Epson Stylus Pro 11880
Looking Over The Horizon
We all like looking over the hill to see what's coming next. With the exponential rate of change which technology now gives us, having a sense of what's coming next can also be a form of economic sense, as it is not at all uncommon for one to buy what appears to be the latest and greatest only to find the next day that something new has just been announced. (If you want to have a better appreciation for what exponential technological change has in store for us, read The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurtzweil. It was recently recommended to me by Bill Atkinson, and is a real eye-opener).
That next big thing, at least in the world of photographic quality inkjet printers, is now available from Epson. As I write this the Stylus Pro 11880 has been on the market for a few months, and through the kind auspices of Epson I have had one in my printing studio for testing for almost as long. A combination of travel, the holiday season and teaching commitments has prevented me from putting fingers to keyboard as quickly as I would have liked, but I have been printing with the 11880 every chance that I've had, and I'm smitten.
There is no doubt that this U.S. $15,000, 64 inch wide, nine ink channel printer is likely the finest printer yet available for photographic printing. But given its price and size it is not likely to find a home other than in high-end commercial printing studios. Nevertheless it is a harbinger of what's coming next from Epson, and so is well worth our while to have a close look at.
The box that the 11880 is delivered in could house a family of four. You will want a truck with a lift gate to make the delivery, unless you have a standard loading dock, and be sure to have at least three if not four strong men on hand to take delivery and set the printer up on its stand. Once it's on wheels it isn't that bad to move around, though it's not the type of thing that one wants to move more often than necessary.
The basic cosmetic design is much along the lines of previous Epson large format printers, and that's no bad thing. In fact the top loading roll paper is a design bonus with paper this big as it takes at least two people to safely lift and carry a 60" roll of paper. The HP Z series printers, by comparison, require that the printer be moved outward from the wall to access the rear roll loading position, something that I've grown really frustrated with.
Handling large rolls is also aided by the fact that Epson has designed the top panel with a rolling ramp, so all one needs to do is put the spindle through the paper roll, secure the end caps, and then push the roll up the ramp and into the channels. Very clever. The printer is also supplied with an automated take-up spool, so large print jobs can be left unattended. There was no catch basket available when I got my early production printer, and so my prints are falling on the floor, but that's another story.
Set-up is straightforward, with the real shock coming when you handle the 700ML ink cartridges for the first time. That's almost 3/4 of a liter per cart, at a price of about $250 each. (That's $2,500 for a set of 10 ink carts – not for the faint of heart nor thin of wallet). The printer ships with so-called "starter" carts, but even with doing a lot of large format printing it was almost a month before I had to replace the first one, and even now, some three months later, I am still on some of the starters. So though I have no hard numbers to share with you at this time, my sense is that the 11880 will prove to be a very economical printer in the long run.
There is a great deal that's new in the 11880, with the 9 channel heads being at the top of the list of highlights. The head is described somewhat redundantly as MicoPiezo Thin Film Piezo technology and has a dot pitch of 360 nozzles per inch, producing 3.5 picoliters per dot. This new head finally allows both Photo black and Matte black inks to be loaded and switched automatically, something that has been lacking in Epson printers for the past few years.
What is truly impressive is seeing a photomicrograph of the dot pattern at 5000X magnification. The precision placement and sizing of the dots is finer than anything I've seen before. But, does this translate into sharper naked eye images? There's room for debate since I've shown visitors to my studio a selection of matched prints made on the 11880 and also the 7800, as well as prints from Canon and HP large fomat pigment printers which I also have on hand. General agreement is that though it's quite tough to see a difference without the aid of a loupe the difference is actually there.
What does translate into real-world benefits though is the speed with which the 11880 and this large head can print. It's noticeably faster than any other photographic printer that I've ever used, and this is with the driver set to its highest quality settings.
Epson also incorporates something called AccuPhoto HD which is their latest dithering technology, (it was first seen in the 3800). This is the code which controls the screening algorithms and which is responsible for dot placement. Again, photomicrographs show a much finer blending, and tonal as well as colour transitions, while to the naked eye reproduction as as excellent as ever.
Epson's latest K3 pigment inks with Vivid Magenta are claimed to have a wider gamut that before, and indeed, as can be seen in the plot immediately below, when compared to the previous K3 inks there is a clear increase in the gamut. What I've noticed when comparing prints is that it appears to be most noticeable in increased quarter tone densities and saturation as much as it is in colour ramps.
Epson 7800 vs Epson 11880
Gamut plot with Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper
On a more practical level one of the joys of working with the 11880 is that it incorporates automatic nozzle checking and print head alignment technologies. The bottom line on this is that banding, head clogs, and all of the other ills which we've become accustomed to in inkjet printing appear to be a thing of the past.
The 11880 is constantly monitoring its heads, even in the middle of running a print, and if a clog or misalignment is found it will self correct itself. In the months that I've been printing with the 11880 I have yet to experience anything other than smooth and flawless performance. If this is indicative of what we can expect from future-generation printers from Epson then the millennium has truly arrived for photographers.
Certainly with its new head technology the 11880 portends what we can eventually expect from Epson printers of somewhat smaller width. Clearly there will be 17", 24" and 44" printers feature these new heads, if not even something more advanced, and with simultaneous blacks, of course.
When can we expect these? Your guess is as good as mine, though I'd be surprised if we didn't see them ship any later than Q3 2008.
NB: Joe Holmes has a very comprehensive report and commentary on the 11880, including a lot of technical details which I have therefore only briefly mentioned here, since there is little point repeating what Joe has already done such a good job of reporting.