Epson’s new inkjet printers in 2003

On Oct. 3, Epson started selling a new generation of inkjet printers replacing almost their entire line of A4-size inkjets.

The main feature of the new printers is the newly-developed dye and pigment (archival) inks that are much more fade-resistant than the old inks. In Japan, they are calling it “tsuyo ink” meaning strong inks. (Symbolized by a muscle man cartoon character.)

The previous top-of-the-line models, PM-980C and PM-940C which came out only 5 months ago, are now discontinued. They are replaced by the new top-of-the-line PX-G900 (pictured above) and PM-G800. The “PX” designation refers to pigment-based ink while “PM” is for dye-ink photo printers

The large-format (A3-size), pigment-ink PM-4000PX (Epson Stylus Photo 2200 in the USA) is still available. However, I’m sure it will be replaced soon by a model compatible with the new pigment inks. Since it came out in spring 2002, it’s due for a replacement.

Pigment vs. dye inks
In Japanese, pigment ink is called “ganryo” (顔料), while dye ink is “senryo” (染料). Epson’s pigment inks are resin-coated, making them much more durable than dye inks. Some people call it archival inks.

Epson has offered pigment inks before (for the PM-4000PX), but the old pigment inks had to be printed on dull, matte paper. They weren’t compatible with glossy paper. However, the new pigment inks can now be used with the same glossy paper used for dye inks. (New glossy paper for the 4000PX will come out later in Oct.).

Furthermore, the new pigment inks for the top-of-the-line PX-G900 has a thicker coat of resin to make it more glossy. There is also an ink called the “gloss optimizer” which acts as a transparent filler between the sparse ink dots printed on the highlight areas of the image. It makes the image look more even and reinforces the adhesion of the pigment dots on the paper.

The PX-G900, the top-of-the-line
On the day it went on sale on Oct. 3, I ran out and bought one at Yodobashi. Cost me about 47,000 yen (including 5% tax) with 13% credit, so maybe about 41,000 yen in total.

I had been using Epson’s low-end PM-740DU photo inkjet which came out in April this year. I was quite happy with it until I learned that the photos might fade over time. So I wanted a pigment ink photo printer but Epson only had the large-format (A3-size) PM-4000PX which was too big and expensive for daily use. So the A4-size PX-G900 was the printer I was waiting for. For the first time, Epson’s top-of-the-line A4-size inkjet is now pigment ink-based.

While spending the weekend making a few hundred photos with this printer, here’s what I discovered about the printer:
– The printer uses 8 ink tanks which include two blacks (photo black and matte black, only one is used at a time) and the gloss optimizer. (They also sell the complete pack of 8 ink tanks for 7,000 yen. If you buy them separately, it’s 1,050 yen each.)

– The new pigment inks are compatible with normal glossy photo paper for dye inks. You are not limited to matte paper like before.

– The pigment ink’s extra-thick resin coating actually makes the picture look more glossy than the glossy paper’s original gloss. If you print with borders, you can see the difference in the gloss between the image area and the white borders. There is a visible boundary between the glossy photo that outshines the less-glossy white borders. The picture actually looks like it has a very thin lamination film covering it.

– When I compare the same photos printed with my low-end dye-based PM-740DU printer (6 colors) and the PX-G900, the color range of the pigment-based prints looked slightly better with truer blacks.
Conclusion: Color and image quality is better with pigment inks.

– At 1.5 pl (picoliters), the dot size is smaller than ever. (The PM-4000PX shoots 4 pl dots.)

– The printing speed is pretty fast. The actual printing time depends on your computer and the image quality settings. I use both a Pentium 4 (USB 2.0) and a Mac G4 (FireWire), and the printing is slower on my 2-year-old Mac perhaps due to the slower CPU. It takes my Mac about 15 sec. to “think” before the printer actually starts to print the next photo. But with my Win machine, there’s almost no thinking time. (I include the thinking time in the printing time.)

The printer comes with a software program called PhotoQuicker for printing photos. It provides three image quality settings: Normal, Fine, and Ultra-fine. The printing time for Ultra-fine is more than double that of Normal. For an L-size print (9 x 12.5 cm or 3.5 x 5 in.), it takes my Pentium 4 machine 2 min. to print in Ultra-fine mode for a borderless print. (It takes more time to print borderless than bordered prints.) My Mac G4 takes 2 min. 20 sec.

– The image quality difference of the Normal, Fine, and Ultra-fine modes are hardly noticeable with the naked eye. However, the differences are quite apparent when you look at the photos with an 8x magnifier. The Normal mode clearly shows microscopic banding of the ink dots (the dots look like rows in a rice paddy). The Fine mode only has slight banding. And the Ultra-fine mode shows a very even and pleasing pattern of dots with no microscopic banding.

– When you select the borderless setting, PhotoQuicker gives you three additional options: Minimal trimming, Less trimming, and Normal trimming. This is my favorite feature.

Borderless prints are made by enlarging the image to cover the entire paper area. But in doing so, part of the image is cut off along the edges. This has always been one of my pet peeves for borderless printing even with film. A critical part of the image is often near the picture edge that is cut away in the print. So if you want to see the entire image, you have to make bordered prints.

