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Epson Stylus Pro 4800

First Impressions

Unless you've spent May 2005 on another planet, you're almost certainly aware of the new generation of Epson printers using UltraChromeK3 inks; the Stylus Photo 2400 / Stylus Pro 4800 – 7800 – 9800. My article on this announcement and further details on these new printers and inks can be read here. In early June the 2400 and 4800 printers started to ship in several markets, while the 7800 and 9800 won't become available until the end of the year.

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The Out-of-Box Experience

Within 20 minutes of carrying the 4800 into my office it was up and running and starting to churn out a print project that I'd had on hold for a couple of weeks. In large measure this was because the printer is functionally very similar in design to its predecessor the Stylus Pro 4000, which I've been using daily for the past year or so.

If you're not familiar with the 4000, take a few minutes to read up on it in the 4000 review of 2004. I won't bother repeating here most of what is the same or similar between the two printers. But, needless to say, the 4800 is a very large and heavy printer and I advise you to have someone help you with transport and installation. Otherwise, it is possibly the finest photographic quality printer available to the busy fine art and commercial photographer. But it's complex, and takes a bit of learning to get the most from its capabilties.

A lot of photographers wonder why they might want to spring for a Stylus Pro printer rather than a Stylus Photo; the 4800 rather than the 2400, for example. The reasons are many. Firstly, they are capable of handling paper up to 17" in width rather than 13". Secondly, they are able to take 110ML and 220ML ink cartridges, which are vastly larger than the ones that can be used in the Photo series of printers, thus reducing ink costs and also the frequency of cartridge changes.

But, one aspect that one doesn't see mentioned often, is that the Pro series, such as the new 4800, 7800 and 9800 printers, are made in a very different manner than the 2400 and other Photo series printers. The difference is that the Photo printers are mass produced on an assembly line basis. Manufacturing tolerances are high, and consistency is quite good, but that's all that one can hope for.

In the case of the 4800 and other Pro series Epson printers I am told that each printer is essentially built and tested by hand, by one individual. Each printer is then linearized, and this data is burned into a ROM for that printer. This produces a printer with a much higher degree of consistency and linearity. So, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.


Forest Moss. Norway. June, 2005
Contax 645 and Phase One P25 back with Apo-Macro Planar 120mm f/4 @ ISO 100

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The Good News

At a trade show early in 2005 I had a coffee with an Epson representative who told me about the new K3 printers that would be coming along in a few months time. He waxed rhapsodic about the image quality, stating that the samples that he saw were head and shoulders above any other prints that he'd ever seen.

Well, that was then and this is now, and while the K3 printers and inks are very good indeed, they don't deserve that level of hyperbole.

The main claims for the K3 inks are less metamerism, increased abrasion resistance, greater Dmax, and improved colour gamut and saturation.

Abrasion Resistance

Each of these claims is indeed true. I never had an issue with the robustness of the ink surface so I can't really provide any sort of test of the degree to which this has been improved, but obviously the gloss enhancer that is now incorporated into the inks as part of their resin encapsulation plays a role.

Speaking of which, it's worth a sidebar digression to discuss the R800 and R1800 Epson printers. These came out about 6 months prior to the new K3 printers and used Ultrachrome inks with a separate ink cartridge called a Gloss Optimizer. Apparently the new K3 inks contain this or a similar technology in the inks themselves, therefore not requiring the use of a separate GO cartridge. Two of the inks used in the 4800 are not new and therefore don't have this new technology; Matte Black and Yellow.

And, as a further aside, I'm told that there were big debates within Epson US as to whether the R series printers should even be introduced at all, since the K3 printers, especially the 2400, were going to follow within a half year or so. The story has it that Epson Japan insisted that the US take these printers, but this goes a long way toward explaining why these printers have not received the marketing exposure that one might have expected, at least in the US and Canada.

