Pros: Excellent photo quality, variable drop size, vibrant ink, borderless print, easy CD direct print
Cons: Relatively big, typical ink jet shortcomings, costly replacement cartridges (small)
High Definition is virtually everywhere these days, even if it's not a TV. While more plausible than high definition glasses, Epson's new ink jet printer generation is taking it one step further claiming Ultra high definition. This is backed up by new ink and the ability to control drop size down to 1.5 picoliter. But is that enough? I thought so and a recent special ($50 off) made the Stylus Photo R260 an irresistible replacement for my Stylus Photo R200. After all, that was roughly the replacement price for one set of cartridges. However, don't expect a revolution as the devil is in the detail -- a very fine detail.
Note: Epson's Ultra Hi-Definition is not related to NHK's proposed Ultra High Definition Video format or UHDV! (32 MPx or 7,680 x 4,320 pixel video that currently has no commercial value due to the extreme storage demands.)
IN A NUTSHELL
The Stylus Photo R260 doesn't look like much and the three Silver buttons sure don't inspire much more than a hunch of sophistication. Despite it's ability to print direct from supported cameras via the front USB PictBridge port and Epson's PIM (Print Image Matching) with Exif data, the R260 is still best when used as a computer periphery via USB cable. (The R380 provides basically the same functionality as the R260 -- plus an added LCD screen for basic editing features as well as a memory cards slot for "computerless" printing.)
Improvements over the R200 / R220 are relatively subtile at the first sight. Sure the housing changed significantly and the R260 feels a lot bulkier than the previous models, but internally and functionally it's not all that obvious. Starting with the ink cartridges though, the difference becomes clear. The R260 uses the new "Claria" ink and with it different cartridges for the sake of slightly more brilliant colors (wider gamut) and a better pixel size management (better detail). The main reason to consider Claria though is the increased resistance to smudge, scratch, water and fading. The light resistance is now rated at up to 200 year album storage, which is mostly UV protected and overall far less severe than direct sunlight.
While pixel size depends not only on the droplet but also the print media, the R260 allows to vary the droplet size in five steps to improve detail (smaller drops) or speed up the fill process (bigger drops). Epson calls variable droplet size technology DX5, which pretty much repesents its ability to provide 5 levels of drop sizes with the smallest reaching to an impressive 1.5 picoliter (but not on a consistant basis).
The R260 does not include an USB cable to connect to a computer. If you're upgrading, this should not be an issue, but be aware of the extra $15 - $30 for a cable if this is your first USB 2.0 printer. Printers like this are designed for a tempting entry cost and typically recoup the losses via relatively expensive ink replacements.
The included software is similar and other than the driver I typically don't use any of it since my work is done in CorelDraw X3, Photoshop or Painter IX or DxO Optics Pro. Any of those of course feature much more powerful functions and I have not seen the need to try anything else.
RESOLUTION vs. PHOTO QUALITY
With digital cameras currently outdoing themselves with every new generation and higher pixel counts, the question is what the ultimate output device -- the printer -- requires or is able to achieve.
First let's establish the difference between a digital photo and a printed picture. Each pixel in a photo contains typically one shade out of the 24 bit (16 mio.) color range. A print pixel can be only one of four or six different colors (CMYK and its variations). The color range is produced via an illusion of cleverly placed pixels in a proprietary pattern. The formed array is too small for the human eye to distinguish. The mix of a number of print pixels is finally perceived as the same shade represented by a single photo pixel -- yet an illusion nevertheless. For this deception to work, all pixels forming the shade need to fit within a finite area. Under normal viewing conditions (lighting, distance), that area is typically less than the size of a hair or 0.1 mm (squared).
Taking that minimum size as a reference, one can now calculate the density of color information required to produce photo quality. With 0.1 mm as the reference, the established minimum information is roughly 254 pixels per inch (254 dpi) or 10 pixels per mm. A dye sublimation printer typically fits 300 - 400 dpi of full color resolution since it mixes the colors in the same spot (pixel) to create the full spectrum. However, an inkjet depends on a matrix of pixels and requires smaller pixels to recreate a pixel with any color out of range of 16 million shades (24 bit).
Without trying to complicate things too much, the R260's resolution of 5760 x 1440 pixels allows for a total of 22x5 pixels per cell at 250 dpi -- not exactly a whole lot to work with but still roughly 110 pixels of each color. It's not published what algorithm is used and what this translates to in terms of achievable color gamut, but Epson's recommendation in a white paper for printers with 5760x1440 optimized* dpi is 240 dpi to 300 dpi of actual picture resolution for maximum quality. That translates into ...
print size -> required digital picture
4"x6" -> 2.1 MPx (300 dpi) / 1.4 MPx (240 dpi)
5"x7" -> 3.1 MPx (300 dpi) / 2.0 MPx (240 dpi)
8"x11" -> 7.9 MPx (300 dpi) / 5.0 MPx (240 dpi)
*... Optimized DPI describes the printers ability to place droplets in the specified grid. It's not directly related to minimum droplet size and typically involves some overlap since the actual dot is slightly bigger depending on the print media. The R260's ability to vary droplet size down to 1.5 picoliter helps minimizing the resulting overlap when needed. (Compared to the R200/R220 with a fixed droplet size of three picoliter.)
