DCRP Review: Three Photo Printers
Epson Stylus Photo 1270, Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200, Olympus P-400

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

Last Updated: Monday, March 5, 2001

Printers sure have changed over the years. The first printer my family had (that I can remember, at least) was the old Apple Imagewriter II dot matrix printer. If you wanted to print in color, you'd have to change the ribbon. Once you started printing, you had to wait for a loud, noisy, table-shaking 10 minutes until a poor quality print came out of the printer. And then you had to rip the sides off the paper that has all those holes. My, how times have changed. Now, we've got printers that can spit out a photo lab quality 8x10 in just 3 minutes. And some don't even need a computer to do it!

For this review, I'm going to take a look at three printers:

The Epson Stylus Photo 1270 ($499); I actually bought this printer several months ago for my own use, and I love it. There are two other Epson printers that are very similar to the 1270: the 870 ($249), and 875DC ($299). The main difference between the 870-series and the 1270 is that the latter has a printable area of nearly 13 x 19 inches! The 875DC includes a card reader (PCMCIA; requires adapter for SmartMedia/CompactFlash), though it cannot actually print directly from the card without a computer.

The Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200 by Lexmark ($299); This is a printer reminiscent of the Epson PrintOn photo printer I reviewed almost 2 years ago (only better). You can insert a SmartMedia or CompactFlash card and print photos without ever touching a computer.

The Olympus P-400 photo printer ($999); Unlike the other two, this one works using dye sublimation technology, which is "continuous tone", meaning that there are no little dots of ink to be found.

Look and Feel

Epson Stylus Photo 1270

While the 1270 isn't very deep in size, it sure is wide. That's because it can print on paper as large as 13x19 inches (called Super B)! The printers physical dimensions are 24 x 30 x 16 inches, and it weighs in at 18 pounds.

The paper input tray can hold up to 100 sheets, or 10 envelopes. In addition to regular single sheet paper, you can also by "roll paper" which turns your printer into a personal photo lab! You will have to buy the paper roll adapter for the 1270 -- it's included on the 870 series though.

There aren't nearly as many buttons on the Epson printers as there are on the Olympus and Kodak printers. There are lights to remind you if an ink cartridge gets low, or if paper runs out. With the push of the ink button, you can swap in a new cartridge.

Speaking of ink cartridges, here's a look at the two inside the 1270. The smaller one on the left is black, and large one on the right is a 5 color cartridge (cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow). I'll talk more about the cost of operating the printers later in the review.

As I mentioned, the Epson printers must be connected to a PC or Mac (parallel and USB supported), so what software you use to retouch and print photos is up to you. For me, it's Adobe Photoshop 6.0 for my PowerMac G4.

Here's a look at the Epson printer drivers on the Mac:


You can check how much ink you have in real-time


Here's the main print screen (In Photoshop 6.0) - lots of options as you can see


And here's what you see when you're printing (in the background)

Kodak PPM200

The Kodak printer looks somewhat like Epson's printers, but there's a lot more inside this printer than just ink and paper. The PPM200 has two card slots -- one for CompactFlash, another for SmartMedia, a color LCD display, even its own operating system.

The printer's dimensions are 18 x 9 x 7.6 inches, and it weighs just under 6 pounds. Yep, it's lighter than the Epson printer, though it's quite a bit smaller. One problem I had with the PM200 is that the two doors on the top of the printer kept falling off.

The PM200 has two USB ports -- one for hooking into your Windows 98 PC (sorry Mac and Windows ME users, at least for now), and the other for hooking into a USB Zip drive, if you have one. If you don't want to hook into your PC, no problem, as you'll see later in the review.
[Update 3/6/01: Mac and Windows ME/2000 drivers are now available for download.]

The paper input tray can hold up to 100 sheets of plain paper, 25 sheets of photo paper, or 10 photo cards. There are tons of types of paper available for both the Kodak and Epson printers, ranging from photo stickers to iron-on transfers.

In the above shot, you can see the two ink cartridges, as well as the CompactFlash (left) and SmartMedia (right) slots. These carts look remarkably like those on my old HP Deskjet. You can swap the Photo cartridge for a Black one, for regular usage (meaning non-photos). One thing I wasn't able to figure out was whether black is actually a process color with the Color & Photo carts inserted, or if it was just a mix of everything.

