One Small Step For Printerkind
If you need a signpost to the fact that the digital imaging revolution is slowing down, look no further than inkjet photo printers. Models from Epson, Canon and HP reached a pinnacle a few years ago and we have seen little progress since.
I believe that several factors are at work here. Firstly, and likely of greatest significance, is that we achieved photorealistic image quality, at least in terms of resolution, some years ago, and so there is little to be gained from ever smaller nozzles and dot size.
The current ink-sets from the major companies have a colour gamut and Dmax that satisfies many photographers, and which can create stunning prints. (Yes, I know – you want more – but how much will you spend to get it?)
Then there’s the size and growth potential of the photo printer market. I have no statistics, but after speaking with retailers my sense is that it is at best static, with little growth. This mirrors what’s happening in the broader photography market where overall camera sales are in decline. Photography is growing, but not photographic equipment sales. More people are taking more photographs, but they are taking them with their smartphones and uploading them online rather than making prints.
Printing always was a niche occupied by the passionate amateur, fine art photographers, and some pros. Web sites, on-demand books, digital photo frames, and display devices like iPads and smartphones are taking their toll on the printer market.
But all is not doom and gloom.
Epson Surecolor P600
In the first of what is likely to be a new series of printers, Epson introduced the 13″ Epson Surecolor P600 at Photokina in September, 2014, and started shipping them in the U.S. and Canada in March, 2015.
Below is a video (mostly audio) interview done with Eddie Murphy, Epson’s U.S. technical manager. In it he discusses most of the important background information about the new printer, its inkset and features. The interview runs just under 15 minutes, and as mentioned is mostly audio, and well worth your listening to.
My Experience with the P600
My time with the P600 was limited, as its loan availability fell during a period when I was traveling a great deal. But I did make quite a few prints with it, especially ones from my early March trip to Havana, Cuba. I printed both with Matte black ink on Epson Velvet Fine Art paper and with Photo black on my preferred Canson Baryta Photographique.
I had hoped to be able to do a comprehensive technical test, including measuring d-Max and doing extensive profile comparisons with my standard Epson 3880 (a truly reliable workhorse, for years now). But time did not allow.
Honestly, I don’t think that not having done measurements is a loss. This printer, as mentioned by Eddie in the video, is intended for the “advanced amateur”, and the fact that the printer uses smaller ink cartridges and has only a 13″ carriage reflects its audience. I doubt if spectroscopic analysis is what potential users really want. Also, many of the parameters that we printers are interested in, such as resistance to fading and resistance to clogging, are not amenable to either short terms testing or outside of a full lab environment. (I was told though that initial test results in these areas are very positive).
These new inks are K3 style, meaning that there are three blacks (Photo or Matte), Light Black and Light Light Black.
My eyes though tell me what I need to know, and this is mirrored by what Eddie mentions in the interview. This printer has an all-new ink set with new colorants, new resin encapsulation and a higher D-max. The greater black density as compared to the 3880 can be seen. It’s visually a small difference, but definitely there. That’s with the Photo Black ink.
The real knock-out to my eyes, and also a couple of knowledgable observers who I showed prints to is the increased D-Max of the Matte black ink. According to an Epson rep their Matte black ink has not been updated or upgraded in many years. Now it has been, and the difference is immediately visually apparent.
Printing on various rag papers using the Matte black ink I was immediately taken by how much richer the blacks were. This is a really big deal – at least it is for me – because I prefer printing on slightly textured rag papers, but usually don’t because the blacks are not rich enough. Well – now they are. This new ink set rocks when it comes to Matte black.
Changing Between Matte and Photo
The speed of changing between Photo Black and Matte Black is a couple of minutes, going in either direction. This will use up 1 millilitre of ink when going from Photo to Matte black, and 3 millilitres when going from Matte to Photo Black.
There is an Ink Saving mode which is invoked from the printer’s front panel, which reduces the 3 ML loss to 1 ML in the Matte to Photo direction. According to Eddie Murphy he finds that there is no problem setting the printer this way, and the fact that the printer ships with this Ink Saving mode turned off is simply due to an over-abundance of caution on the part of Epson, to ensure that all Matte ink is purged on the switch over. Auto-switching takes less than two minutes.
Cartridge and Carriage Size
One of the things to bear in mind is that the P600 uses 25.9 milliliter ink cartridges, This compares to the 80 ML cartridges which are used by the Epson 3880. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to compute ink cost differences based on cartridge size, but if you do a substantial amount of printing ink is a significant component of the overall cost of ownership and use.
On the other hand, the P600 is not to be regarded as a production printer, and thus for the typical user ink usage and cost is unlikely to be a significant factor. If it were to be, then a printer like the 3880 or its inevitable successor would make more sense.
Keep in mind as well that the P600 has a 13″ wide carriage, while the 3880 has a 17″ carriage. The P600 comes with a roll paper holder, but frankly 13″ roll paper is not widely available in a range of paper types. I’ve been using 17″ roll paper (more widely available) on my 3880 for years, just letting the roll hang off the back and cutting the paper by hand. No big deal.
When it comes to the printer’s footprint, the P600 is somewhat smaller than a 3880, but not by a huge amount. If you have room for one you’ll likely have room for the other.
There’s a lot to like about the Epson P600. At USD $799 it is somewhat less expensive than the Epson 3880. I can’t really be definitive on this because as of early April,2015 there are rebates, promotions and sales on the 3880 which would cause one to think that it is scheduled for an update some time in the months ahead, though there has been no word on this either from Epson or even via the rumour mill.
The P600 has higher resolution that previous models (other than the R3000, which it somewhat resembles), but I believe that we reached the limits of print resolution perceptibility a while ago, and so this isn’t something that draws me. On the other hand, higher d-Max on both the Photo and Matte black ink-set is a big deal, as is the likelihood of greater image longevity.
Built-in Wi-Fi connectivity is another plus, as is the colour LCD touch panel. There is even a new front loading media path for thick speciality papers, and also for printing on CDs (remember CDs?).
Overall I found the Epson P600 to be a worthwhile update to the Epson printer line, and likely the finest 13″ printer on the market today. I can highly recommend it, with the only caveat being that if you do high volumes of printing or need a wider carriage, you might want to consider the Epson 3880 as a current alternative.
The P600’s improved d-Max using Matte black ink is a huge step up over anything seen before, and will sway quite a few people toward this printer.
Michael – April, 2015