Think Ink!

Published Date
01 - Apr - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Apr - 2007
Think Ink!

Inkjets offer the binary benefits of unmatched quality and value, especially for home users. With very few players in the market, competition is fierce. Read on to find out how our comparison tests brought out the best performers

Of all the technologies that evolve every year, one of the last products you’d expect to see any changes in are good old inkjet printers. We’ve seen breakthroughs in processor technology, the world of graphics has had its share of innovations as well... the list is too long to mention here! So like CRT monitors, you’d probably expect inkjet printing as a technology to stagnate as well… right? After all, what could change? Definitely not the number of colours used. Nor the number of ink tanks.

Surprise! Inkjet printing as a technology has evolved, even over the past year, since our last test. While these changes may not be pathbreaking, there are constant advances being made in printing technologies as a whole—whether they are advances in dyes and pigments used in inks, or print-head technology. Seeing is believing, and last year’s test prints compared to this year’s batch reveal everything.

Our contestants came from four major players—HP sent us three printers, Epson sent two, three Canons made it for the test race and a lone Lexmark arrived too. Nine devices to bring colour to your pages, and we’re spotlighting each of them.

Canon Pixma iP1700

Look at my pix, ma!

The iP1700 was the smallest offering from Canon in our labs. It is built reasonably well, but at Rs 3,995, it seems built to a price. Apart from the classy looking badging on the front, there’s nothing much to write about its looks. The iP1700 misses an output tray, so make sure your printer is placed away from the edge of the table, unless you want to decorate your floor with printouts.

The power adapter is visible underneath the printer, tucked away in a recess. The top is pretty bare, with just two buttons—one for power, and the other to resume printing.

Canon’s printer settings interface is good. In fact, most of the settings are not hidden. The iP1700 is reasonably speedy, but demanding tasks will see it lagging—expected, really, considering it’s a very entry-level offering. Our text document fared well, though we did notice aliasing even at higher settings. The fonts were readable at all sizes though—no serious issues there.

As soon as our combination document was printed, we immediately noticed the lack of detail in the embedded photograph. Highlighting on the fruit was decent, colour saturation was at par with the similarly-priced D2360 from HP. Text readability was better, and the reverse text test was a complete success at both economy and extravagant settings.

Bearing the Pixma badge should translate to at least decent photo printing; however, Canon makes no bones about declaring the iP1700 a value offering. We were surprised to see the little Pixma bringing up some very acceptable results. Though it took its time (over three and a half minutes), our test photograph came out well, exactly the way it should be. Of course, the HP D4168 and the Canon iP5300, not to mention the R390, all get the job done better, but at under Rs 4,000, the iP1700 makes a strong point for itself. The only shortcoming is, it probably won’t be as suited to portrait printing because it had issues with skin tones and texturing.

For Rs 3,995, Canon’s iP1700 is a good printer for basic, everyday use with the occasional photo print thrown in. For a little more, though, you can get the D4168, which is a better all-round performer.

Canon Pixma iP3300
The middleman

Canon’s iP3300 immediately strikes you as a big printer. That quality feel to the plastic material is present right down to the quality of movable trays and flaps. Although we’ve definitely seen better build quality from Canon, the iP3300 is much better built than the iP1700. It cashes in on a pleasing light-grey / dark-grey finish, and the rounded corners will appeal to the aesthetic senses. There are two buttons on the front—a resume-print button and the mandatory power button, a cool transparent one that fits flush with the front panel. There’s PictBridge support inbuilt as well.

The iP3300 is positioned as an intermediate product, bridging the gap between regular inkjet printers and the much costlier photo inkjets. It’s got a four-tank individual colour ink system.

The iP3300 makes for a good text printer, but its four individual tanks may seem a bit much for such a task. There was slight visible aliasing around text edges, but well within acceptable levels. This printer performed just behind its bigger brother (iP5300) and HP’s D4168.

