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Epson Stylus Photo 1280 / 1290

NewThis subject will be featured in a forthcoming issue of  The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.

Once More With Feeling

Like clockwork — and as it does every 12 months, in early 2001 Epson released its next-generation photographic printer, the Epson Stylus Photo 1280. (In some worldwide markets it is also called the 1290 — same printer, just a different name). There is also an 890 model, offing the same image quality but with a narrower paper transport. Everything I write here about the 1280 applies to the 1290 and also to the 890, in that particular case with the exception of paper-width handling ability.

It's been exactly a year since the Epson 1270 appeared. At that time it caused a real stir among desktop printers. It offered 6 inks, 1440 dpi output resolution and 20 — 30 years colorfastness with certain papers. (Equaling Cibachrome / Ilfochrome in this area). My review of the 1270 still remains one of the most visited pages on this site.

The 1270 has had a bit of choppy year because of reported problems with orange fade when using Epson Premium Glossy Photo paper. For a while Epson was even offering people their money back if they were unhappy as a result of this problem. The furor has now died down and the problem appears to have disappeared with the recall and subsequent replacement of this paper.

Regrettably this hubbub masked the fact that the Epson 1270 has been the finest photographic quality inkjet printer available to date. As I said in my initial review, "After some 35 years as a photographer, printer and teacher I can say that the Epson 1270 along with its new inks and papers is the first inkjet printer that can claim to supplant traditional wet process photographic printing!"

Now the Epson 1280 is upon us. It uses the same inks and papers as the 1270 but is touted as having 2880 dpi resolution — double that of the 1270. Let's see how it shapes up.

The Claims

Firstly, this review assumes that you are already familiar with the Epson 1270. If not, please read my review from the Spring of 2000.

The 1280 is a modest upgrade to last year's 1270. Epson claims a somewhat enhanced colour gamut. The printer is also capable of 2880dpi horizontal resolution Vs. a maximum of 1440dpi for the 1270. It ships with a roll paper carrier (this was extra cost on the 1270) and also has the ability to print edgelessly on certain papers at certain sizes. Physical cosmetics are slightly different, and that's about it. The same ink cartridges as the 1270 uses are used on the 1280.

Of these enhancements the only one that I consider of importance is the 2880 dpi printing mode. I was also curious to see if the enhanced colour gamut would be visible.

The Results

My tests consisted primarily of making three variation prints using a standard test file. I used Epson Premium Semi-Gloss, printing with a 360 dpi output file from Photoshop 6. Each printer's provided profiles were used. Other papers were subsequently tested as well. 

The three prints were....

Epson 1270 @ 1440 dpi
Epson 1280 @ 1440 dpi
Epson 1280 @ 2880 dpi

Here's the quick answer to how they turned out: All three prints looked essentially identical. The 1280 prints were ever so slightly darker than those from the 1270 — less than an eighth of a stop. (I'm too lazy to get out the spectrophotometer for an exact reading). As far as visible resolution differences go, no print looked more or less sharp than any other, even under close visual examination. The colour palette was also essentially identical.

But, when I examined the prints under a high quality (Schneider 4X MC) loupe things were quite interesting. The dithering pattern used in the new 1280 software is clearly superior to that of the 1270. The dithering texture that one sees under high magnification with a 1270 image just isn't there in 1440 dpi prints from a 1280

I then compared the two 1280 prints; 1440 dpi Vs. 2880 dpi. Again, there was a difference, with the 2880 dpi print displaying even less dithering than at 1440 dpi. In fact, except in mid-to-dark tone transition areas it's almost impossible to see the dithering patterns at all in 2880 dpi mode.

The Conclusion

This is a case of theoretical and marketing specs Vs. the real world. To repeat, there is essentially no visible difference to the naked eye in resolution, clarity or dithering visibility between Epson 1270 and 1280 prints. There is a visible difference though when examining the prints under a 4X or higher magnification high-quality loupe.

My evaluation is that there is no advantage for anyone owning an Epson 1270 to upgrade to a 1280 (as there definitely was a year ago from the 1200 to the 1270). If you are in the market for a new printer then I can highly recommend the Epson 1280. It's an excellent printer — almost certainly the finest low-priced photo printer to date. Only the Epson 2000P offers it any competition, and then only in the area of print longevity.

As for the 2880dpi mode Vs. 1440 dpi, the slowdown in printing speed is considerable, and apparently so is the increase in ink usage. Many have called this capability marketing dpi, and I'm afraid that unless one spends ones days looking at prints under a Loup, I have to agree.

This is a modest upgrade to an already fine product. During the Spring of 2001 if you can find a 1270 at a good price — go for it. If you want the latest and greatest, and the 1270s are all gone, then by all means buy an Epson 1280. For the next year or so it's going to be king of the hill of photo-quality printers.

A 2000P Postscript

No sooner had this review appeared online than I started to receive queries as to how the Epson 2000P compared under the Loup test with the 1270 and 1280. In a word — identical. In terms of apparent resolution all three printers turned out prints that were comparably sharp to the naked eye.

Under a loupe though the 2000P had the coarsest dithering pattern of the three. It also had a slightly warmer colour cast under a 3200 degree Kelvin quartz halogen lamp, while as expected, under a 5000 degree Kelvin Ott-Lite prints had a slight green cast due to metamerism.

Bottom line? I want a printer with the dithering pattern of the 1280 at 2880 dpi;  the speed and colour rendition of a 1270 or 1280 at 1440 dpi, and the light-fastness of the pigment-based inks of a 2000P. I want it all, and I want it now :~)

Update: July, 2002

If one waits long enough, prayers can be answered. The Epson 2100/2200 now provides everything I asked for above.

About Resolution & Sharpness

If you are curious about the issue of print sharpness and how we perceive it you might be interested in my tutorial Understanding Sharpness.

NewThis subject will be featured in a forthcoming issue of  The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.

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Concepts: Printing, Inkjet printer, Ink, Ink cartridge, Printer, Dots per inch, Color, Computer printers

Entities: Epson, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Kelvin Ott-Lite

Tags: Epson, prints, dithering, Epson Premium, dpi output, dpi output resolution, Epson Stylus Photo, inkjet printer, dpi printing mode, Epson Premium Semi-Gloss, new 1280 software, colour gamut, modest upgrade, dpi prints, dpi output file, certain papers, dpi resolution, naked eye, capability marketing dpi, next-generation photographic printer, visible difference, dpi mode, coarsest dithering pattern, degree kelvin, quality inkjet printer, inks, Kelvin Ott-Lite prints, horizontal resolution vs, low-priced photo printer, review, enhanced colour gamut, magnification high-quality loupe, narrower paper transport, schneider 4x mc, paper-width handling ability, Premium Glossy Photo, process photographic printing, tutorial understanding sharpness, close visual examination, mid-to-dark tone transition