The CompactFlash slot supports Type I cards as large as 192MB, while the SmartMedia slot supports cards as large as 32MB (yes, 64MB cards are not supported!).

Here's where all the action is on the PPM200. Users of Kodak cameras will feel right at home even before they turn on the printer. And when they do, they see a nice 1.8" color LCD display just like on their camera. This is a must-have feature on a standalone photo printer!

 

The operating system on the printer is almost exactly the same as those found on many Kodak cameras. It's very easy to use (much more so than on the P-400). The piece de resistance is the ability to preview the photos on the LCD. While they're not ultra sharp, you can still differentiate between shots taken with different white balance settings.
[Update 3/6/01: A new firmware upgrade improves the quality of the preview image on the LCD.]

You can do all kinds of things to your photos before they are printed, including:

  • Crop
  • Rotate
  • Add Border
  • Add Text
  • Brightness
  • Auto Enhance

Using the menu system, you can also change paper type/size, layout of printed pages, as well as check the ink level and clean/align carts if necessary. This is about as full-featured as you can get in a printer, and I was definitely impressed.

Olympus P-400

Where the Epson printer was wide, and the Kodak printer was light, the Olympus printer is heavy. This is one printer that you don't want to ship overnight -- it weights over 26 pounds!

The printers dimensions are 10.8 x 16.8 x 12.4 inches - it's about the size of a laser printer.

The P-400 isn't like the Epson and Kodak printers in one big way - it's not an inkjet. Instead, the P-400 uses dye sublimation technology. What is it? Well, here's a description I dug up from the 'net:

Dye sublimation printers are similar to thermal transfer printers in general. Like them, they use a color transfer ribbons that provide each of the primary colors (cyan, magenta and yellow -- black is a composite of all three of these colors).

Instead of transferring a dot of colored resin to paper, the print-head heats up a spot on the ribbon and turns the solid color into a gas (that's what sublimation means). The gas is then absorbed by specially manufactured papers. The result is a printed output that looks like a continuous-tone photograph from the photolab.

So there you have it. The P-400 does the three colors (C/M/Y) first, then applies a fourth coating which helps protect the print. The result is a continuous tone print - no dithering, no dots - and it looks amazing. But it comes at a price when it comes to operating cost (not to mention the $1,000 cost of the printer), as you'll see in the next section.

The P-400 has a paper cartridge similar to those found on laser printers - it holds 50 sheets of the special proprietary photo paper. One big thing to note is that this printer does NOT print on legal sized paper -- the biggest you can get is A4 size, which is a little smaller (8.25 x 11.7 inches).

This picture (poorly) shows you the ink ribbon inside the printer. When you print, it will move the paper past the roller four times, once for each color (cyan, magenta, and yellow), and then once more for the protective overcoat. One thing to remember about dye sub printers is that they are incredible wasteful. If you print an index print of 5 photos, which uses 1/5 of the total A4-sized paper, you're still using one full A4 size piece of the ink ribbon. So if you're going to print, try to fill up the paper with images!

Like the Kodak printer, you can hook the P-400 up to your PC or Mac and use it like any other printer, or you can use it as a standalone device. The printer has USB and parallel ports available on the back panel.

The P-400 has a dedicated SmartMedia slot, as well as a PC card slot which can accept CompactFlash or Memory Sticks with the appropriate adapter.

The control panel on the front of the printer is where all the action is. The mode wheel on the left side lets you choose pictures to print, change settings, and print various types of photos.

The menus used to control all these things are a bit confusing to figure out. But the worst part is the black and white LCD display. I thought it was OK when I first got the printer, but once the Kodak printer arrived, I realized that Olympus could've done a better job on the LCD.

   

It's tough to preview photos in black and white.

Like with the Kodak printer, there are a bunch of functions that you can apply to your images before you print. This includes both rotating and trimming photos, B&W and sepia filters, stamps (kind of cheesy if you ask me). There are a number of layouts to choose from when you print, including a nice photo album mode.

