What is it about photographers? Give them a great new tool and the first thing they want to do is compare it to their last great tool. And so when HP came along with their new Z series printers it didn’t take long before the comparison bug bit Craig Samual, the proprietor ofStudio One in Toronto, and your faithful reporter. We therefore scheduled a shoot-out between theHP Z3100, and theEpson Stylus Pro 9800using theStudioprint RIP– Studio One’s in-house system. We also included anEpson 9600fitted withK7 Piezographyinks, which Studio One uses for their monochrome work, so as to also do some high-end B&W print comparisons against the new HP flagship.
Participants were Craig Samual, one of Canada’s leading professional photographers as well as the owner of Studio One, his lab associate Greg Danbrooke who also teaches digital imaging at Humber College, Nick Devlin – a photographer whose highly sensitive eye to print nuances I have come to trust, and me. For those not familiar with Studio One, it is one Canada’s leading high-end custom print labs with a sterling reputation for first-class custom printing in both B&W and colour.
Greg and Craig (foreground) ponder comparison prints
This was by no means a rigorous or in any way scientific test. But between the four of us we have about a hundred years of combined chemical and digital darkroom printing experience and so we were pretty confident of both our tools and techniques. The two Studio One Epson printers are in almost daily use in a production environment, and are lovingly maintained. Custom profiles made with an GM Eye One are in use, and are checked regularly. The print viewing environment is state-of-the-art, with D65 overhead lighting.
The HP Z3100 was calibrated and then profiled using the printer’s built-in spectrophotometer. The paper used for our test wasHahnemuhle Bright White Photo Rag 310. We printed two different standard RGB test images on both the Z3100 and the 9800, and evaluated them right out of the printer and again after about an hour’s dry-down. We also printed a fine art image in colour for further comparison purposes. On the Z3100 vs 9600 with K7 inks test we made a number of standardized monochrome prints, ones whose subject matter and tonalities we were well familiar with.
One additional note – just as I was packing up my laptop to head over to Studio One for the comparison session, I received an email from HP with a link to a new beta version of the Z3100’s firmware; all 400+ MB of it. I downloaded and installed it from theHP Knowledge Center, and so version 220.127.116.11 is what was used for these tests. It is claimed by HP to address some issues which have been reported with colour reproduction on some papers, including a lengthy thread on this topic on this site’s forum during February. The new firmware is now available for download.
There is no one word or sentence that can summarize what we saw. There is also no clear winner or loser. These are state-of-the-art printers from two of the best companies in the business, and no one is so easily trumped.
We each came away of some fairly strong impressions of various of each printer’s characteristics, which I will attempt to broadly summarize.
There is no contest. With similar quality settings the HP is almost exactly twice as fast as the Epson printing the same file at the same size. If speed is important, then the HP has a clear advantage.
Ease of Use
The brilliance of the HP’s user interface, both on the printer’s front panel and through itsUtility Softwarehas been reported here before inmy initial review. Along with the printed and available web-based documentation there is likely no product of its type that is as well presented as the HP Z series. HP has outdone itself in this regard. Epson is no slouch when it comes to documentation, but overall the HP is the stand-out.
Parenthetically, if on a scale of 1-10 in this area HP is a 9, and Epson is a 7.5, then the new Canon printers barely deserve a 2 when it comes to interface and documentation. Not to use this opportunity to knock Canon, but, as the owner and user of both a Canon iPF5000 and the HP Z3100 (and numerous Epson printers previously) I can only say that Canon needs to recall all of their responsible engineers and marketing folks, take them out behind the virtual woodshed and give them a good spanking before their next generation printers come out, because with what HP is now doing, and with Epson as the earlier benchmark, the competition is really stiff out there, and Canon’s current interface, usability and documentation just aren’t in the same league as that of their competitors.
The first thing we noticed was a definite gamma difference between the two printers. We’re not sure why this is the case, but when evaluating the grayscale ramp in the test image it was clear that the HP was definitely darker, and that while not blocked up, the darkest wedges showed less separation that did the same wedges on the Epson printer. This was also visible on the image of the woman and child, where her black leotard separates more clearly in the Epson rendition than it did on the HP’s. We didn’t have time to investigate this in detail, but I hope to return to this question at a future date.
