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Epson Pro 4000

A Review Update

The Epson Stylus Pro 4000 was announced in the Fall of 2003. In December I was invited to Epson Canada's head office and had an opportunity to evaluate an early sample of this exciting new printer for an afternoon. That test session was described in my First Look write-up in early December.

The printer was supposed to ship in January, but then February came, and then March, and each month its introduction was delayed. Finally, in early April 2004 dealers in the U.S., Canada and the UK, (and possibly elsewhere), who had placed orders five months before started to get limited quality deliveries. I was told by one dealer that they had initially received 6 units yet had dozens on back-order, and they had no idea of when more would be coming. It looks like there will be heavy demand for the 4000 and limited availability for some time.

As you'll see below there is good reason for this. I believe that the Epson 4000 is possibly the finest desktop fine-art / production printer ever made. In the areas of image quality, robustness, throughput and cost-effectiveness there doesn't appear to be anything on the market in the spring of 2004 that comes close.

Heavy Man


Figure 1

If you're going to be picking up the printer from a dealer, bring a friend and also a large SUV or a pick-up truck. I'm not joking. The 4000 comes in a very large box. That box is attached to its own wooden skid, which is designed to be moved by a fork-lift. Two people can lift it, but its very ungainly. Have the dealer remove the wooden skid before you load it into your vehicle. Better yet, have it delivered.

When removed from its shipping container the 4000 can be handled by two people. It weighs about 85 lbs.


Figure 2

In Figure 2 above you see my own setup and the size comparison between the 4000 and the Epson 2200. A fax machine and a photo copier are also seen and give some idea of the relative size of this beast.

Why so big? Two main reasons. Firstly, it can handle paper up to 17" wide, either cut sheets or rolls. Secondly, it takes eight large ink cartridges simultaneously. These are either the same 110ML or the even larger 220ML cartridges used on the Epson 7600 and 9600 printers. Of course this means that the printer uses Ultrachrome inks. These are pigment-based inks with excellent longevity and resistance to colour fading, as well as a gamut comparable to that of dye-based inks.

This is the first Epson printer than takes both the matte black and glossy black inks at the same time. On the Epson 2100 or 2200 it's simply annoying to have to change black inks when switching papers. But with the 7600 and 9600 the printer flushes the ink lines when this is done and along with it close to $75 worth of ink. Now with the 4000 no physical ink switching is needed as the Epson driver software selects whether to use the matte black or glossy black ink based on which paper type you've selected.

You should be aware that even if you rarely or even never print on glossy paper the glossy black ink will slowly deplete. This is because whenever the printer decides to run a head cleaning cycle all eight inks are used.

You Need a BIG Table

Not to put too fine a point on it, but due to its bulk and weight the Epson 4000 isn't going to fit on a card table. You'll need a solid support, and preferably one where you can gain access to the back of the printer. This is because there are at least four different ways to feed paper into the printer — paper tray, front feed, rear feed and roll paper holder. If you plan on not needing the rear feed (which is intended for thick media that needs a straight-though paper path), then the printer can be placed on a sturdy shelf, such as seen with my set-up above. You will still need to be able to get to the roll paper holder though — as discussed below.

Set-Up

Setting up this printer is simple and straightforward. Unpack it, being especially attentive to removing all of the hidden blue tape patches that prevent things from jarring during shipment. Run the provided driver installation disk (Mac and PC), and then plug the printer in using either a Firewire or USB2 cable. I have my PC connected via USB2 and my Mac via Firewire simultaneously, which both work alternately. If you try a set-up like this just be sure not to try and print from both computers at the same time.

With all eight provided ink cartridges installed the printer will now take on a life of its own and for the next fifteen minutes will make the worst racket you've ever heard. It is charging the ink lines and calibrating itself. It only does this once, but when it's done you'll find that nearly one third of the inks in the eight cartridges provided have been used up. (What Epson giveth, Epson taketh away). This being the case it's a good idea to buy an extra set of ink cartridges on the same day that you buy the printer. This way you won't be surprised when sometime in the next few weeks you start to run out of one of more inks. Just be prepared for a shock when you see the cost of buying eight 110ML cartridges at one time. The consolation of course is that you don't have to do this very often.

You'll possibly find as well that the printer continues to be noisy for the first several hours of use. Don't panic. For some reason this is the case, but by day two it settles down and will only run though a brief self-calibration and cleaning cycle every now and then.

Once you've installed from the provided set-up disk it is important to go to the Epson web site www.prographics.epson.com to download the latest drivers, firmware and utilities. These are constantly being updated.

Self Calibration?