Operating Costs

The table below illustrates the difference in operating costs for the various printers:

Epson Stylus Photo 1270 Kodak PM200 Olympus P-400
Cost of printer $499 $299 $999
Cost of ink $30 (color) / $25 (B&W) $40 (photo) / $31 (B&W) / $38 (color) $45
# prints/ink refill 330 - 540 @ 15% coverage 90-120 4x6 prints 50 (A4-sized prints)
Cost of photo paper (legal/A4 size) $17 (Premium Glossy Photo Paper) $30 (Premium Picture Paper) $27
# sheets/package 20 50 25
Price per sheet $0.85 $0.60 $1.08

All prices are MSRP and were accurate at the time of this review.

While it's easy to compare the price of paper, it's not quite as easy to compare the ink cost, since the manufacturers don't like to disclose this information. But you can see that it costs a lot more to run the P-400 -- it's around $2 per print. My Epson 1270 seems to go on forever before it wants new ink, but I don't have any good numbers for you.

Printing - Speed

While this isn't the fairest comparison, it'll give you somewhat of an idea of how fast these printers are. For the PM200 and P-400, I printed straight from the memory card. For the 1270, I printed via Photoshop 6.0 on my G4.


An index print from the P-400

Epson Stylus Photo 1270 (legal) Kodak PM200 (legal) Olympus P-400 (A4)
Index Print (10 photos) 1:15 8:15 (!) 7:00
Full size print (teacup photo you can see above) < 4:00 12:30 (!!) < 3:00

Times are approximate.

I remember reading that people's main complaint about the P-400 (besides cost) was how slow it was. Well, while it was pretty slow with the index print, it won the full sized print title by a full minute. The Epson won the index print competition, though it had a dual G4 processor computer to layout the page for it, where the other printers aren't quite so fast. But the real loser in the speed department was the PM200, as you can see above. You might as well queue up your photos (which you can do) and go have lunch, because it'll take a long time.

Printing - Quality

I want to apologize for not actually having any print samples for you all to look at. For a guy who has every other computer gadget known to man, I don't have a scanner. So you'll have to trust my judgment on this. Check out the second opinion links at the bottom of the page to see some samples from people who have scanners <grin>.

The definite winner here is the Olympus P-400 printer. While it's only a bit over 300 dpi, you'll never notice, since this is a continuous tone printer. These photos look like they came from the photo lab. Most of my prints end up at work, and people can't believe they're digital.

The Kodak and Epson printers aren't far behind at all (and they cost a lot less). The Kodak prints at 600 x 600 when it's in stand-alone mode, and at 1200 x 1200 when hooked into a PC (not enough processing power?). The Epson 1270 prints at 1440 x 720, and can only be used with a computer.

The main differences I noticed are:

Remember that these are not scans of the actual prints!

How long will these prints last?

This is a hot topic lately, given Epson's problems with their paper.

When the 870 and 1270 came out, Epson promised anywhere from 6-26 years without fading under normal display conditions (depending on paper). Well, that didn't turn out to be the case. In environments with a lot of ozone, prints started to turn orange (not due to light). I've seen it in a few of my photos with my own eyes. Epson has been working on the problem, and came out with new paper. But this initial batch of paper had problems, so they're still working on it. If you see paper with a "Made in December 2000" label, you should be OK.

Kodak claims their prints will last about 31 years (!), and they have a study to back it up.

As for the Olympus, my research on the net tells me that prints from dye sublimation printers generally last as long as those developed from a photo lab!

I suppose that only time will tell us if these claims are correct!

Final Thoughts

I reviewed three different printers with three different prices in this review.

If you can afford the upfront and continuing costs of owning a dye sublimation printer, then the Olympus P-400 printer. The output is truly amazing and it will (supposedly) last a very long time. The main downsides here is the cost -- oh, and I sure wish that LCD was color.

The Epson printers are very nice as well -- and once they get their act together with their paper, you can be confident that your prints will last for many years to come. If you don't care about having a standalone printer, I'd strongly recommend any of the Epson Stylus Photo printers.

The Kodak PM200 surprised me -- I wasn't expecting much, but I really liked using it in standalone mode. The photo quality is the worst of the bunch, but it's still very good. The ability to use it without a computer is handy for many folks, and it's easy to use -- and how about that color LCD. The downside here is that it's not (yet) Mac or Windows ME compatible, and it's pretty slow too.

Get a second opinion

Steve's Digicams has reviews of all three of these printers:

Epson Stylus Photo 1270
Kodak PM200
Olympus P-400

Jeff always appreciates your comments and questions (as long as they're polite).


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