Any of the following cameras is able to provide full resolution pictures for the maximum output size of the R260 ...
- Canon EOS 20D (8.1 MPx)
- Canon Powershot SD800 IS (7.1 MPx)
- Canon Powershot SD900 (10.0 MPx)
- Canon Powershot G7 (10.0 MPx)
Setup: [*****] - Today's printers are all about plug-n-play and the R260 is not any different. Even if you don't install the driver before first connecting to the computer, a generic driver is typically available (for most Epson, Canon and HP). It is advisable to install the driver first to avoid setup problems and ensure proper settings for maximum quality. Beyond those basics, there is not that much to worry about for basic function. It gets more complicated when considering the different color management levels of system, application and printer. Make sure to understand related options before enabling them. In general, try to limit management to either printer driver or (!) the application. Using both simultaneously guarantees bad results almost every time!
Usability: [*****] - The R260 has only 3 buttons (power, paper jam and ink replacement) and out of those the only really important one is the power button, which is a lot easier to actuate than the one in the R200 I had before. The paper tray is easy to adjust for different paper sizes and the included CD/DVD tray is slightly cumbersome since it's a separate part that needs to be stored somewhere when not in use. The USB link to your camera is conveniently located in front of the printer and all openings can be "sealed" when not in use to prevent excessive dust (and reduce the footprint due to the retractable tray).
Speed: [***--] - It's an Inkjet and as such the picture is written line by line. Mechanical limitations (dynamics behind the moving head) sign responsible for relatively slow speed, enough to make the lack of a large buffer and internal rendering engine insignificant. Inkjets rely more on a fast computer and connection than any other modern printer type. A draft quality 4"x6" photo takes 13 seconds and that may sound fast, but already increases to 30 seconds in the default photo mode. Standard text pages are rated to be turned out at up to 30 ppm. Going to the extreme with Resolution Performance Management (RPM) and microwave turned on -- a full page photo (8x11) can take around 6 minutes to print out (in best quality). However, for most home users the quality is more important than quantity. The R260 is mostly about the best possible photo you can get in a consumer grade inkjet. Text and technical documents are not its strength as speed is way behind most lasers and even some inkjets.
Quality: [*****] - Variable droplet size is a minor enhancement under normal use, but overall ability to render extremely detailed pictures was already a strong point in the R200 and R220. Hence improvements are harder to notice, especially since both have the same grid of 5760x1440 pixels and the only change is in the variable droplet size. (Under the microscope the difference is more significant.) The claimed improvement in color gamut is barely noticeable and slight weak points are still in the rendition of very dark shades of color (i.e. very dark Brown). As always, the best quality requires the proper paper and with Epson's own optimized glossy photo paper, the results can be extremely pleasing. Standard paper is less satisfactory (max. resolution is automatically reduced, texture and absorption reduce brilliance of the color).
Maintenance: [****-] - Inkjet printers pretty much all share the same concept of ink cartridges with integrated nozzles, some are individual cartridges while others have all colors in one. The individual tanks can be easily accessed for replacement (in the maintenance position) and snap in securely. Replacement often means realignment, and the driver includes an easy to use tool which uses test patterns to tweak the alignment. The required cleaning of the nozzles after some time of sitting idle, is done automatically upon startup. Should problems evolve, one can also instruct the driver to attempt it more thoroughly (but that also uses more ink). Overall, the R260 is easy to access, though slightly less so than the R200 due to a more restricted passage way leading to the cartridges.
Cost: [***--] - At below $100 one has to admire the precision and complexity that a printer offers for a relatively low price. Ink jet printers are typically sold below value. The business model is to rely on replacement cartridges to actually make money. Inkjets in general have high consumables cost, due to replacements that cost almost as much as the whole printer. Further, installed cartridges are often recommended to be replaced every 6 months regardless of the fill level due to clogging etc.. Last but not least, the nozzle cleaning is a major reason for ink usage especially when not printing very often. The needed deep cleaning is the root cause for all colors depleting at the same rate, even if all you print is b/w text. Unfortunately, the R260 cannot be used with empty slots (i.e. missing color cartridges). This is pretty much generic for any inkjet and the Epson doesn't separate itself from the crowd with roughly $16 per cartridge (x6). The cartridges are small though, and it takes the so-called high capacity version ($20) to match the R200's in size. Refill is an option, but ink not optimized for the specific printer's process typically reduces the output quality. A letter sized photo can easily cost between $2 and $10 (w/ $1 for a sheet of premium paper alone) depending on how dense the print is and how much ink gets lost in maintenance due to long intervals between printing. To reduce cost, batch your prints into as few sessions as possible (to reduce cleaning waste), and use only the needed resolution (i.e. draft mode for unimportant prints). Further, Epson offers the so-called Multi-Pack which bundles five standard capacity color cartridges together and can be had online for just over $60. (Black is not included.)
The R260 currently includes a rebate offer for the 5x7 StoryTeller, a 10 page photo album with composition software. (The rebate covers the full purchase price and leaves you with the tax only.)
© 2006, theuerkorn