Printing PDFs and other such documents, and combining text with colour images, is very possible on the iP3300 without sacrificing on details. One area the iP3300 missed out on in our combination document test was the highlighting on the fruit. Though not as bad as the Epson printers, it peerformed a bit behind the D4168, with decent results. The photograph also lacked some detail, but wasn’t downright unacceptable. From experience, Canon’s forte as far as printers go is contrast. In typical fashion, the iP3300 did very well in the reverse text test, and provided a clear view even with tiny font sizes.

Photo printing isn’t something the iP3300 is built to tackle. However, the iP3300 manages to perform well here, with good reproduction of finer details like texturing on the leather and the hair in the portraits. Where it misses out a bit on is the actual portrait part of the test photograph: skin tones were slightly off, the colour a little too warm. We’d estimate it was 15 per cent short of the quality of its excellent sibling, the iP5300, but it’s priced lower, at Rs 6,495. You decide if this disparity is too much.

How We Tested
Test Machine Configuration
Processor: AMD 64 3800
Memory: 512 MB DDR 400
HDD: Seagate 7200.8 120 GB SATA
OS: Windows XP Professional SP 2
We used Adobe Acrobat 8.0 for the PDF (combination test) and Adobe PhotoShop CS2 for the photo printout.
Before the printers were tested, we calibrated each of them using the toolbox utility that is built into all printer drivers these days. First, the cartridges were cleaned (by the utility), then they were aligned. Only after we were satisfied with a couple of test prints did the testing commence.

Performance Parameters

1. Speed
2. Quality

Test Documents

Text Only: monochrome text in different font sizes
Combi Document: a PDF file consisting of text at different font sizes, a reverse text test (yellow text on a black background) at varied font sizes, an embedded photograph, a colour chart, and a pie diagram, with lines to check for aliasing
Photo Test: our test photo consisted of eight individual scenes. Each of these had something to test the individual parameters that collectively make for great photo printouts.

The Speed Tests

All the tests were carried out with A4 size sheets. We used the “click-to-clunk” method to time the printouts, which essentially means we measured the time period between the moment at which we hit “Print” to the moment at which the printout was thrown out of the printer.
For the speed tests, we used all three types of documents at two printer settings—Low and High quality. For the Text and Combination documents, we used Executive Bond Paper, while for the photo printout, we used 150 gsm Kodak glossy photo paper.

The Quality Tests

In addition to the already printed pages, we also printed a Word document with a line of text printed with font sizes ranging from 2 to 12 at Best Quality. We examined this printed text for clarity, smudging and skewing, at all font sizes. We also looked for aliasing, which is the occurrence of jagged edges around the edges of the fonts.
Similarly, we also examined the printout of the PDF file. Here, we noted things such as the colour tone and clarity of the small photograph, discrete reproduction of concentric circles, and yellow text against black background. The combination document also had a basket of fruit, which we studied for detailing and highlights as well as for texturing.
In the photograph, we first looked at the overall colour tone. We examined details such as reproduction of correct skin tone, discreteness in the hair, colour variation in flowers and fruit, discrete bands of colour and greyscale in colour charts, and solder points on the circuit board. We also looked at highlighting on the metal flask and glass jars (specular highlights) as well as detailing on the golf balls (the dimples).

Canon Pixma iP 5300
World-class photo prints

One look at the iP5300 is all that’s necessary to confirm its status as a high-end product. It’s finished in translucent black with opaque silver-grey around the corners. The angular corners are deliberate and add to the aggressive tone the iP5300 sets. Build quality, needless to say, is very good—leagues ahead of its lesser siblings.

The output tray is accessible via a push-button system; very classy-looking and works well.

Positioned by Canon as a dedicated A4 photo printer, one look tells us where the iP5300 is most comfortable. It uses a pigment-based five-colour individual ink-tank system and supports printing on a variety of media, including CDs and DVDs. PictBridge, a must for any photo printer, is available.