The literature that was originally published by Epson about the 4000 when the printer was first announced stated that it would have a built-in laser calibration mechanism to keep the heads aligned without the need for user intervention. I can find no mention of this in the supplied documentation that accompanies my production printer. But, the printer clearly does self-calibrate and cleans the heads from time to time, as a bright blue laser can be seen occasionally while the head runs back and forth with much fuss for a minute or two. Also, the ink holding tank continues to fill up, which is a function of a self-cleaning as well as a manual cleaning action.

In any event, in over two months of heavy daily use I have never had to run either a manual alignment or cleaning cycle. Every print thus far is as perfect as the next one. My Epson 2200 was the same. For nearly 18 months it ran daily and I never had a moment's problem. I can't say this for previous generation Epson printers which would have clogged and misaligned heads from time to time. It appears that Epson has really refined their production technology and QC over the past couple of years, and the new self calibration process makes it even more robust and foolproof.


Brass Revolving Door. Montreal — May, 2004
Panasonic LC1 @ ISO 100

Paper Tray

Several people have written since I first mentioned online that I had received my 4000, asking what the advantages were (if any) over the Epson 7600, which obviously can make larger prints. The same Ultrachrome inks are used, and though the 4000 has a newer head design and can print faster, otherwise image quality is comparable. My answer is, simply, the paper tray.

Floor model printers like the 7600 and 9600 need to be fed sheet paper one piece at a time. The 4000 has a versatile paper tray that can handle stacks of 50 to 250 sheets of paper, ranging in size from 8" X 10" to 17" X 22". So if your primary activity is making very large prints on roll-paper, then the 7600 may be a better choice. But if you want to be able to do any production printing on cut sheet paper then the 4000 is the clear choice.

The paper tray on the model 4000 is the best design that Epson have come up with yet. I had an Epson 5500 and the paper tray was its worst feature. Paper jams were common, and the paper loading mechanism was finicky. On the 4000 loading stacks of any size of paper takes just seconds, and in more than 2 months of daily use I have never had a mis-feed from the paper tray.

Roll Paper

The advantage of having 17" wide paper handling capability isn't so much the ability to use 17 X 22" cut sheet paper but in my view to be able to use 17" roll paper. This not only helps reduce paper costs when making large prints but also allows for making wide-aspect ratio prints. I have made a number of 16" X 40" prints so far, and being able to do so on a desktop printer without any paper handling hassle is a joy.

The printer comes with a spool which inserts into a roll of 17" X 100' paper. Drop the spool into the permanently attached roll paper enclosure and you're done. Epson suggests that if you have paper handling problems with thick rolls that you may need a high-tension spool (sold separately for about $85), but I haven't needed one so far.

To engage the roll paper it needs to be fed into the feed slot. It should be noted that though there are four different way to feed paper into the printer (front, rear, tray and roll), there is only one feed slot, and so roll paper has to be manually fed into this slot to get it started. If all you're doing is printing on roll paper, then once is all it takes. But if you are switching back and forth between cut sheets from the tray and larger prints from the roll, then feeding the roll paper manually for the first print is required. If there's no roll paper in the feed slot the printer will automatically default to the paper tray.

The Head

The 4000 printer uses a new print head dubbed DX-3. This head has 180 nozzles per channel, making it almost twice as fast as the heads in the larger 7600 and 9600 models. It also is capable of laying down ink dots as fine as 3.5 picoliters, which is .5 picoliters finer than its forebearers. All of this translates into slightly higher image quality than any prior Ultrachrome ink printer and also a printing speed that's nearly twice as fast.

Cutter and Controls

There is a built-in paper cutter for roll paper, and the printer can be configured to automatically cut the paper when the print is completed. If you want to make prints continuously on roll paper this is also possible. There are paper positioning controls on the printer's front panel that allow you to precisely position the paper under the print head if you want to do something special.

In addition to Epson's standard printer drivers and on-screen controls, the printers illuminated front panel screen provides extensive feature control capability as well as paper, printer and ink status information. And speaking of information, when my first set of inks reached a low level I was pleased to see that once the level gets critically low the amount of ink remaining in any given cartridge is shown as a declining percentage. Nice.

Of course as with all current Epson printers you can continue to print until the cartridge runs completely out of ink (actually before this, but the software won't let you run the printer dry so as to protect the heads). When this happens, just pop in a new cartridge and the printer will continue from where it left off, even if it was in the middle of a print, and of course without any indication on the print that this happened.

When it comes to paper handling this is also the most intelligent printer that I've yet used . Unlike some previous printers, if you ask it to print an image larger than the size of the paper that is loaded, it will sense this and refuse to do so. No more ink smeared all over the inside of the printer when you make a mistake.

The only interface issue that I have with the 4000 is that the Power and Pause buttons are too close together. I'm constantly power cycling the printer by mistake when all I want to do is press Pause.

