Sunday, May 06, 2007

Improving my presentation - Part 4: Choosing a Wide Format Printer

In part 1, part 2, and part 3, I talked about deciding on print sizes, evaluating online print services, and the advantages of purchasing a wide format pigment printer. Now I'll discuss what printer I chose to buy and why.

In choosing a wide format printer, there is a huge range of printers to consider. However, with a few requirements, we can narrow the field dramatically.

Pigment Based
First, the printer has to be pigment based, not dye based. While some companies brag about long lasting, fade resistant dyes, I feel a lot better with a pigment ink. Some of those dyes only get their long lasting ability by being used on a specific line of paper, and perform drastically worse on other papers. With pigments, sure there are certain papers that they may perform terribly on, but as a general rule pigments are much longer lasting over a much wider variety of paper. This is important, as I may want to experiment with different types of paper/media (glossy, matte, velvet, metallic, watercolor, canvas, etc)

Minimum 16" Print Width
There are tons of 13"x19" printers out on the market, but I already had the ability to get cheap 12"x18" prints. 13"x19" is pretty much a negligible improvement. My plan for new prints was to be 16" on the small dimension, so I'll use that as the start point.

Must Be Affordable
You can debate the meaning of will be different for each person. For me, the absolute maximum total investment had to be $2000. Even at that cost, that is REALLY stretching my budget. $1500 was a much more desirable goal, though I didn't expect to reach that low, so $2000 seemed to be more realistic.

Now, even with just those 3 qualifiers, the field is narrowed down to just a few options.

HP is the easiest. Most of their printers are dye based, and almost all of their pigment printers are over $3000. The only printer left is the B9180, and it's maximum print width is 13". Right off the bat, HP is completely eliminated (which is fine, since I have issues with the company, based on several past experiences and also based on some of their business philosophy).

Canon is the second easiest. They too have have a history of being only a dye-based manufacturer. For the last couple years they have been experimenting with mixed dye/pigment systems (pigment black with dye colors). However in the last year or so they have updated the imagePrograph series of printers to be fully pigment based. However, only one printer in this line comes even close to the $2000 price. The iPF 5000 is able to print 17" wide. We have our first contender

Epson is the next up. They are probably the company best known for pigment based inks. They pretty much pioneered the consumer pigment printer industry and had a several year headstart on everyone else. While they have a broad line of printers, only 2 of their current models fit all 3 requirements. The Stylus Pro 3800 and 4800 are both 17" wide pigment printers for under $2000.

And with that, we end up with 3 competitors. Of course, there may be printers from other manufacturer that fit the bill, but I want to stick with a well known brand for which supplies are readily available.

Canon iPF5000 vs Epson 3800 vs Epson 4800

With these 3 printers chosen as our final contenders, it's to to start comparing features.

Print Quality
This is one of the biggest factors when choosing a printer, but it turns out to be a non-issue. The 4800 is excellent. In fact, beyond excellent. It's hard to imagine much better, yet the 3800 and iPF5000 somehow did it. The 2 are slightly better than the 4800, but nearly equal to each other. The iPF5000 is a little better with shadow detail and some parts of the color gamut, while the 3800 and 4800 are each better with different parts of the color gamut. If I were grading the printers, then all 3 get an A+. Thus print quality is pretty much a non issue.

Maximum Print Length
First up is long printing. My absolute requirement is to print 28" long, but longer would be better. I've got a nice panorama from Mt. St. Helens I've always wanted to be able to print. It's 6 times wider than tall. That means at 17" tall, I could print it over 8 feet wide. Of course, at that size, framing and glass become an issues, but that's no concern right we're focused on printers.

So back to length. The Epson 3800 has a maximum length of 37". OK, so that's not enough to handle Mt. St. Helens (a 3 foot wide but only 6 inch tall panorama isn't all that impressive), but printing that photo was more of a dream than a requirement. In comparison, the iPF5000 can print up to 59 feet long. I can't imagine what I'd do that size. The Epson goes one better, with no print length limitation. Your only limitation is what the software can handle and how big a roll of paper you can find.

Although technically the 4800 is better than the iPF5000, realistically they are even (if I can't figure out why I'd need 59 feet, then 60+ doesn't really seem to be any more useful). For grades, the 3800 gets a B while the iPF5000 and 4800 both get an A+.

Roll Printing
When we also consider length, a real advantage would be to have a roll feader, so that I don't have to manually unroll, cut, and then hand feed the paper through the single sheet feed. The 3800 has no roll feed option. The 4800 includes a roll feed.

The iPF5000 has an optional motorized roll feeder that includes some interesting features. Since it's motor driven, it's easier to load and unload the paper. The printer can track the length remaining on the roll. When you go to unload it, it can print a bar code and text on the end indicating the paper type and how much is left on the roll. When you reload the paper, the roll feeder reads the bar code and continues counting where it left off. Finally, with the iPF5000, you can leave cut sheet paper in the main paper tray while using the roll feeder (unlike the 4800).

For the roll feed category, the 3800 gets an E, the 4800 an A-, and the iPF5000 an A+.

