Pros: Fast, individual ink tanks, excellent photos, true 6-color system, direct CD printing.
Cons: So-So text quality, no computer-free editing, limited retail availability of high-capacity ink.
A little backstory and some info:
So, my beloved Canon i960 printer has finally bit the dust. The light magenta section of the printhead stopped working, and it was either buy a new printhead for a nearly 6 year old machine or just buy a new printer. I went with the latter. Being out of the printer market for close to 6 years (I was very happy with my Canon), I decided to research all the latest offerings in the "photo printer" market.
The first requirement (no exceptions) was that the printer has to have a true 6-color ink system. This means that the printer has the 4 main colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (aka CMYK) as well as light cyan and light magenta. The reason why this is important is that without those 2 light colors, photos just don't simply look as good. The biggest issue for me is that I have looked at output produced by 4-color printers and the quality difference jumps right out at me.
So, what did I find by researching? Canon and HP no longer make consumer-level printers with the true 6-color ink system. Instead they have gimmicks like the 4 main CMYK colors and a grey ink, a 2nd black ink and in one case a clear ink and call it "6-color system." All of which does nothing to improve the quality of photos. Canon does make 2 wide-format printers that meet my color requirements, but the cheapest one (the Pro9000) is $450. Too far out of my price range and too big for my desk. HP doesn't even have a proper photo ink system in its pro models, a move which could cost them customers.
So, where did I stand? HP is out, and Canon has falling victim to the "let's give the pros and businesses the good stuff while shafting the consumer with useless gimmicks" mantra.
That leaves Epson. I used to be critical of Epson, because the printheads on their printers are not removable so if they clog, you're screwed. Sadly, I looked and they are the only one left that makes a printer that has a proper 6-color ink system that doesn't cost a lot: the Artisan 50.
Jaded by Canon and HP, I decide to take a gamble and order it online (wasn't avail local at the time) for $99 on Newegg.com not including shipping.
Before we get to my objective review, here are the official specs of the Artisan 50:
Ultra Hi-Definition printing, Advanced MicroPiezo® 6-color ink jet printing with DX5TM technology
Ink Palette: Black, Cyan, Light Cyan, Magenta, Light Magenta and Yellow
Ink Cartridge Configuration: 6 individual ink cartridges
Ink Type: ClariaTM Hi-Definition Ink (smudge, scratch, water and fade resistant photos).
Light Resistance / Print Longevity: Lasts up to 4x longer than photo lab prints, Up to 200-year album storage, 98 years under glass.
Minimum Ink Droplet Size: 5 ink droplet sizes, as small as 1.5 picoliters.
Maximum Resolution (dots per inch): 5760 x 1440 optimized dpi.
Maximum Print Speed: Black - up to 37 ppm, Color - up to 38 ppm.
Laser Quality Print Speed: Black - 4.8 ppm, Color - 5 ppm.
4" x 6" Borderless Photo: As fast as 11 seconds in draft mode.
Special Features: Manual 2-sided printing, auto Photo Correction with advanced face detection and red-eye removal.
Direct CD/DVD Printing: Ink jet printable CDs and DVDs.
Maximum Paper Size: plain (8.5" x 44"), Ink jet printable CDs/DVDs.
Paper Sizes: 8.5" x 11", 8.5" x 14", A4, B5, A5, A6, half letter, executive, user definable (3.5" - 44" in length), Photo: 4" x 6", 5" x 7", 8" x 10", 8.5" x 11", 16:9 wide.
Borderless Photo Sizes: 4" x 6", 5" x 7", 8" x 10", 8.5" x 11", 16:9 wide.
Paper Types: Supports plain paper, Epson Premium Bright White Paper, Photo Paper Glossy, Premium Photo Paper Glossy, Ultra Premium Photo Paper Glossy, Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster, Premium Photo Paper Semi-gloss, Presentation Paper Matte, Premium Presentation Paper Matte and Matte Scrapbook Paper (letter)
Envelope Types: No. 10, DL, C6; plain paper, bond paper, air mail.
