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Sunday, October 20, 2002

Technology

The latest printers: Preserving memories on paper
Gizmos

By Frank Bajak
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- You can e-mail only so many digital images, and PC slide shows get old fast. Eventually, even the most ambivalent of digital photographers will want to make their own prints.

For me, there's a single compelling reason:

I've already lost enough digital keepsakes to failed storage media and corrupted files. If I can't have a physical negative, give me a high-quality, durable print.

Digital printers are now abundant, very affordable and easier than ever to use. Technophiles and artists don't need persuading.

For the reluctant among the rest of us, the latest crop makes a good argument for ownership -- even if the ink and paper costs make you cringe.

Hewlett-Packard's new 7550, tops in the company's new Photosmart line, is a Swiss Army knife of versatility. It does vibrant photos and much more, including black text at 17 pages per minute, to earn its $399 price tag.

The photos-only DPP-EX5 from Sony costs half as much and, while obviously limited, is compact and clever. Pearl white, it has the dimensions of a one-slice toaster and a maximum print size of 4 inches by 6 inches.

Consumers can get a good sense of what they want out of a digital printer by examining the two machines' diverging approaches. Both are PC- and Mac-compatible.

The HP 7550 is a Humvee. An imposing 20 inches wide with a 100-sheet tray and gray complexion, it has seven ink colors in three separate cartridges that will handle most imaginable printing needs.

It features:

--Onboard slots for reading CompactFlash, Secure Digital, SmartMedia, MultiMedia and Sony Memory Stick memory cards, plus a 1.5-inch LCD screen and front-panel buttons that let you load, preview and do basic editing of photos without even firing up your computer. (Maybe it's just my failing eyesight, but I found the LCD kind of useless).

The ability to print borderless 4-by-6-inch prints with a special paper tray.

A front USB port that gives owners of HP Photosmart digital cameras another way to print photos without a computer. Only HP cameras are supported here because the software that drives the printer is in the camera.

You get photo-lab quality (4,800 dots per inch) using HP's premium photo paper, which costs $18 for 20 8.5 by 11-inch sheets or $10 for a 20-sheet pack of 4 x 6 sheets.

You don't get speed, by the way, when printing images, though 16 megabytes of onboard memory takes a load off your PC. Expect full-sized pages to take about four minutes.

And while the image-management and editing software that ships with the 7550 is quite good, when I wanted to print out full-page glossies of a few of my wife's oil paintings the HP software wouldn't let me set the margins. I found I wanted a program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements for greater precision.

On ink: The 19-milliliter black cartridge ($20) will print about 450 standard pages before running out of ink, HP says, while the 17ml color trichamber ($35) does about 400 pages. HP says you'll exhaust the photo cartridge ($25) and 80 percent of the 17ml tri-chamber after about 125 prints at 4 X 6 inches.

Given the Photosmart line's newness, cheaper replacement cartridges from remanufacturers are not yet available. And it's unclear whether a third party would be able to make similar cartridges without infringing on HP patents.

Costs aside, there is good news on longevity. HP says lab tests show that prints on its premium papers will last up to 73 years without fading, more than twice as long as most traditional prints. Don't expect to get 73 years if you leave the photos lying around in the sun, but you get the idea.

Sony touts its prints as having a 100-year archival life, owing to its use of polyester dye-based ribbons in the DPP-EX5 and its more expensive companion, the DPP-EX7 ($450).

Sony has been using dye sublimation technology for nearly 30 years and recently introduced it into consumer products. It certainly makes for one tough print -- difficult to tear and so well-laminated they are impervious to moisture, resisting stains and fingerprints.

Sony also has an interesting strategy of selling print paper bundled with dye cartridges so when you run out of paper you also exhaust the dye.

While lacking a built-in display, the EX5 can connect to a TV for editing or viewing slide shows. But you'll get more mileage by connecting it to a PC with a USB cable. There's also a dedicated Memory Stick slot in the EX5 for owners of Sony cameras.

(Annoyingly, neither the Sony nor the HP shipped with a USB cable).

Now for that pesky issue of how much all this costs.

Seventeen dollars will get you dye and 25 postcard-sized 4-by-6-inch sheets or 30 sheets at 3.5-by-5 inches. So you're paying 68 cents for a postcard of your favorite snapshot.

When you compare that to the cost of reprints at the corner drugstore or ofoto.com's 49 cents plus shipping, that's not exactly a bargain.

But it is instant. And if the photos are still around 73 years from now, well, that's probably longer than I'll last.

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