One of the little features we liked (common with the iP3300) is the red ink-tank bay LEDs. Once you slot in a cartridge the corresponding LED lights up. If you installed it incorrectly (which is very difficult to achieve), the LED will not illuminate. These LEDs also turn on when the service flap (on the top of the printer, allowing access to the cartridge bay) is opened. This makes the task of installation of cartridges even easier.

The iP5300 is a printer that doesn’t like to keep its patrons waiting—prints are completed fast, just the way you like it! Text quality was exemplary; not that we expected anything less for its price. However, as the Epson R390 proved, nothing should be taken for granted! We noticed that quality in text output didn’t come at draft settings, and the D4168 does better when on a diet. Our combination document looked good, especially the reverse text and the tiny fonts, which were ultra-readable—this printer was numero uno here. Highlighting on the fruit was also reasonably well done, second to the brilliant (in this aspect at least) D4168.
One look at the test photo printed on the iP5300 tells you where this printer’s heart lies. Good colour reproduction in general was complemented with excellent contrast and specular highlights. The highlights on the steel flask looked real, as did the shimmering effect on the glass aquarium. Even the leather handbag felt very substantial. For those looking for a great photo printer, look no further than the Pixma iP5300, which retails at Rs 12,995.

Epson Stylus C79

Terrible in our text test

Epson’s C79 is positioned as an affordable home printer capable of little more than the usual home printing tasks. Although it’s well built and the body feels sturdy, the C79 looks a little angular. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s reasonably light on desktop space. Efforts to further reduce its footprint are evident from the detachable input and output trays. With a two colour (light-grey / dark-grey) combination and a translucent fibre top, Epson has gotten their colour combinations right.

A few minutes into our tests, it became clear that the C79 is a slowcoach. Taking close to four and a half minutes to print an A4 photo isn’t exactly express. Similarly, the combination document took a painful amount of time. The adage goes, “A little late, but worth the wait!”—not so with the text printing capabilities on the C79. Unlike its sibling the R390, which redeemed itself somewhat when the settings were bumped up, the C79 brought out sub-standard results throughout the monochrome tests, totally inexplicably, even after we repeated the tests several times. We do hope this is a one-off glitch with the piece we received, and not a fault in general with the model.

Performance in the combination document test was more like what we expected. The C79 did well in the point readability test (text), and performed very well (in fact, the best in its class) with the embedded photo. However, reverse text production suffered somewhat.

It’s not that it’s very bad—just that the Canons ran away with all the accolades here thanks to better contrast in the output.

The C79 isn’t very capable at professional photo printing. It performed decently overall, but a closer perusal of the test photograph showed that the portraits weren’t as detailed as we’d hoped, with highlighting on the skin missing. The C79 also had noticeable issues with the exact skin tone, which it got wrong. Specular highlights were as good as with the other printers.

Overall, at Rs 4,299, the C79 seems to excel at pretty much nothing. We weren’t expecting world-class photo printing at this price point, but it’s the failure to impress in the text printout test that worries us—because text is what its intended target audience will be printing most of the time.

Epson Stylus PHOTO R390

A photoholic’s companion

No, we didn’t emphasise that, Epson did. As the capital letters suggest, the Epson R390 is indeed a ~Photo printer. Epson has packaged a lot of functionality into the massive-looking R390, which is nearly as big as some MFDs we’ve come across. Build quality is very good, right down to the movable parts, which look like they can stand the rigours of daily use. With an aggressive, forward-sloping design, the R390 looks good, and the grey and silver colour tone goes well with the sculpt.

The front of the printer is adorned with more buttons than ever. The 3.5-inch LCD screen gives you previews of what you’re printing. While not necessary when printing from a PC, it’s most welcome while using the PictBridge slot, or any of the memory slots (MS Pro, CF, xD, SD) as the image source.

