By Stephen H. Wildstrom Lots of printers on the market claim to be able to print out digital photos or scanned pictures that are indistinguishable from photographs -- and many of them can. But you could spend $200 for a quality photo printer, or you could spend $500. What -- besides $300 -- is the difference? Speed.
I looked at the $200 Kodak Personal Picture Maker 200 from Lexmark and the $500 Photosmart 1218 from Hewlett-Packard. Both do impressive jobs of converting high-resolution digital images into photo-like prints. The HP gets the quality nod for the way it retains detail in highlights and its somewhat better ability to resolve fine details of images. The Kodak was slightly out of register, which resulted in a narrow magenta fringe at the right edge of the picture. But these distinctions, which could be partly due to variations in individual machines, likely don't justify a 150% difference in price.
But print speed does. A best-quality 8-by-10-inch image on glossy paper took the Kodak nearly 37 minutes to complete. The HP printed an identical picture in four minutes, 20 seconds. Similar differences marked ordinary color printing. The HP turned out a color Web page in 2:41 at its best-quality setting and 51 seconds at normal quality. The same images took 13:09 and 10:58, respectively, on the Kodak. Obviously, the Personal Picture Maker isn't the machine to choose if your time is more valuable to you than your money. Also, the HP produced crisper text and clearer, more saturated pictures on plain paper.
YOU CAN EVEN EDIT. Still, the Kodak has some very impressive features -- especially for a printer in its price range. You can print pictures directly from Compact Flash or SmartMedia memory cards that you insert in slots in Picture Maker. A liquid crystal display lets you select the pictures you want to print and do some crude image editing. A universal serial bus port allows you to transfer pictures from a memory card to an Iomega Zip drive. It connects to a computer running Windows 98 or Millennium Edition only with a USB connection. (It makes no claim to Windows 2000 compatibility.)
HP's Photosmart has some cool tricks of its own. It lacks the LCD, but a variety of buttons make it easy to select pictures and specify how you want them printed. The printer has a real paper tray, not just a stand-up slot, and a special insert for handling four-by-six-inch photo paper. The printer automatically senses the type of paper being used and sets itself accordingly. In addition to Compact Flash and SmartMedia, the HP also can take images from an IBM Microdrive hard disk. And it has more interface options. It supports Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, or 2000, as well as Mac OS 8.6 or later versions. It connects using USB, a parallel cable, or an infrared link.
The HP claims 6.5 pages per minute for normal-quality black-text printing and is rated at 5,000 pages per month. The Kodak makes no specific text-only or duty-cycle claims. Clearly, the HP is by far the better choice as an everyday printer that also does a good job on pictures. But the Kodak is a remarkable value for photo printing, though you probably wouldn't want it as your only printer. With Jennifer Drew in Washington, D.C.
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online