As for colour reproduction, there were clearly visible differences but none which stood out to the extent that one printer or the other had a clear advantage. For example, in the fall farm scene the greens appeared to my eye and Greg’s to be more realistic, while Craig felt that the Epson’s greens, though more saturated, were somewhat realer. The saturated oranges on the largest tree were clearly stronger on the Epson, but the yellows of the lower trees were more realistic on the HP.
Looking at the colour ramps, the HP blues were definitely more "blue", while those from the Epson had a cyan tint that had been noted when a comparison between theCanon iPF5000 and Epson 4800were done. The accurate reproduction of blues are definitely an area where both HP and Canon now seem to have an edge over Epson.
On the other hand, and notwithstanding my comment about the yellow branches above, the yellow ramp on the Epson was more saturated, though it showed less step differentiation. The HP’s cyan ramp was clearly superior, as was the green, particularly to my eyes. The red ramp on the Epson showed more separation between the dense steps, but otherwise was quite close.
To try and summarize something that likely can’t be summarized, there are definite difference between the HP Z3100 and Epson 9800’s colour palettes. Each seems to have its areas of advantage and disadvantage, or maybe just difference – without a value judgment needing to be attached. Certainly there was nothing that we saw in our day of testing that would cause any of us to reject either printer, or claim that one had a clear image superiority over the other, especially in the area of colour reproduction.
Indeed, Greg, who is the senior tech responsible for fine-art printing at Studio One, now thinks that he may end up getting a Z3100 for his own use, a validation if I ever heard one.
Studio One is justly proud of their very high quality monochrome printing, which they do usingPiezography Neutral K7inks on an Epson 9600. We were therefore quite surprised to see how much more "neutral" prints in monochrome mode done on the Z3100 were. By comparison the K7 prints were quite warm.
As for image quality, there was little to choose between the two printers. Using two test images which Studio One regards as their benchmarks for print comparisons in B&W we could see little to choose between the HP and the K7 Epson. Smoothness of tonal transitions, highlight and shadow detail – all were exceptional on both sets of prints, and one would be hard pressed to choose between them.
Since when printing on matte papers the Z3100 uses all four black inks, it effectively become a quadtone monochrome printer, and so anyone working regularly in both B&W and colour will likely find the new HP printers well worth consideration.
Under a loupe the dithering pattern of the HP is somewhat more visible than that of the Epson (and keep in mind that the Epson was running the Studioprint RIP, not Epson’s native driver) . But, and it’s a bigbut, to the naked eye under even the closest examination there is no visible dithering from either printer. Greg thought that in some three quarter tones he was just able to see a bit of extra "texture" in one HP print, but then he also thought that it contributed to an apparent enhancement of "sharpness", which we all know from film grain.
To my mind this is a non-issue from any real-world perspective.
We only printed on matte paper during these tests and so no comments can be made or should be inferred about comparisons to be made with semi-gloss or gloss papers. Needless to say the HP’s Gloss Optimizer was therefore not taken into account, and also the fact that the HP does not need an ink swap when changing paper types was not a factor in these tests. Studio One’s Epson 9800 is dedicated to matte printing.
If you’re looking for a clear winner and loser, you won’t find it here. Both the new HP Z3100 challenger and the Epson 9800 king-of-the-hill are superb printers, capable of the highest image quality currently available. Yes, there are visible differences, but these are really only visible when prints are viewed critically side-by-side. I would venture to say that in a double blind test in typical gallery or home lighting conditions even an experienced observer would be hard pressed to claim which printer made which print.
