Farewel Photo Lab?

With digital cameras getting better and cheaper, people are naturally using them to record more of their memories. While digital photos have their advantages, until recently you couldn't readily give a friend or relative a print from one to stick into the family album. Instead, you had to download the photos to your PC and then use an inkjet printer.

Today you have another option: you can use one of the new breed of portable "snapshot" printers that produce prints quickly and simply. Most of them can read directly from the SmartMedia or CompactFlash memory cards that your digital camera uses, so you don't need a PC. Some can even crop and enhance pictures without a PC. They do have limitations: none of the four printers we tested (from Acer, Canon Polaroid and Sony) can produce normal prints larger than 4x6in (although two can do panoramic shots), and we also discovered that image quality sometimes fell short of what you could expect to get from a good inkjet printer. Nonetheless, these printers provide a quick and easy way to make prints of digital photos.

To test each device, we printed digital photographs of a range of subjects and asked our panel to rate the quality of each print. For comparison, we also printed our test photos on a high-end inkjet unit, HP's $899 PhotoSmart 1218 - one of the few inkjets that have ports for CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards, and one of the best we've tested for printing photos.

In many cases, we thought the PhotoSmart 1218 printed better-looking photos than our four snapshot printers; its colours, especially, were sometimes richer and more vivid. Still, inkjets continue to have problems with fading prints. Independent research by Wilhelm Research has shown that while prints from every type of printer fade eventually, dye-sublimation prints remain vivid much longer than those from inkjet printers.

How it works

The printing process that dye-sublimation printers use differs from that of inkjets: instead of spraying jets of ink onto a page as inkjet printers do, dye-sublimation printers apply a dye from a dry ribbon. Heat diffuses the dye onto specially treated paper. These printers use a three-pass system, in which cyan, magenta and yellow dyes are layered on top of each other; they then add a clear coat to protect the print against ultraviolet light. Done properly, this technique creates a smooth picture free of the dithering you see on inkjet prints.

Dye-sublimation has one major shortcoming - production cost. Prints from photo printers can be much more expensive than those that have been developed from standard film. On the other hand, you're printing digital shots, so you can choose only the photos you want. Printers based on dye-sublimation technology are expensive to manufacture, and the cost increases as the printing area gets bigger. All the dye-sublimation printers we reviewed are limited to 4x6in or smaller prints. If you move up to a dye-sublimation printer that can produce an 8x10, the price rises dramatically. These full-size units, though, deliver stunning results, to judge from prints we created with Olympus's Camedia P-400 - which costs $3000.

DPOF demystified

All the printers examined in this round-up - except the Acer - can print directly from digital camera memory cards and also support Digital Print Order Format, which lets you select the pictures you want to print, quickly and directly. With DPOF, you preview the images and mark those you want to print before removing the media from the camera. Then you put the memory card in the printer, and it picks the tagged shots and turns them into prints. Some small dye-sublimation printers let you use a TV screen to view and select shots to print. If a TV set is not at hand and you're bypassing the computer, DPOF is the one remaining workable solution. The only other alternatives are impractical: to print everything in your camera, or to try to remember which photos are which by number.

Photo printer reviews

- Acer FotoPrisa 300P

At just $275, the Acer FotoPrisa is the least-expensive snapshot printer we reviewed. With a sleek, black case, a weight of just over 3kg, and a small footprint, the FotoPrisa looks easy to tote around, but you won't want to: it prints photos only from a PC. The FotoPrisa attaches to a computer via the parallel port; it has no slots for digital camera media. Printing from a PC is not as quick and easy as printing from a memory card, which is a big limitation. A second port at the back of the FotoPrisa's case simplifies the task of adding the unit to a standard peripheral, allowing you to plug your regular printer into the back of the FotoPrisa.

We had no trouble setting up the Acer unit, and its simple controls consist of ready and status lights. Within a few minutes, we were printing our first photo from a PC. The printer comes with Ulead's Photo Express image-editing software for touching up photos, creating an album, and making birthday cards and invitations from templates.

