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PC World

Photo printing made affordable

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 9:37 a.m. EST (1437 GMT)

by Stan Miastkowski

(IDG) -- The advent of digital cameras has made even the 1-hour wait at your local photo store seem like an eternity. But to get top quality output, you'd typically have to spend hundreds of dollars on a high-end ink jet or dedicated photo printer. Two new low-cost printers--the Acer FotoPrisa 300P and the Kodak Personal Picture Maker by Lexmark, both $199 retail--change all that. When used with the right paper, both printers deliver high-quality photo prints.

While both printers print photos, they take different paths to the same ends: The Acer uses dye-sublimation technology, whereas the Lexmark uses ink jet technology. But the differences don't end there; the two printers also vary considerably in their capabilities

Acer: For Photos Only

The Acer FotoPrisa 300P's dye-sublimation technology isn't new, but this is the first time it's been available in a low-cost photo printer. Previous incarnations of photographic dye-sublimation printers cost upwards of $600. Dye-sublimation printers create images out of continuous tones, instead of tiny dots, producing impressive printouts that belie the 300P's 300-by-600-dpi resolution. It takes about 2 minutes and 15 seconds to print each photo.

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The 300P features a pass-through parallel-port connector. That's important because the 300P is a photo printer only, and not an all-in-one printer; the pass-through port lets you connect a conventional printer for standard print jobs. The printer, which has a compact 8-3/4-by-11-1/2-inch footprint, uses 4-by-6-inch paper, available in 25-sheet packages with a unique ribbon cartridge, retail priced at $19.99. (Conveniently, the paper tray holds 25 sheets of paper.) Acer also offers a $24.99 Sticker Paper Kit that produces 4-by-4-inch photo stickers.

The 300P comes bundled with a copy of Ulead Photo Express II, a full-featured, easy-to-use photo editing package that lets you get creative with your images. Besides tools for cropping, sharpening, making color adjustments, and removing red-eye, Photo Express offers a handful of advanced features, such as morphing and special effects.

Lexmark: No PC Required

At first, the Kodak Personal Picture Maker by Lexmark looks like a conventional ink jet printer. In fact, it can act like one, too: Using either a color ($38.95) or a black ($32.99) cartridge, the printer can produce top-quality, 1200-by-1200-dpi output from any application. But unlike most standard ink jets, the Personal Picture Maker doesn't need to be connected to a PC.

Two slots on the front panel let you insert SmartMedia or CompactFlash memory cards commonly used for image storage by digital cameras. The printer's built-in software--dubbed the Digital Darkroom--lets you print out thumbnails from the memory cards and then choose which images to print, crop, and embellish with borders and canned text using preprogrammed templates. Navigating through the Digital Darkroom is as easy as using the controls on the printer's front panel.

If you have a parallel-port Iomega Zip drive, you can attach it directly to the Lexmark and save images from the memory cards directly to a Zip disk. Again, no PC is needed.

There is a catch to all this convenience, though: When printing at the highest resolution, the Personal Picture Maker takes more than 12 minutes to print an 8-by-10-inch color image. The printer supports Kodak's ink jet Photo Paper, which includes 8-by-10-inch sheets ($9.99 for 15 of them) and perforated sheets that allow you to print images ranging from 3 by 5 inches to 5 by 7 inches ($16.99 for a variety pack of 15 sheets).

Although the Personal Picture Maker doesn't come with any image editing software for PC-attached use, Kodak includes a copy of Picture Easy, its basic image editing software, with every package of paper.

Comparing Results

To test output quality, we used the 300P and the Personal Picture Maker to print 1152-by-864-pixel images from a Kodak DC215 digital camera. We also printed photos taken with a conventional 35mm camera developed and then stored on a Kodak Photo CD.

We could see a definite difference. Output from the Personal Picture Maker was the crisper of the two, but the 300P's dye-sublimation printouts had a more natural, albeit softer-edged, look. Though both printers produced excellent images, we preferred the overall look and feel of the 300P's output.

At about $.80 for a 4-by-6-inch print, the 300P's per-print cost is slightly less than that of the Personal Picture Maker, which works out to about $.90 per 4-by-6-inch print.

For most users, the Kodak Personal Picture Maker by Lexmark will prove the better option, since it can accommodate printing photos of various sizes in addition to your general printing needs. However, if you're looking for a dedicated photo printer, the Acer FotoPrisa 300P is a better buy.

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