If you've been eyeing the Epson Stylus Photo 2100 but balking at its price, get ready to pull out your wallet. Its A4-size sibling, the Stylus Photo R800, delivers equal or better print quality at a much faster speed and a much more attractive price. While its printhead can be a little finicky, the R800 still makes the top of our shopping list. But before you buy, you might want to consider the cheaper, fuller-featured and less high-maintenance HP Photosmart 7960.
Like every other inkjet printer on the market, the Stylus Photo R800 is dressed in black and silver plastic. The input and output paper trays cleverly fold into the printer to minimise volume, and the top tray folds down into a relatively flat surface, which makes it perfect for holding piles of paper. While the R800 isn't small, curved, or sleek, it uses a captive power cable rather than the brick AC adapt0r that allows many printers to save room on the desk. I'd take an adaptor-free printer over one with a marginally smaller footprint.
Though it can print on CDs and DVDs, the R800 lacks a straight-through paper path, which may discourage those who like to experiment with media. Overall, the Epson's L-shaped paper path works well with a variety of media sizes and weights, although in my dusty office, a covered input tray -- the kind used by HP -- would be a lot more practical.
Four icon-labelled buttons populate the front panel. They control the roll-paper input feed mechanism, the paper-feed and job-cancellation functions, ink cartridge loading and the power. All but the roll-paper button have bright LEDs so that you can spot a low-ink warning or an empty paper tray from across the room. It's very easy to change the individual ink cartridges (eight in all), and Epson provides a helpful instructional diagram with a list of the cartridges' manufacturer IDs.
The R800 has room for both the Matte Black and Photo Black cartridges, so no switching is necessary. But the R800 lacks an ink-out light panel to tell you which cartridges are low or empty. Instead, the carrier goes the extra distance to sit underneath a plastic arrow that points you to the cartridge -- a less elegant solution.
This isn't a printer for the snapshot photographer. It's easy enough to use, thanks to a swap-free cartridge lineup and a driver that has dual Advanced and Basic personalities. But the shoot-and-print audience would probably be better off with features such as a built-in card reader and a straight-through paper path for thick stock rather than this model's ability to print on CDs and DVDs, its extremely flexible driver and its roll-paper feeder. The R800 comes with drivers for most recent flavours of Windows, as well as Mac OS 8.6 to 9.2.x and OS X 10.1.3 or later. However, the R800 doesn't support PictBridge for printing directly from a digital camera.
Epson's latest version of its UltraChrome pigmented ink set, which debuts in this model, supplements the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow and Photo Black or Matte Black selection with red and blue inks. That, plus a gloss optimiser, which keeps blacks looking shiny on glossy paper, brings the total to eight cartridges. The R800 has a nominal resolution of 5,760x1,440dpi, and the printheads have 180 nozzles each.
You can connect the printer via USB or FireWire -- a welcome touch if, like me, you already have seven devices plugged into your USB hub. FireWire also provides a high-speed connection option for older, pre-USB 2.0 Macs. If you're feeling adventurous, you can connect two systems to the printer simultaneously; just don't send a print job until the previous one is finished (there's no built-in spooler).
The Basic and Advanced modes of the driver provide identical page layout and maintenance tasks but differ in the complexity of their selectable colour and quality settings. You have a myriad of options, from almost fully configurable to fully automatic. At the most granular level, the printer lets you manually set brightness, contrast, and saturation; the density of the cyan, yellow, and magenta inks; how to apply the relevant colour profile using Saturation, Perceptual, Absolute Colourimetric, and Relative Colourimetric mapping; and choose an output gamma of 1.5, 1.8, or 2.2. You can also turn off printer colour management entirely and use software profiles, which many Photoshop users tend to do.
For intermediate users, PhotoEnhance mode lets you apply several effects, such as Soft Focus and Parchment, adjust sharpness, and select a tonal preset, such as Vivid or Sepia. A Digital Camera Correction check box enables what is referred to in the Advanced mode as edge smoothing, which blurs the edges of low-resolution digital camera and Web images in order to prevent jaggies. In practice, I usually see little to no difference using this setting, with the exception of visible oversharpening on hair. For minimalists, the driver lets you choose from quality options such as Text And Image, Photo, and Best Photo, as well as pick paper type and select borderless printing for 101x127mm, 127x178mm, 203x254mm, and panoramic photos.
As with any good printer, the R800 has options for reducing or enlarging the source item; printing multiple pages on a single piece of paper, booklets, or double-sided documents; and adding a watermark. And not only does this printer tell you when your ink is low, then gone, it has a Buy Ink button that takes you to Epson's Web store.
So with all this control, what could I possibly have to complain about? The driver doesn't reveal any resolution information, nor does it let you set output resolution manually. The only applicable item that Epson shares in the manual is that Photo RPM mode prints at the maximum resolution. But I still don't know what Best Photo means.