed customer reviews.
  • HP B8550 ($304) This printers uses five-dye inks, prints up to 13-by-19, and has decent customer reviews. Ink is a little less expensive than equivalent Canon and Epson printers.
  • HP B8850 ($472) is a 13-by-19 printer that uses eight-pigment inks and includes a straight rear paper path, although HP does not include the very useful fold-down rear paper loading trays included with the Canon printers. This is a somewhat newer, slightly stripped-down version of the highly regarded HP B9180 professional printer. It has received excellent reviews and would be a very good choice for an amateur photographer intending to print occasional exhibit-quality photos. It uses higher-capacity ink cartridges for better economy.
  • HP B9180 ($594) is another 13-by-19 printer quite similar to the B8850 but includes an LCD panel and network connection. This is also a highly regarded choice for a semiprofessional photographer, with excellent quality color and black-and-white output, but the B9180’s paper handling has been criticized on occasion.
  • HP DesignJet 90 (Q6656A, under $1,000, Q6656B with roll feed, list $1,150) is an interesting printer that includes six long-life, Vivera dye inks. This is the least expensive printer for 18-inch wide paper. I have the 24-inch DesignJet 130 version with roll feed. If you get the roll feed version and use HP’s Professional Plus papers, you will find this to be a very economical 18-inch-wide printer that’s able to produce exhibition-grade color images with a rated 82-year archival life. Because it does not include a second black/gray ink, it is not as useful for black-and-white images.
  • DJ 110Plus, ($995). This printer uses four Vivera dye inks and prints up to 24 inches wide. It’s useful for making big posters and signs in a business setting, but not for high-quality work. It uses economical, high-capacity ink cartridges.
  • DJ 130 ($1,150 but also get $450 roll feed for best reliability and economy). I use this 24-inch printer regularly to make very high-color images for exhibit. In fact, I used it so regularly that I finally wore one out. It’s the DesignJet 90’s big brother and the most economical all-around large-format choice for the color photographer or business requiring high-quality color images up to 24 inches wide. Because it does not include a second gray/black ink, black-and-white image quality is decent but not spectacular. It uses economical, high-capacity ink cartridges.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.


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Sweet Fairy said...

Great post with nice details. Can i print Plastic cards by any laser printer?

Nadia Yaseen said...

Nice and informative blog.It is very useful.Great post.Is this printer best for Plastic card printing?