The software suite is suitably rich and deviates from Epson’s regular bundle by including an Image Editing Studio (Epson’s own). An ultra-convenient RAW plugin is also provided for working with professional-grade RAW image files. Then there’s the CD/DVD printing utility sporting a user-friendly yet powerful interface.

Once we got to using the R390, we were pretty amazed at how far photo printers have really come. But it’s a pity that specialisation means losing out on general capabilities. The R390 produced abysmal results printing text at draft settings. In fact, the text looked more brown than black!

We expected a turnaround of sorts at the higher settings, but that just didn’t happen, not to the expected levels anyway. The R390 refused to get text printing right.

Our combination document fared much better, particularly the embedded photograph—this printer aced that test. However, performance on the whole was a mixed bundle: the highlights on the fruit were missing—in fact, the berries in our combination document looked like spherical lumps of clay. The R390 performed well on the reverse text front, much better than the HP printers, but that’s an unfair comparison when you look at the prices.

Our photo printout took just 66.2 seconds to complete—excellent for an A4 size sheet! Considering the quality of the printout, we can easily recommend the Epson R390 as a photo printer.

With great colour reproduction and proper rendition of finer details (the dimples on the golf balls aside, that is, which looked better on the D4168), the R390 also produced great-looking skin tones with accurate highlighting. This makes it really suitable for portrait photos.

It’s got features galore, it’s got a host of connectivity options, and it showed some great printing results in the domain of its expertise—so we’d recommend Epson’s R390 for photo printing professionals. You’ll have to cough up Rs 15,000 for it, though.

Media Issues!
Take the best printer in the world, give it some very ordinary consumables, and the results would be substandard. Sure we all know our printers. But how well do we know our media? Manufacturers take pains to assure consumers of the fact that the choice of media greatly affects quality of output. The problem in India is the low availability of both knowledge about and availability of printer media (both inkjet and laser).
Most users will typically use either photocopy paper or executive bond paper in their inkjet printers. While the results may be acceptable for regular document printing, must better results can be had if you make an informed buying decision when choosing media.
Firstly paper is classified on the basis of its weight, which determines its quality. The unit of measurement is GSM or Grams per Square Meter. In general the higher the GSM value (i.e. heavier paper) the better its quality. The difference in weight is mainly due to the thickness of the sheet. This thickness isn't due to the paper being thick though. Most print media undergoes heavy processing especially photo papers which have to be imbued with certain desirous qualities like fade resistance, water resistance, blot-free, smudge resistance and even resistance to wear and tear. The processing involves either coatings applied to the surface of the paper, or molecular level treatment, whereby substances are embedded into the sheet of paper. These substances could be micro-ceramic coatings - to enable quick drying for heavy ink jobs, or wax treatment to help resist moisture.
For example 80 GSM paper is considered the norm for regular office use. 100 GSM paper is basically Executive Bond, used for letterheads and such. Anything over 130 GSM is considered as Card Paper for printing colour brochures, pamphlets etc. Photograph printing can be done on anything around 130 GSM or above. Anything thinner should not be considered for photo printouts simply because the chances of blotting are very high. Professional photo printers will use glossy or matte finish papers (depending on their requirements) to the tune of up to 245 GSM. For regular photo printouts matte or glossy photo papers with a GSM rating of160 will suffice.

HP Deskjet D4168
The Twin-Tank Wonder

HP has a winner here, at least in the looks department. A sleek yet long printer, the D4168 is, visually, a stunner. Some may find the permanently-affixed tray an eyesore, particularly since it protrudes upwards—but it does blend in well at the base. 

The same shiny white cover that looks appealing on the D2360 exudes a touch of class here. The D4168 proudly wears HP’s “Vivera Inks” Badge, which should translate to better photo quality.

HP once again deviates from the myth that photo printers must have individual tanks. The D4168 has just two cartridges! The printer offers PictBridge support, but this is more a necessity than a bonus feature nowadays. The bulky power adapter rears its ugly self again here, and is a real irritant.

