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This Photo Printer Is a Snap

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review


The Good Easy setup on Windows PCs

The Bad Prints can run a relatively pricey 50 cents each

The Bottom LineA good choice for hobbyists looking for instant gratification

Apple's iPod may be the talk of the town, but digital cameras far and away remain the most popular consumer-tech item. To cash in on the growing do-it-yourself printing craze that accompanies the soaring camera sales, Dell (DELL) last fall released its first dedicated photo printer, the Dell Photo Printer 540.

I've been trying out the $189 Dell 540 for a couple of months, and I've found it a snap to operate, but a little short of the mark for my money. The printer delivers solid -- if not outstanding -- prints. It offers a snazzy 2.5-inch color liquid crystal display screen, and measures a compact 5.4, by 7.4, by 3.2 inches -- about the size of a small toaster oven. While easy to set up and use, you're mainly limited to 4x6-inch borderless prints, although you can cut down to the far less popular 3.5x5-inch format.

All-in-one home printers can handle letters, pictures in multiple sizes, and scanning, and most cost about the same. The difference is Dell considers the Dell 540 a portable printer -- even though its design requires double the physical space of the actual unit to print. More on that later.

NOT FOR MACS. Setting it up took no time at all. You slide a dye-transfer case into the printer's side and then add the paper tray, which holds 20 sheets in the front. That done, you can print directly from a camera equipped with PictBridge technology and a USB cable, or pop in any memory card except for the xD technology used by Olympus or Fuji.

The LCD lets you preview images and keeps track of the number of remaining pictures you can print with the 40-image dye cartridge. Well thought-out navigation buttons such as "rotate," "save to PC," and "print" make the job simple enough even for novices.

To grab photos off a PC equipped with Windows 2000 or Windows XP (Apple (AAPL) fans are out of luck), you'll need to install Dell photo printer software. Dell doesn't include much in the way of image-editing software, perhaps on the belief that many people already have Adobe (ADBE) or other photo-editing programs installed. Using the Windows My Photos folder to view pictures and thumbnails, printing shots is as simple as hitting print and selecting the Dell unit if you have others on your network.

GLOSSY TRANSFER. Unlike most photo printers, which use inkjet nozzles as their base, Dell went with a technology called dye sublimation in which the printer uses thermal image transfer to layer three colors of ink on the photo sheet. It's a neat process to watch. The print head uses a heating element to vaporize dyes directly on the surface of glossy paper in a layering technique of yellow, magenta, cyan, and black.

But be careful: The first time I tried it, I had to take quick action to move the printer since the six-inch-long sheets are pulled all the way through the back of the unit four times to layer the ink and finish with a clear coating. That process, unfortunately, gives the printer a much large footprint that you would expect from such a compact device.

Dell promises pictures in under a minute, but I clocked them, on average, at about 80 seconds -- typical of most photo printers. Some people I showed the pictures to complained the colors don't "pop" like some professional jobs or comparable photos I processed using Canon's (CAJ) $450 i9900 photo printer, with its eight colors of ink. But I was pretty happy with the bright, colorful shots the Dell printer produced.

FALLS SHORT. One limiting factor for me was price. Dell's Web site claims prices per print are as low as 39 cents, but that's only if you purchase the $47 three-bundle Dell Print Pack, which includes the paper and ribbon cartridge. If you purchase a single cartridge, you'll pay $20, which equals about 50 cents a print -- far more than you'll pay at a local Wal-Mart (WMT) or from online services such as Shutterfly or Ofoto.

True, you won't get instant gratification, but the Dell printer falls short on being truly mobile since the company failed to include a battery pack on the unit, as many mobile printers do.

All in all, the Dell printer looks to be a solid performer and good choice for consumers who want a dedicated home photo printer to quickly print out shots without the need for editing or a PC.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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