Ink Cost
Cost is an important one. Ink costs for these printers range from $0.40/ml to $0.70/ml, with the 4800 being the best and the 3800 being the worst. Also to take into account is the ink consumption. The iPF5000 uses about 1ml/sq ft, while the 4800 uses about 2ml/sq ft. I couldn't find consumption figures for the 3800, but being that it uses the same inks and roughly the same technology as the 4800, I'm assuming about the same (2ml/sq ft). This makes the iPF5000 best (about $0.55/sq ft), the 4800 second (about $0.80/sq ft) and the 3800 worst (about $1.40/sq ft). On ink costs, I'll grade them iPF5000=A, 4800=A-, 3800=B

Head Clogging
It has been reported by many that the Epson 4800 has issues with head clogging, and resolving this consumes a fair bit of ink. The 3800 is reportedly better, but still has a little problem. The iPF5000, on the other hand, has had pretty much no reports of clogging issues. This may be due to the way canon printer deals with it. Every day it powers up and runs a very quick cleaning cycle. In addition, should a clog actually occur, the printer can detect it and remap its printing algorithm to use non-clogged nozzles. I'll give the iPF5000 and A+, the 3800 a B+, and the 4800 a B-.

Ink Waste
In relation to head clogging, the iPF5000 wastes the least ink, but there is a much bigger issue here. The iPF5000 has all cartridges installed at the same time. This means you don't need to switch ink cartridges when swapping between glossy and matte paper (which require different black inks). With the 3800, you need to swap out cartridges, which requires the printer to purge the black ink line. This wastes about $1 worth of ink each time you switch (and then another $1 to switch back). Not bad, but not perfect. The 4800, on the other hand, is an abomination of ink waste. It has the same swapping issue as the 3800, but wastes MUCH more ink...about $40 worth on each switch. I'll give the iPF5000 and A+, the 3800 a B, and the 4800 a D.

Print Longevity/Durability
In terms of longevity, the Epson K3 inks (used by both these printers) has been rated fade resistant for about 100 years for color and 200 years for black+white. The Canon has been rated for about 95 in color, but no black+white rating has yet been given. It's possible it could be as good as the Epson, but at the moment, we don't yet know (but it wont be any less than its 95 year color rating). However, for practical purposes, we can call this a draw.

In terms of durability, there is 1 issue with the canon inks. There have been reports that with certain papers, it seems that certain colors will smudge if you touch it with a wet finger. Thats kind of unfortunate, but isn't a major issue. As it is, I try to touch the prints as little as possible, and when I do, I certainly don't do it with wet fingers.

Because of the smudging, I'll knock the iPF5000 down a bit and give it an A-, while the 3800/4800 get an A+.

Epson gets a lot of credit here. Reports are that their service is top notch, the documentation good, and the warranty on all parts very reasonable. Canon, on the other hand, has a lot to be desired in this area. The documentation for the iPF5000 is quite poor (though to make up for it, the user community has setup an incredible website to deal with the iPF5000). The warranty on ink cartridges and print heads is pathetic (pretty much nonexistant), although there are reports that this is starting to be dealt with and that Canon may be changing their stance here. I'll give the 3800 and 4800 an A+, while the iPF5000 gets a well deserved D.

Minimum Paper Size
A small factor, but a factor none the less. The iPF5000 and the 4800 cannot print on any paper smaller than 8x10. Thats a bit disappointing for anyone that wants to print 4x6's (which I use on my greeting cards). The 3800, on the other hand, can print on anything down the 4x6. This earns the 3800 an A+, while the 4800 and iPF5000 get a A-.

Misc Other Factors
Other factors which may be of concern for others (but weren't for me) are things like weight (the 4800 and iPF5000 are about 100 lbs) size (the 4800 is large, the iPF5000 is a monster), print speed (the iPF5000 is fast, the 3800 about half as fast, and the 4800 about 1/3 as fast), noise (the 3 are about equal), and tons of other small details.

Also, while I said affordability was a concern for me in that it had to fall within my budget, as long as it fit within my budget, the actual price wasn't an issue. As far as which one is better, I can't say. Based on MSRP the 3800 is best, and the 4800 and iPF5000 are about tied. In real life, you can find the printers much cheaper. However, I can't really say which ones are cheaper, as I didn't bother wasting time to search for the best price until after I had made my decision. And that decsion is.....

The Canon iPF5000 Wins
While there are certainly areas where the Epson printers win out, overall the Canon seemed like a much better option to me. The only major concern for me were the warranty issues on the cartridges and print heads. The cartridges aren't so bad, since (as I mentioned) I'm hearing they are starting to deal with it. The print heads, on the other hand, are a major worry. They run $600 each (the printer has 2 of them) and they are treated as consumables (no warranty). However, the reassuring part of this is, in the year since the printer was released, I haven't heard of any print head failure horror stories. So, while it is an issue in theory, in practice it hasn't been.

So, what price did I settle for? Well, the printer lists for $1945+ another $250 for the roll feeder. As I said, MSRP is way more than you usually pay. I had been looking around, and I was expecting (and prepared) to fork over the $1700 for the printer + $200 for the roll feader, which is the minimum price I saw everyone selling for. In addition, shipping on this monster of a printer runs about $100.

However, in the several hours before I ordred, doing some last minute research, I came across the iPF5000 wiki I mentioned earlier. In the forums, people were discussing what retailers provided good support. In the process, there were 4 retailers I had never heard of before. I looked at all 4, and they all blew the $2000 I was expecting to pay right out of the water. It turns out they were all selling below $1500. The best deal I found was at ColorHQ. They were selling the iPF5000 for $1295, the roll feeder for $99 (if bought with the printer) and offered free shipping. My total outlay of cash was UNDER $1400.

That extra couple of hours of research saved me about $600, and very quickly swayed my thinking from "this is a lot of money...I hope this is the right move" to "I'm definitely doing the right thing".

I'm still waiting for the printer to arrive. After I get it, and get to try it out, I'll post my thoughts here (in a separate post, apart from this multi-part series).

So, after a rather long discussion, that wraps up the topic of printing. In part 5, I'll turn the topic to something entirely different.

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