Globbing, streaking, smearing

May 17th, 2005  |  Published in old and busted

I don’t, as a rule, think much of inkjet printers of the kind I can afford. I’ve been through several in the past several years, and the initial surge of admiration I feel for the latest one I’ve brought home always dims to dull acceptance of whatever problems inevitably surface.

I was an HP fan for a while. I had an HP Deskjet a long while back, and it was pretty sturdy and nice until it died. And it was before digital photography, so all it had to do was produce the occasional bit of line art or plain old text.

But the HP Deskjet 400 that followed it was pretty lame, so I switched loyalties to Epson.

The Epsons are always nice at first, but their all-in-one ink cartridges and screwy design mean that non-daily users have to deal with globbing and dried out print heads and all sorts of other unpleasantness. By not using my last Epson, a PhotoStylus 825, daily, I incurred a monthly “new ink cartridge” fee of over $20 per month. And its driver support under OS X was atrocious. Getting an edgeless 4×6 involved a ridiculous roll system that only made sense while the sales guy was explaining it.

In fact, I’ve ended up hating so many inkjet printers (that I can afford) so many times that I’ve decided if I want a really, really nice print, I’ll just send the file to Apple and let them print it out on Kodak paper using printers that I can’t afford.

But I still need a printer for day to day, so after marking about $200 in inkjet refills in the past 18 months with the Epson, I jumped ship to Canon. Since I didn’t want to go over $100 for a printer that’s going to mostly be printing out maps and Fandango tickets, I went with the Pixma iP3000.

While I fully expect it will incur my wrath if I ever try to make a real print with it on a moment’s notice (prime time for an inkjet to reveal that it’s been keeping a pool of stale, dusty ink in some crevice somewhere, waiting to ruin that 8×10 print you’re doing for someone’s birthday), for a workhorse printer it’s got some nice things going on.

For instance:

  • It has a small paper tray as well as a quick feed. So if you’re wont to make a bunch of 5x7s but also need to shuffle the occasional full-size text job through, there’s no shuffling guides around.

  • It has auto power off and on. So it goes to sleep after a set interval (I’ve got mine set at 30 minutes, which seems to be a decent amount of time for a PhotoShop fiddling session to end without producing a second print), and it wakes up when a job gets sent to it. So the heads can park and keep from drying out that much longer.

  • Fast. Up to 22 ppm printing draft text. I know it’ll come out slower than that for anything really readable, but even half that is speedy enough. 36 seconds for a full-quality color 4×6.

  • Unlike the Epson, it doesn’t spend three minutes weezing and shuffling around when a job gets sent to it. It’s pretty fast to start printing.

  • Simple interface. There are two buttons on the front panel: One to toggle between the tray and the sheet feeder, one to reset it. It also has a power button. That’s it.

  • Lovely prints. This is low on the list because technically I’m not supposed to care thanks to the miracle of one-click print ordering from Apple. But the 4x6s I got out of it today were very nice. People on Amazon say “as good as you can get from a photo lab!” but I remember when people were saying “Typewriter quality!” about the output of 20 pin dot matrix printers, and usually they were just temporarily insane because they’d been living under the tyranny of “NLQ mode” in the nine-pin world for so long. So, no: A photographic print is still somewhat nicer and doesn’t have a few artifacts consumer inkjet output has. On the other hand, stick it in a photo album or behind glass, and limit yourself to either 4×6, 5×7 or your most perfect shots at best resolution at 8×10, and it’s probably close enough for all but people who wouldn’t consider a $99 printer in the first place. We’ve been looking to do some more 5x7s of favorite pictures to handle some of the extra wall space we’ve picked up in the new digs, and I’ll happily use it for that.

  • Good driver. Plenty of consumer-grade choices in an easy-to-figure-out interface.

How simple is the interface? I had a borderless 4×6 to rival the best I ever got out of my last Epson on my second try. The first try was a wash because I forgot to toggle the printer over to the tray instead of the sheet feeder. The second try was perfect. After a few more runs I saved all my settings to a preset I called “4×6 Photo Paper in the Tray” (since the tray/feeder preference is driver selectable), and from now on I’ll be able to get a 4×6 print with a bunch of sensible options in 2 clicks.

It has one other feature I find pretty useless: PictBridge printing.

I don’t find the feature useless because I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to print straight from camera to printer. I actually can. It makes sense for the way people are being pushed to use digital cameras, which is “in a manner that’s heavy on getting them into the consumables ASAP.”

At 30 cents a print (plus whatever bit over the top of that is ink), why encourage a lot of margin-nibbling fiddling around or culling in iPhoto when you can encourage an approach that gets the consumer to print first, cull later? Novices coming over from 35mm point-n-shoots or disposable cameras, who may have viewed film photography as a sort of black box into which they put their memories and occasionally draw forth things that mostly look like what they remember, will be ahead anyhow: The preview on their camera will let them get rid of the obvious crap, and the minor focus errors or problems the thumbnail preview on the digital camera doesn’t reveal won’t be so egregious that using PictBridge is considered a lottery.

Though I’m not a serious photographer, I don’t share every picture I take, and I don’t tend to print many. So while I “get” PictBridge, I can’t see paying the money it would involve to use PictBridge as it’s intended, considering the volume I’ll shoot hoping for the 10 percent of a given set I’ll really like, and the one percent or less that I’d be willing to hang on my wall.

So I got off one quick shot of some random crap around the house and connected the camera to the printer and tried out the feature. It’s neat in a “huh, neat,” sort of way, and I’m guessing it will have genuine utility one day in some sort of specifically dweebish or hackish manner. But it’s not for me at the moment, and I wouldn’t miss it if I didn’t have it.

More on the OS X tip re: the printing experience:

Printer sharing works great between Macs out of the box. Once the printer was configured for the eMac, the iBook was able to find it and use it right away.

Printer sharing with Windows is a little trickier.

Apple provides a download of Bonjour (formerly known as Rendezvous) for Windows that aids in autodiscovery of an available shared printer. It’s a little less complex than just using SMB/CIFS to find a printer by drilling down through the workgroup/machine hierarchy, but you’ve got to download it and install it first, so points to Apple for bringing the tech to Windows but … whatever.

The problem with the Bonjour route is that it leaves out a minor detail: You can’t actually use the printer’s actual driver. The Windows client has to send the job as Postscript to the Mac sharing the printer, which then runs the job through its own driver and on to the printer. So the way to make a remote printer work from a Windows client is to select an Apple color Postscript driver regardless of what Windows thinks the driver should be.

Once that was accomplished, everything was groovy.

That’s sort of sad, though. It means any Windows client, as near as I can tell, is a second-class citizen in terms of the kinds of jobs it can send up. None of the nicer features the native driver offers are available. So it’s fine for printing a quick document or map or whatever, but not so good for printing a picture. But technically I don’t care about that.

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