Metamerism Reduction

The reduction in metamerism (colour shifts under different light sources) with the new K3 inks is dramatically obvious. You can take a print from tungsten to daylight and hardly see any shift at all, while prints made with the previous Ultrachrome inks showed definite, though by no means nasty shifts.

The reduction in metamerism is also seen most noticeably in neutral areas. Whereas in the past you could have a neutral tonality under one light source or another it was all too obvious when the print was viewed under a differing light source that the neutrality had shifted. This is now no longer the case, at least on the early testing that I've done. I therefore regard the reduction in metamerism as one of the more significant benefits of the new K3 inks.

Though I don't extensively use glossy papers, on those that I have tested it appears that bronzing is also reduced considerably.

Dmax

When using glossy papers there is a real and noticeable difference in the dMax – that is, the blackness of the blacks. This is most noticeable on glossy papers when using the Photo Black ink, and least noticeable on matte and fine art papers when using Matte Black ink. This may be due to the fact that of the black inks, Matte Black is the only one that hasn't been updated to incorporate the gloss optimizer technology.

But don't get me wrong. There is a noticeable increase in the blacks on matte as well, just not as noticeable as with glossy.

Color and Gamut

The one area where one can see a wider gamut, offering increased colour saturation, is in the reds. These are noticeably enhanced over the previous generation Ultrachrome inks. I am told that what has made this possible is an improvement in Epson's ability to include more pigment particles in their magenta and cyan inks though improved encapsulation technology.

I don't see much improvement in any of the other colours, though what is clear is the improved neutrality of neutral areas, almost certainly due to the use of Light Light Black, which reduces the need to use dithered coloured inks in highlight areas.

4800
4000
The above is an attempt to indicate what the difference between the saturation of the reds on an Epson 4000 and a 4800 print are like.
Please note that this is a simulation, not an actual comparison.
Anyone who attempts to measure or discuss these images as anything other than a visual simulation
will be subject to extreeme punishment measures. But, the difference is that strong.

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Profiles

The 4800 comes with a large number of profiles for a range of Epson papers. Over the past few years Epson's provided profiles have been improving in quality, and this certainly is the case with those for this printer. In fact I made my own profiles for both Epson Enhanced Matte and Premium Semi-Matte, and on both cases was able to see only very tiny differences between Epson's and my profiles, and in no event was there a clear advantage to one over the other in all areas. (A Gretag Macbeth EyeOne Photo system was used to create my profiles).

If this is also true with their profiles for other Epson papers, I would say that the need for custom profiles is limited, as long as one sticks with Epson's provided profiles and their papers. For other brand papers custom profiles will of course be desirable.

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The Bad News

Unfortunately there are more than a few items on this list...

Enhanced B&W Mode

One of the things that has been much hyped about the new K3 printers is their B&W printing capability, through what they call Advanced B&W Photo mode. This is proported to provide very high quality monochrome printing.

Well, let's just say that "high quality" is a relative term. Compared to B&W prints made with a 4000, yes, the quality is significantly better. But, objectively it still isn't very good. The truth of the matter is that a good RIP, such as Imageprint with its special monochrome profiles can produce absolutely stunning B&W prints. Some people hoped that with the addition of Light Light Black ink and a special printing mode that Epson would be able to copy this trick, but such is not the case. Very good, but not great is the best way to summarize this aspect of the new printers and inks.

The Black Cartridge Nightmare

When the K3 printers were announced, and particularly with reference to the 4800, it was said by Epson that swapping the Photo Black and the Matte Black cartridges would be straightforward and wouldn't waste much ink. We'll, that's turned out not to be the case. In fact I find it to be the most annoying aspect of owning a 4800, and is almost enough reason to make the printer's other advances seem less than worthwhile. Here's what this is all about.

The 4000 was a 7 ink printer that had 8 ink slots. This allowed the Photo Black cartridge (glossy papers) and the Matte Black cartridge (matte and fine art papers) to be loaded simultaneously, and for the printer driver to use the one needed based on the paper chosen. Nice. With the Photo series printers, including the 2200 and now the 2400, swapping cartridges isn't a real issue since the ink lines are very short, and the amount of ink wasted is small – maybe $10 worth at most.