Input Paper Capacity: 120 sheets plain paper, 20 sheets Premium Photo Paper Glossy.
Weight and Dimensions (W x D x H): Printing - 17.7" x 22.5" x 11.3", Storage - 17.7" x 11.1" x 7.4."
Weight: 12.1 lb.
Case Color: Black.
Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB 2.0.
Operating Systems: Windows Vista®, XP, XP Professional x64, 2000, Mac OS®4 X 10.3.9, 10.4.11 and 10.5.x (PowerPC® or Intel® processor).
Software Included: Epson printer driver, Epson Print CD, Web to Page, Easy Photo Print software.
Color Management: Auto Photo Correction and ICM.
Sound Level: 34.7 dB
Warranty: One-year limited in the U.S. and Canada.
Some other specs can be found on Epson's site.
This review is an objective review. I'm not going to get down to every nut and bolt and bit and byte of the machine, just what you need to know.
What you get.
The printer comes with the power cord, driver software on CD, a CD/DVD tray, and standard capacity ink tanks. Please note these are not "starter" cartridges, they're just like the ones you can buy retail. As with any printer it does not come with a USB cable, so you're going to have to buy one separately.
The Artisan 50 is best described as a spartan, rectangular black box. It's nearly 18 inches wide, so be sure you have room on your desk. The front of the printer houses the paper output tray and 3 buttons - power, a button to "charge" the ink and a button to either cancel or resume a print job. On the back are the ports for USB and power (no Ethernet port). On the top-rear is the top-loading paper tray.
The output tray is removable, most likely to allow for when you want to use the CD/DVD tray.
The Artisan 50 is a single-function printer, not an all-in-one machine.
Setup and install
The first thing to do is install the cartridges. They are not difficult and click into place, then you close the top cover. After you install them, you hit the ink charge button which "primes" the ink for use. You hit this button whenever you change the ink.
The next step is to install the software. I decided to forego the CD and download the correct driver from Epson's site (my current PC is a Vista 64 box). Install was painless with no issues to report. As with all USB printers, you cannot plug the printer in and turn it on until the software tells you to do so. Once it was connected, the software detected it and it finished the install without issue.
Now let's get to the quality and speed of the machine....
I first tested the printer with a sheet of Canon photo paper. Print quality was excellent, but it felt like it needed time to dry. So, I decided to buy some Epson Premium photo paper and use that.
Let's just say on Epson Premium stock quality is outstanding and drying time is super fast. Plus, when the ink is on the paper, it's on the paper! Epson claims the ink is scratch resistant I have no reason not to believe them, although my nerves held me back from actually testing it.
The biggest thing I was looking for is whether I could see the ink dots that make up the picture. You know the old saying, "once you see it, you can't un-see it?" Well I looked really hard and I could not see the ink drops at all. This is the difference between 4-color printers and a 6-color printer like this: one of the things I noticed was that printers with 6-color ink is that they seem to "hide" the ink dots better.
When printing from applications like windows photo gallery, there are only two preset settings: Photo and Best Photo. There is not much difference between the two, but when printing photos of people I used the Best Photo settings to be sure. If you're printing photos of objects like cars, the Photo setting will work just fine.
I was worried this printer was going to be slow when printing photos, but that's not the case. Photo mode takes around 2 ½ minutes to print a borderless 8.5x11 and Best Photo mode 3 to 3 ½ minutes, still excellent. Printing 4x6's takes no time at all.
Now we move into the one area that might be the Artisan 50's Achilles heel. In normal mode, while the printer is fast text looks a little fuzzy. To get good quality you have to set the printer to "fine" mode and that slows things down considerably and uses more ink.
Printing in "economy" mode is not recommended as text comes out grey-ish (But I've never seen an inkjet that doesn't have a subpar draft mode, even my Canon).