Printing a 4x5in photo with the FotoPrisa took a little over two minutes, longer than with some other printers we tested, but acceptable. Photo quality was good, too: at its fixed resolution of 300x600dpi, the FotoPrisa's prints showed fine detail and smooth transitions, but colours looked a bit too orange. Of the four printers reviewed here, only the Sony produces larger prints - 4x6in - than the Acer's maximum 4x5in.

Bottom line: if you store photos on your PC anyway, you may not need the versatility of a dye-sublimation printer. The FotoPrisa's price is certainly right.

- Canon Digital Printer CD-300

The Canon CD-300 can print images in several ways. It can connect to your PC via the parallel port, and it can pull images directly from a PC Card or from a CompactFlash card (but SmartMedia requires an optional adapter).

On top of that, it's the only unit we tested that's able to print directly from a video camera, through the printer's video or S-Video port. The CD-300 is bundled with Canon's own Home Lab software for touching up photos and turning them into calendars or birthday cards; you can also edit images in the printer and preview the results on a TV without using a PC.

The CD-300 produced the second-best photo quality of the group, with beautiful colours, smooth transitions, subtle shading, and detail nearly as sharp as the Sony's. You can print 4x10in panoramic prints, and Canon includes paper and a cassette tray for panoramic pictures. You'll have to wait a while for your photos, however: the CD-300 took just over three minutes per 4x6in photo.

The Canon's heady assortment of features comes at a price: the $1059 CD-300 is the most expensive printer in this group, $160 more than an inkjet such as the HP PhotoSmart 1218 that produces photo-quality output. It's al-so one of the heaviest printers (at around 2.7kg), and it can't operate off batteries.

- Polaroid P-500

The P-500 is the most portable printer in our review. Priced at $US249, it measures a mere 2.2x7.3x2.4in, and weighs less than 500g. It uses standard Polaroid Type 500 film, and includes a strap so you can toss it over your shoulder. The Polaroid prints from CompactFlash cards, and from SmartMedia cards with an included adapter; it doesn't work with a PC or a television.

Printing could not be easier - just load the film pack and go. The battery that powers the printer resides in the film pack. If the battery runs out, you can't use the rest of the prints in the pack, but, fortunately, the printer shuts down automatically after a few seconds of inactivity. The P-500 creates the smallest prints of the group, at just under 2x3in. Moreover, Polaroid's film isn't cheap at $14.95 for a pack of 10.

The P-500's biggest liability, however, is its print quality. Its small prints look somewhat fuzzy and lack the three-dimensionality of those from the other snapshot printers. In our speed tests, prints popped out in just 32 seconds, but, as with Polaroid instant cameras, you have to wait another 90 seconds for the photo to develop.nThe P-500's portoability makes this printer a fun device to add to your digital camera. Still, it is rather limited, and the price is a bit steep for what you get. Although this printer wasn't on the market at the time we were preparing this story, Polaroid Australia plans to launch the P-500 locally in the third quarter of this year.

- Sony DPP-SV55

Sony's $949 dye-sublimation printer appeals to our sense of nostalgia, with a brushed metal look and a wide, flat case that resembles a 1970s' tape recorder. Like the Canon, the SV55 is versatile and has a lot of extra features. It connects via USB to a PC and includes slots for printing straight from a Sony Memory Stick or from a PC Card, though you'll need optional adapters to use SmartMedia or CompactFlash cards.

Printing directly from a card is easy. You can use DPOF to mark the images in the camera or connect the printer to a TV. From there you simply preview photos and choose the one you want to print; you can also use the buttons on the SV55's control panel to zoom, crop, change contrast, and rotate images.

In addition, the SV55 can create calendars and cards with messages on them using creative print funcunittions built into the printer. At jus t over 2kg, the SV55 isn't terribly heavy to carry, but it can't run off batteries.

Printing at 403"x403dpi resolution, the SV55 produced the best prints of the four units we tested (though the Canon CD-300 wasn't far behind), with realistic colours and fine detail. The Sony's speed was reasonably good - under two minutes for a 4x6in print - and the paper that comes with it has perforated edges just inside the "print area for edge-to-edge printing. And with a price $110 lower than the Canon's, the Sony is a better deal.

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Lisa Cekan

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