In addition to excellent print quality, the Stylus Photo R800 is the hare to the rest of Epson's tortoise-slow printers. It suffers from a quirk that impatient users might find a deal breaker, however (see the 'Print quality' section below for more).
Speed and operation
The Epson Stylus Photo R800 is among the fastest inkjets we've tested -- and it's the company's quickest by a long shot. It takes only 2.7 minutes to print out a high-quality photo fit to an A4 page. This is a big improvement for Epson, which has been known to sacrifice speed for quality. Don't plan on using the R800 for more than the occasional text document, however; its throughput of about 2ppm (pages per minute) can't compare to that of more multipurpose-oriented inkjets. For example, the HP Photosmart 7960 can pump out text at close to 4.6ppm.
The R800 also has an improved printhead carrier mechanism, which allows it to operate quietly and more efficiently. In previous models, the printhead would move back and forth several times before finally stopping in the correct spot to change inks. Now, the carrier just goes there and parks. Like all Epson inkjet printers, the R800 stops printing if one of its ink cartridges runs out -- a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it helps keep you from wasting ink. On the other, when you're close to draining several cartridges and want to use each cartridge as long as possible, you'll have to deal with endless pop-up warnings and replacing a different cartridge every few minutes. Thankfully, the ink cost is very competitive with that of comparable models.
First, the good news: I was extremely impressed with the R800's prints, most notably its black-and-white photos. Not only are they incredibly sharp and detailed, with very good dynamic range and neutral grays, they also show far less metamerism -- the tendency to develop different colour casts under different lights -- than other photo printers. The addition of a gloss overcoat for blacks is another bonus, preventing blacks on glossy paper from looking matte compared to the rest of the inks.
Colour photos look very good as well, and the printer can produce the neutral, colour-accurate output important to enthusiasts as well as saturated, consumer-friendly photos. I compared some blue- and red-intensive photos from a variety of printers to see if the addition of those primaries improved the R800's colour reproduction. However, I couldn't spot any significant differences, nor could I detect any real variation between the Photo RPM (5,760x1,440dpi) prints and the Best Photo-quality ones. In fact, output resolution that high is more useful for line art and text, for which it's unfortunately unavailable, than for most photos.
The quality carries across a variety of paper types, from a 90gsm bright-white plain paper to Epson's best glossy. If you're planning to use plain paper for drafts and the good stuff for final prints, you'll have to create some paper-specific colour profiles, since plain-paper prints have a stronger cyan cast than those produced on the better paper. Though graphics output at the default Fine setting yielded fairly mediocre results, resulting in relatively jagged lines and font edges, I saw excellent, sharp text and graphics, even on good plain paper, when I upped the quality to Best Photo.
Which brings me to the bad news: as with most Epson printers -- it's been true for every model I've used for the past 10 years -- the Stylus Photo R800 has a serious quirk to which you must cater if you want consistently good prints. If you change from a high-quality setting to a lower one, essentially decreasing print resolution, you're going to get the ugly striations that often indicate a clogged nozzle. I usually circumvent this issue by printing everything at the highest resolution rather than running endless head-cleaning cycles, but less forgiving users might want to steer clear of Epson altogether.
CNET Labs project leader Dong Van Ngo contributed to this section
Additional editing by Nick Hide