On the larger 7000 and 9000 series printers swapping was required, but most of the customers that used these large printers found that doing so was a very expensive proposition – more than $100 worth of inks were flushed into the holding tank each time just the one black cartridge was swapped. Consequently studios and labs typically devoted one printer to just one type of ink and used a second printer for the other.

But with the introduction of the 4000 printer in 2004 we had an ideal situation, and the typical purchaser of these printers, small to medium size studios, fine art printers, pre-press houses, small labs, ad agencies etc, didn't have to waste money and space with a second printer. It was a do-it-all device, produced great image quality, was rugged and reliable, offered versatile paper handling, and was an all-around terrific printer for the photographer or artist who needed different types of output, depending on the client and a particular job's needs.

But then with the 4800 and K3 inks Epson has added a Light-Light Black cartridge, taking up the slot that the second black cartridge on the 4000 occupied. If what Epson had intimated, that changing cartridges would be of moderate ink cost and effort, the exchange might have been worthwhile, but I feel that it wasn't.

Yes, the new three black ink design does provide some benefits. Monochrome images are superior and there is an overall improvement in tonalities. But, the overall cost of this is very high.

Firstly, the act of changing cartridges can take from 10-30 minutes. Part of the problem is that manual intervention is needed every few minutes. One has to stand by the computer the whole time waiting for the top-panel LCD to inform you to raise and lower the two levers next to each side's cartridge grouping. This can be required anywhere, in my experience, from 6 -12 times. (I'm thinking of suing Epson for physiotherapy costs due to carpal tunnel syndrome). On a more serious note, it means that since the printer often sits for periods of time without making noise, and then starts and stops as it pumps ink in and out of the lines, you can't just sit at your desk and listen for when manual attention is needed. You actually have to stand there, sometime for close to half an hour.

But the kicker is that ALL of the inks are depleted every time you change the black cartridge. I estimate that about 10% of the printer's total ink capacity is lost each time the black cartridge is exchanged. This means about a US $75 hit. Not a good thing!

Users should also note that (on the Mac at least) one needs to delete and then reinstall the printer from the Preferences utility, otherwise the driver refuses to understand that the ink has been changed and that you can now print on a different selection of papers. This seems to be simply a matter of poor programming on Epson's part, since the printer and the driver talk to each other about other topics, so why not this one?


ZigZag Highway and Waterfall. Norway. June, 2005
Canon 20D with 70-300mm f/5.6 DO IS lens @ ISO 100

The Printer Driver

Update:

In the original version of this review I took Epson to task for the poor quality of their Mac printer driver. It has been brought to my attention that this is largely due to the UI mandated by Apple, and that the blame for this should be pointed there, rather than at Epson.

Fair enough, if that is indeed the case. But, since the complaint about the Epson Mac driver that was contained here detracts and distracts from the core of this review, it is counterproductive, and so I've deleted it.

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Imageprint Offers a Solution

I know that some will claim that I'm shilling for Colorbyte and their Imageprint software. Think what you will. I just happen to think that it's a better mousetrap. And with the 4800, I feel this is the case for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as it always has, it offers a smoother more intuitive and productive user interface than does the native Epson driver. (I won't even discuss image quality at this time, along with the availability of hundreds of profiles for virtually every paper on the market).

As mentioned earlier, the 4800 disappoints somewhat when it comes to B&W quality. Imageprint has always offered superb B&W prints using Epson's Ultrachrome inks, and there's little reason to think that the version that will support the 4800 will do otherwise. While the 4800's Advanced B&W Mode is much better than what one could do with the Epson driver on the 4000 (which was very little) when making monochrome prints, Imageprint simply is in a different league.