The real difference lie in the areas of reliability, ease of use, dealer service, paper handling, ink economy and the like. Just as with high-end cameras and medium format backs, one can debate image quality differences till the cows come home, but the reality is that its the ergonomics, user interface, reliability and other non-image-quality related factors that really spell the difference for the working professional. The same applies to high-end printers. While the web forums thrive on personal justifications for purchase decisions which are for the most part based on the experience of observers with unqualifiedbona fides, on the end it’s what happens in a production environment when the client is waiting for their prints and you’re dealing with a recalcitrant printer with jammed paper feed or clogged heads that the real differences arise.
No – this isn’t a jibe at any particular brand, company, or individual. It’s just my way of saying that when considering the purchase of a high-end large-format printer for your business or just for your own personal fine-art work, look at the complete product experience, not just the pixel peeping carried out by the likes of me or other industry pundits.
After reading a draft of this review, each of the other participants contributed the following observations…
The only comment I would add is that the test, and its results, were made particularly interesting by the fact that the 9800 was a printer running at its zenith, lovingly maintained and calibrated by an expert with the finest of RIPs and calibration equipment. The Z3100, on the other-hand, was "off-the-rack". The fact that I (a relatively complete neophyte in the realm of printer-wrangling) could have set it up, followed the clear and simple directions, and matched the very best results off Studio One’s 9800, is amazing.
On the flip-side, the Z3100 is a generation ahead of the 9800, whose inkset (the K3s) has been around for a long time, and which does not have any of the nifty built-in calibration. Even with this temporal and technological advantage, the Z3100 could not better the performance of the 9800, showing what a mature and superb tool the 9800 is.
The reality of Digital Printing isn’t far from the reality of a traditional darkroom. Getting the last 5 to 10% of image quality from a print may cost you up to 400% more in terms of investment, and the equipment doesn’t always work as expected or giving the same result. At Studio One we concentrate on producing the highest quailty digital Fine Art prints, and have accepted that this takes investment in time, equipment, talented consultants, as well as a lot of testing. If you are running a profesional print lab, and are looking for certain things in a Fine Art print, and have a lot of resources and knowledge then the Epson printer with a Studioprint RIP is a great system. If you don’t have a lot of digital printing experience and don’t want to spend days profiling papers and having a huge learning curve to deal with the HP system is a good way to go.
Fine Art printing is subjective in terms of what is a good print, and I think both the Epson and the HP make great colour prints. The Epson seems to have a little more resolving power, although you need to have a critical eye to see it. The speed, and simplicity of use is definitly with the HP though.
In B&W Fine Art printing it seems (in these preliminary tests) that the HP is VERY Neutral, while the Piezography K7 inks in an Epson 9600 are reasonably warm. I never realized how much till I saw them side by side. I personally Prefer the K7 version as a fine art print, but thats me and my taste. And yes you could add some colour ink in the HP to warm it up, but remember, that will probably have an effect on your print longevity.
After working with the HP Z3100, I must confess that my lazier side is beginning to salivate a little. That kind of quality with pretty much zero effort? My practical side, however, is a bit reticent when it comes to giving up the control offered by a proper RIP. I’m also pretty sure I felt my wallet twitch when I heard the price. Granted the HP comes with a built in spectrophotometer, but it’s this very built-in aspect that gives those of us with many printers pause. For a single printer operation, the expense can be justified, but if you need more than one printer for higher production, or tend to upgrade every time a new model comes out, then a single stand alone spectro will work for as many printers as you have, now or in the future.
As with Epson’s 24" and 44" printers, the Z3100 supports only roll paper or single cut sheets. Twice a year, I do a run of just over a thousand 11×14 prints for one of my clients. I can’t begin to imagine how long it would take if I had to load cut sheets one at a time, or what kind of a curly mess of prints I’d end up with on the floor if I tried to use roll paper. Clearly, for someone such as myself to give up by beloved Epsons 4000 and 4800, HP would need to include some kind of better support for cut sheet media (read: a paper tray). A 17" version for people needing higher print volume with smaller print size would fit the bill exactly (are you listening, HP? Call me when it’s ready).
In the meantime, if my wife is reading this, then of course I’m not really considering the 24" model for home. If she isn’t, then I gotta tell you, the convenience, the quality and the simultaneous matte and photo blacks have certainly got the old gears churning.