The drivers are excellent, and you can create multiple profiles with finely-tuned settings for each type of printing job—monochrome, text/image, photo printing, etc.

The Deskjet 4168 is a good performer for its price—Rs 3,999. Text documents were printed clear and crisp, with no visual anomalies or aliasing of any sort. In fact, even at fast draft settings, the D4168 is one good text document printer, which is the way it should be, in our humble opinion!

Our combination document did have a few issues. Most noticeable was the fact that the 4168 failed to print the embedded photograph well. The line aliasing was absent (a good sign), however, the text readability at 2-point size wasn’t as good as the Canon Pixmas’ offerings. The same goes for the reverse colour test, where the text wasn’t readable once the font size became tiny.

The photograph test was handled well, with superb specular effects and some great neutral colour tones throughout the printout. Detailing was very good, as was the texture effect, especially the grainy feel of the leather bag and the dimpling on the golf balls.

In fact, all the printers missed out on the dimpling which, while not immediately noticeable, does become apparent when you scrutinise the printout for a while. Unfortunately, the D4168 had some issues with the facial printouts, where there seemed to be a lack of dpi, and fine white grains (unprinted parts of paper) were visible where there should have been none.

All in all, a great deal for the price. If you want something for printing superb text printouts as well as something that’ll be able to give you some great photo memories on a budget, the Deskjet 4168 is the way to go.

HP Photosmart A516  The tiniest printer we’ve seen!

HP’s Photosmart A516 is the smallest printer we’ve ever received for a test, period. Smaller even than their Deskjet 460B which we tested last year! The major difference was, this isn’t an A4 printer. Instead, HP touts the A516 as an ultra-compact 4x6 photo printer.

Build quality is right up there with the best, and despite its diminutive dimensions, the A516 feels extremely sturdy to hold. Quality of both the doors (which serve as the in and out trays) is very good.

The body is finished in the piano-white we’ve come to love, with an off-white matte-finished strip on the top and down the sides. The top of the printer is adorned with five soft buttons, including a tiny “print cancel” button—something we missed on a lot of the big printers.

Interfacing doesn’t require a PC, and is done via a 1.5-inch LCD screen that’s sufficiently sharp to ensure you can see what you’re printing easily. Naturally, PictBridge is present, which is mandatory on such a printer. Also concealed under the paper-out flap are the memory-card-reader slots. There are individual slots for CF, SD, and MS cards, while SM and xD type memory cards share a slot.

Despite the fact that the A516 is reasonably operable without a PC nearby, HP has provided a complete driver set, easily on par with their excellent drivers on the Deskjet 4168. Once again, all the settings you’ll be using are available on a single page, and yet it doesn’t seem cluttered. Paper options are obviously limited here, due to the size of the printer, of course, and a few printing options available on the other HP drivers are also missing.

Because of its non-A4 nature, we didn’t pit this little printer against the bigger boys, however capable it may have seemed to the task. What we did was fire up a couple of photo prints including our test sheets, which we scaled down to an appropriate size. Printing photographs is what the A516 is all about (whoever heard of text documents on 4x6 media?), and the A516 uses a single cartridge to achieve this!

To its credit, print quality was good, though our test photo at once seemed to lack that vivid look. The photo had very good detailing, however, and finer details were visible. Highlighting and specular effects were reproduced well.

Overall, HP’s A516 is a very capable little photo printer that you can carry around in a rather large pocket. At Rs 5,499, the A516 is clearly aimed at the segment of users that wants photo-quality 4x6 prints, anywhere, anytime.
Now, all you need to have to get great 4x6 prints is a spare power outlet!

Sugar And Flour—What’s The Difference?
We’ve tested inkjet printers, and we’ve even told you about the kind of paper you should be using. Well, here’s some information about the magical fluid that squirts from those tiny little nozzles!
Inks are of two types, Dye-based and Pigment based. The major difference between the two is the fact that dye-based inks are water-soluble, whereas pigment inks are non-water-soluble. Here the dye or pigment (as the case may be) is the colour component in the mixture with water. Water is, of course, the carrier of the colour that is either dissolved (dye) or suspended (pigment) in it.