But I prefer borderless prints and finally there is a way to minimize the image cutoff at the edges. At the “Normal trimming” setting, about 3 to 4 mm of the picture edge is cut away in the borderless print. That’s a substantial chunk of picture especially if you have someone standing right at the edge of a group photo. You sure don’t want to see only half of her face.

Fortunately, at the “Minimal trimming” setting, only about 1 mm is cut away. So just about the entire picture is included. However, there is a minor compromise: the print ends up with a tiny white border on the right side (horizontal photo), about 1mm wide. It’s noticeable, but not enough to bother me. This occurs also with 2L (similar to 5×7 in.) and A4-size prints. The same 1mm border is there.

So I normally use the “Minimal trimming” setting (called “yori sukunai hamidashi” in Japanese). The help manual does mention that a border might appear at this setting. At the “Less trimming” setting, more of the picture is cutoff (maybe about 2 or 3 mm) but there are absolutey no borders. The worst “Normal trimming” is good if you want a slight enlargement of the image and don’t have anything important along the picture edges.

The software provides a small preview image for each trimming setting so you can see how much of the image will be cut off.

– Epson’s PhotoQuicker program for printing photos works well. But it’s still a hassle to enlarge the image on the screen from the thumbnails. And when it’s enlarged, you cannot select it on the spot for printing. You have to go back to the thumbnails and press the image’s button to select it for printing. It’s hard to choose photos for printing just by looking at the thumbnails, so they should make it easier to enlarge the photos on the spot.

There are basic retouching features for brightness and color saturation and photo touch-up mode for low-res photos taken with camera phones. You can also add insert text information at the bottom of the photo such as the title, date and time, and shooting data (shutter speed, aperture, etc.) if it’s an Exif image.

– The printer has an attractive design and shape with a silver finish. The printer cover has a transparent window through which you can see the print head going back and forth as the paper is printed.

– Printing operation is very quiet (except when it grabs the paper).

– It prints CD discs very well. Epson’s software, called Multi-PrintQuicker, for printing on CDs is very good. I can choose my own photos to cover the CD and can add text in any font, size, and color. The text can be shaped in an arc along the round edge or be formatted vertically or horizontally. The result on inkjet-compatible CDs looks great too. Printing speed is fast, but you still have to print CDs one by one because the CD must be loaded manually one at a time.

The program can also print business cards (business card paper is available from Epson) and on roll paper for panorama photos. The roll paper cutter is sold separately.

Epson will also soon offer a paper photo album and photo stand media that you can print on to make a 12-page photo album and photo stand.

– The printer has USB 2.0 and IEEE1394 (FireWire) ports on the rear. However, only one port can be used at a time. When I connected the USB port to my Win machine and IEEE1394 to my Mac, the printer didn’t work until I unplugged one of the two connectors.

– I can only feed 20 sheets of photo paper at a time, so it’s a hassle to keep feeding paper when you’re printing a lot of photos.

I’m very happy with this printer. It’s a great feeling to know that the thousands of prints I make with this printer will last a long time and not fade.

Epson’s latest inkjet product brochure is also shocking. It shows a photo of a Japanese bride badly faded after 1 year. It was made by Epson’s previous top-of-the-line PM-980C with the old dye ink. But the same photo printed with the new dye ink (with the PM-G700) looks fine after 1 year. So how does that make PM-980C owners feel?? It’s such a major defect that Epson should recall their previous injket printers and give a refund.

If you’re in Japan, go to the camera store and check out the sample comparative photos in Epson’s portfolio of sample prints. (Also take a magnifier.) If what they say is true, these inks are really revolutionary. The bottom line is that pigment inks last much longer than dye inks.

In this respect, Canon lags behind because they still don’t have any inkjet printers using color pigment inks. (They might only have black pigment ink.) They just put out a new top-of-the-line inkjet (Pixus 990i) too, but it uses dye inks with bigger 2 pl droplets. Since Canon printers heat up the ink to form the droplets ejected on the paper, their inks must be heat-resistant. Perhaps this requirement is hampering their development of pigment inks.

If you have a Canon digital camera, using a Canon printer will be more convenient. (I tried to use the software that came with my Canon digital camera [PowerShot S50] to print with the Epson, but it doesn’t work well.)

Canon also has a few portable printers like the elegant-looking inkjet Pixus 50i and dye-sub CP-300. However, the 50i is still a little too big and heavy to carry around and the image quality is a little too grainy for my tastes. The CP-300 is definitely small and light enough to carry around on trips (so you can give photos on the spot to the people you photograph) and the image quality is great. But the paper has perforations that you have to cut off after printing.

Next, I look forward to Epson’s new large-format, pigment-based inkjet printer. There’s no announcement yet for a replacement, but the PM-4000PX’s days are numbered. Perhaps I’ll start holding photo exhibitions after I buy the new A3-size pigment printer.

P.S. In early Dec., Epson will introduce the new PX-6000. It’s a large-format, pigment-based printer that prints huge A2-size (about 60×42 cm) prints. The print is twice as big as the A3 size that the PM-4000PX printer makes. It has a new gray ink that makes B/W prints look better. The only problem is that the retail price will be a whopping 228,000 yen, beyond my budget for sure.