Probably most exciting is that I've been told that the version of Imageprint for the 4800 (and by inference for the other large K3 printers as well later this year) will allow the option of using both the Photo Black and Matte Black cartridges at the same time. This will be accomplished by replacing the Light Black cartridge position. Assuming this works as promised, and at about a $75 cost each time you swap blacks, it will less than a dozen swaps to pay for the Imageprint RIP.

I am told that this feature will not be in the initial release of Imageprint for the 4800, but will follow quite shortly thereafter.

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The Bottom Line

Every Epson printer that I've reviewed over the past 5 years have shown fairly significant improvement in almost every way over the previous one. But, notwithstanding all the pre-launch hype, this is not the case with the 4800, and by inference the 2400, 7800 and 9800 models as well.

Yes, there are improvements – better reds, cleaner neutrals, a usable but not wonderful monochrome printing mode, better abrasion resistance, noticeably reduced metamerism, and greater Dmax with both glossy and matte papers. None of these is to be denied.

Along with many who purchased model 4000 printers less than a year ago, I am miffed that the move to the new inks necessitated a new printer, especially when the 4800 appears to be mechanically so similar to the 4000 that it replaces. Was it really necessary to force people to switch printers to benefit from the new inks? Is it really necessary to throw away $75+ worth of ink every time one wants to switch from matte to glossy paper? If Colorbyte can allow both glossy and matte black inks to continue to be mounted simultaneously, why can't Epson?

In the final analysis I have to say that the 4800 is a bit of a disappointment. Much was promised and only a modest improvement was delivered, and with it, some nasty flaws. At least that's the way that I see it.

But the Epson Pro 4800 is sitting on my work bench happily churning away producing very beautiful prints, reliably, quickly, and with little fuss. It's a keeper. But then so did the model 4000. If I knew then what I know now I wouldn't have been in a huge rush to update though. (Such is the price of being a reviewer on the bleeding edge).

For those that already have Epson 4000 printers I would say – don't be in too big a hurry to upgrade to the 4800. For those that are looking for a printer in this class, if you can't find a 4000 still available, by all means buy a 4800. Notwithstanding my complaints, it's a wonderful printer. A real workhorse that produces stunning prints. But, you may also want to seriously consider buying the Imageprint RIP when it appears for the 4800, likely in July. This will save you the grief of having to use the Epson driver (especially if you are on the Mac platform), and if you print B&W. And if you switch between fine art and glossy papers the upgrade to the 4800 Imageprint RIP that will follow, likely in September, will mean an end to the ink swapping woes.

As for potential owners of the 7800 and 9800, especially those who already own a 7600 or 9600, do your research carefully.

And what about Epson 2400 owners? Though I haven't tested one, and am not likely to at this point, it would seem to be a great choice. It doesn't suffer from the same degree of ink swapping problems that the larger Pro models do, and offers great value for the money. Probably the best photographic printer currently available. Epson 2200 owners though might want to think twice about the necessity of upgrading. Improvements are there, but not really compelling, especially if the Imageprint RIP is considered.

Epson Stylus Pro 4800 – Recommended, but with reservations.

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Concepts: Ink cartridge, Inkjet printer, Ink, Printing, Printer, Computer printers, ESC/P, Color

Entities: Dmax, Dmax, Mac, Apple, $75 hit, Japan, Canada, printer driver, Monochrome, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Matte Black, Premium Semi-Matte

Tags: Epson, inks, black cartridge, black inks, glossy papers, new k3, epson printer, Photo, fine art, new k3 printers, matte black cartridges, series printers, Stylus Pro, Epson driver, profiles, Imageprint RIP, matte black inks, prints, new printer, Photo series printers, abrasion resistance, Epson papers, Epson 4000 printers, image quality, light source, B&W prints, series epson printers, fine art papers, Epson Enhanced Matte, Epson 2400 owners, ink cartridge, printer driver, ink cost, new inks, Epson 2200 owners, Epson Stylus Pro, Epson Mac driver, native epson driver, Stylus Pro printer, Epson representative