Dye-based Inks

Think of a dye-based ink as a solution of sugar dissolved in water. Because there is no suspension involved, dye-based inks flow better, and are less likely to clog the minute nozzles on an inkjet printer. Because of their water solubility, any printout that has used dye-based inks will be more susceptible to damage when exposed to moisture. Another shortcoming of dye-based inks is their susceptibility to fading. Not only fade but also colour-shift, as we've noticed in some cases.
Dye-based inks work well on glossy paper, which doesn't completely absorb all the ink inside the paper, rather allowing some of it to actually dry on the surface—which is why the best photo results with dye-based inks are with glossy paper.

Pigment-based inks

In contrast to dye-based inks, pigment-based inks can be compared to a flour-in-water mixture. The flour doesn’t dissolve; rather, it forms a suspension, also thickening the water slightly in the process. Due to this, pigment inks are thicker, and also tend to clog a printer’s inkjet nozzles more easily. However, modern pigment-based inks have remedied this situation to a large extent, but the problem is of an inherent nature and therefore cannot be done away with entirely.
Pigmented inks also fade slower, owing to their larger molecular structure, and therefore ultimately thicker coating on the paper. Due to the fact that the pigment isn’t water soluble, they are also water-resistant, though not completely waterproof. On exposure to water, 5 ~ 10 per cent of the colours may run, which is significantly lower than the damage that would be caused in a similar situation with a dye-based ink.
There are disadvantages to pigment-based inks as well. They’re costlier than dye inks. Also, dye inks give much better colours, and much sharper, more vivid printouts. This is the reason why most manufacturers use pigment inks in their black cartridges, but prefer to use dye inks in their colour cartridges. Incidentally, there is a lot of research on to produce cheaper hybrid inks, which will have the benefits of both ink types.

HP Deskjet D2360

Quality on a budget

HP’s D2360 is a compact-looking printer sporting a shiny pure-white top combined with a matte-finished grey body. Needless to say, it’ll draw looks atop any desk. Build quality is good per se, though the D2360 does exude that built-to-a-budget feel.

As with most HP printers, the input tray doubles as the output tray—a neat design. Ergonomics is a sore spot—you need to lift the top cover to open the input/output tray. Another sore point is the bulky power adapter that HP supplies—all the other non-HP printers had power adapters built in.

One word that describes HP’s driver interface? Excellent! The settings are very transparent, and virtually all the adjustments can be done from a single page. As with the D4168, you can create multiple profiles for each type of print job—monochrome, text/image, photo printing, and more.

HP doesn’t use individual ink cartridges, and makes do with the regular two tanks. While not so noticeable on this printer, its bigger sibling—the D4168 demonstrates how individual tanks aren’t always necessary for good photograph printing.

Surprisingly, the D2360 has some issues with text printing. Some aliasing was noticeable, and the smaller fonts weren’t as well defined as we’d have liked on paper.

While miles ahead of Epson’s C79 and inches ahead of the Canon iP1700, the D2360 does have something to boast about. If only we’d tested it before we did the D4168, we’d have been happier too!

The combination test was a close affair, especially at lower settings. Once you set your printer to guzzle ink (the higher settings), both the Canon iP1700 and Epson’s C79 leave the D2360 coughing in their dust trails. The D2360 does score in the highlighting-on-the-fruit department, something both Epson and Canon miss out on.

Our test photo saw very decent colour reproduction on the whole. Specular highlights, once unheard of on inkjets, is now very much a reality, and HP doesn’t miss out here.

While the D2360 languishes in the shadow of its more expensive sibling, it makes for an attractive alternative for home use.
At just Rs 2,999, it does put the competition to shame.


Michael BrowneMichael Browne