Noise and Power

If you've been using to an Epson 2100/2200 or similar desktop printer till now then you're going to find the sound level from the Epson 4000 quite a bit louder. It also has a somewhat noisy built-in fan that runs continually while the head is in operation. This system is providing suction to hold the paper in place rather than use rollers.

If the 2200 can be said to purr when printing, then the 4000 sounds more like a growl. For this reason, along with the printer's shear bulk, this may not be as spouse-friendly a printer as a 2200 if it's to be used in a home environment.

When not actually printing the 4000 is silent, and it enters into a kind of power down mode, even turning off the backlight on its front panel. It is still consuming about 15W of electricity in this mode, so don't forget to actually power the printer down if you won't be using it for a while. While printing it draws about 50 Watts, so it's not using all that much electricity in any event. I am told that it is perfectly safe to leave the printer switched on throughout the working day without running the risk of the jets clogging.

Profiles

The 4000 comes with a large number of self-installing profiles for most currently available papers that are likely to be used with this printer. These are very good profiles. In fact they are as good as any generic profiles that I have ever seen, and many users will not feel the need for custom profiles at all. An indication of how good they are is evidenced by the fact (as discussed below) that B&W prints are very neutral. This is always a good sign of a well balanced profile, though it doesn't tell one much about the profile's ultimate gamut capabilities.

You'll notice that there are a few MK4 profiles installed. I was curious what these were so I called Epson and was told that they are for dual CMYK use. If you don't know that this is, you don't need it :-)

B&W


Waiting. Toronto — April, 2004
Minolta A2 @ ISO 64

A testament to the Epson 4000's highly accurate profiles is its ability to produce quite neutral black and white prints. Keeping the file in RGB mode, but simply converting to monochrome in Channel Mixer in Photoshop, I made several prints on Epson Enhanced Matte using the standard Epson profile for this paper. Tonal smoothness and neutrality was quite good. Not quite as good as what I've seen with the ImagePrint RIP, but far better than say the Epson 2200 is capable of without a RIP. There is also almost no significant metamerism visible on a monochrome print between tungsten and daylight, though the print does appear a bit more neutral under tungsten light. Bravo Epson! For non-critical applications this is very good B&W quality.

Is the 4000 for You?

At nearly $1,800 the Epson is obviously the most expensive desktop printer currently available. While considerably more than double the price of the Epson 2200 it is a lot less than the Epson 7600, which can handle paper up to 24" wide. So it is very much the printer in the middle. But is it the right one for you?

The answer will largely depend on one key question. How much do you print? If you do more than occasional fine-art printing, then speed and cost are factors that will be of importance. Since the 4000 is twice as fast as the 2200, for anyone doing volume printing this can make the difference between meeting deadlines, and not.

I had imagined that the 4000 would offer a major advantage when it comes to ink costs since it can use either 110ML or 220ML ink cartridges, rather than the nominally 12ML cartridges used on the 2100/2200 model. But this proved not to be the case. Here is a table that will give you some idea of the real cost per milliliter.

Cost
$ / ML
12ML (approx) carts for the 2100/2200
$10
$0.83
110ML carts
$70
$0.63
220ML carts
$112
$0.51
Price shown are from B&H online as of mid-April, 2004

This is quite surprising. I had fully expected there to be a more considerable cost saving with the larger carts, but this seems not to be the case. Where the "savings" do appear is in not having to charge cartridges as often — roughly 9X less often. Even so, if you print a lot this 25%+ saving on ink costs can add up quickly. (No one knows for sure how much ink the 2200 carts hold. Epson won't say. I have seen estimates of 10-15ML. I've arbitrarily chosen 12ML as a best guess).

Image Quality?

Of course everyone wants to know — How's the image quality? The answer is, pretty much what we've been seeing for the 2100/2200/7600/9600 series of printers that have used Ultrachrome inks for the past couple of years. There really isn't any significant difference. What does differ are printing speed, paper handling, ink capacity and operating costs.

Image permanence is of course a concern, and Epson's Ultrachrome inks are among the best out there in this regard with rated life scans before noticeable fading (depending on paper used and display conditions) of between 70 and 150 years. You can read some independent test results on the Wilhelm Research site.

Warranty

In the U.S. and Canada the Epson 4000 comes with a one year parts and labour warranty. This can be extended (at extra cost) for up to two additional years at any time prior to the end of the first year. Whether this is worthwhile will very much depend on your experience during the first year of use and also how much use you intend on putting your printer to.

The Bottom Line

It's hard for me to find anything negative to say about the Epson 4000. It is big, built like an industrial tool, fast, and so-far at least, totally reliable. Image quality is as good if not better than any inkjet printer that I've ever used. Though expensive compared to a 2100/2200, for anyone doing production printing or who needs prints larger than those capable from smaller printers, the Epson 4000 seems like an ideal solution. Highly recommended.


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