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.
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