Speed is great in normal mode, but as I said above quality is not too great.
The software offers multiple options when printing from programs like word. The output options on the front page in the print properties (aka the "main" tab) are Draft, Text, Text Photo, Photo and Best Photo.
Going to the advanced tab lets you select quality options like economy, normal and fine plus things like redeye removal (not tested yet) and advanced color modes - Epson Vivid (which is what I used), Epson RGB (said to better replicate what's on the screen but again, didn't test it) and Epson Standard (I wouldn't use it myself).
Layout tab is pretty much your stand fare things like orientation of the page and two-sided printing (manual only).
Maintenance tab is pretty much standard for Epsons: nozzle check, print alignment and cleaning.
A note about the software: When selecting to print text in fine mode in the advanced tab, it defaults the output type on the front page to Best photo, even if there is no color in your document. This could be why text speeds slow down like they do.
Ink usage seems around the norm for a photo printer. After around 40 borderless 8.5x11 prints, the most used ink is the light magenta, with only around 30% left. Light cyan is at 50%. I've noticed that my canon ate up the light magenta ink too, so this really isn't an issue for me. Just keep extra of the two light colors (cyan and magenta) around. Black ink usage appears to be excellent at only 10% used so far. The other 3 colors aren't that bad it seems. Keep in mind these are the standard ones, the high-capacity versions should be much better.
The Artisan 50 is only really noisy when starting up and shutting down, and loading paper. Other than that, it's relatively quiet. Not as quiet as my canon was, but still good.
Seems to me that Epson designed the Artisan 50 for people who already have a primary printer for text and non-photo work. If photo quality is not the top priority and you need a printer that can handle text well in normal mode, you might want to look elsewhere. I'm personally getting an HP Officejet soon to cover this, but I know not everyone has the funds to do this.
Also, to make this clear: This printer is not a multi-function. If you need the Artisan 50's quality in an all-in-one form consider the Artisan 700 and 800. Don't know how good the text is on those machines, though.
Now the next concern is not a con for me as I could care less, but I'm going to be listing it anyway as it might be to some other people. To get to the sub-$100 price point Epson did away with all the "print without a PC" stuff. There are no card readers, no LCD screen and no USB port for direct-from-camera printing. In short, everything has to be done from your computer. If you need these features the cheapest option is the Artisan 700 all-in-one.
Also, I want to mention that the No 77 "high capacity" inks are a little tough to find at local retail outlets right now, so you might want to go online and stock up on extra ink via Epson's site. You can still get a decent amount of prints out of the "standard capacity" inks (which are available at retail) so it's not a bad thing at this point.
Other than the text quality, the other concerns aren't really a con to the printer itself, so I wouldn't really call them deal breakers.
Who this printer is for:
People who care about getting true photo quality from a printer, and wants their photos printed fast.
Who this printer is not for:
People who need a general purpose machine, and people who don't like going through their computer to print pictures.
I'm very happy with this printer. It prints outstanding pictures and does so fast. Epson has won me over with this one. Sure it's not for everyone, but no product can be perfect. At sub-$100 the value for money is unbeatable if you want a single function, no frills photo printer. I have a feeling that Epson is going to have trouble keeping up with demand.
Other printers to consider:
I can't really recommend another brand of photo printer right now due to the two other major players dropping the true 6-color system from their consumer lineup. Canon does make the Pixma Pro9000 Mark II and the Pro9500 Mark II, but those are wide-format printers geared towards pros and are priced accordingly. I would only go with HP if you need a great general use printer. For a multi-function for photo use consider the Epson Artisan 800 - I tried one out in Office Depot and was really impressed. The Artisan 700 appears to be the same machine but without the fax and automatic document feeder for copying/faxing. By the way, steer clear of Kodak's entire line. They promise cheap inks but they're not individual and the build and print quality is universally panned. Don't get me started on Lexmark on and Dell (nothing more than rebadged Lexmarks).
Hope this review is helpful to you guys.