You've seen the ads on TV and in the drugstore fliers that come stuffed inside the Sunday papers: "Digital Prints for 29 cents. Half the Price of Printing at Home." That may have been true two years ago when retailers -- stung by the sudden drop in their film processing business -- were rushing to convert their one-hour-photo labs to handle snapshots from digital cameras. Today, it's a different story: Home printer manufacturers have responded with specialty printers aimed solely at the snapshot market and paper-and-ink value packs designed to match drugstore print prices.
I challenged the big printer makers to come up with their best shot. I printed out more than 700 4x6 glossy photos to pinpoint a per-print cost, essentially churning out snapshot after snapshot until the ink cartridges ran dry.
The results? I found that the most economical, Epson's PictureMate printer, can produce prints for about 20 cents each. That beats most retailers' prices hands down. Snapshots from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and Canon (CAJ ) printers came in closer to drugstore prices at around 30 cents each.
My test was admittedly unscientific. I used a batch of 99 vacation photos borrowed from a friend who had just returned from Africa. Your results could differ, depending on the mix of colors in your snapshots. I used printer and ink combinations identified by their makers as their most economical. You could easily spend 50 cents or more per print using different printers and supplies from the same companies. I didn't factor in the price of the printers, which range from $140 to $200, basing my calculations solely on the price of the ink and paper.
I shopped for those consumable supplies carefully: Epson, for example, guarantees 100 prints from its PictureMate Print Pack, which lists for $29. But it's easy to find the package for $25 at office-supply stores such as OfficeMax (OMX ) and for $20 or $21 online. That means prints for 20 cents or 21 cents or even less, since most owners say they can squeeze a couple dozen or more extra prints out of the ink cartridge. (I got exactly 100 with my test photos but, using a second set of snapshots, I managed to get 176 prints -- resulting in a cost of 18 cents each.)
DIFFERENCES IN QUALITY
You can spend a lot more getting your photos printed -- and you may want to. If you want them on heavier paper stock or with a semigloss or matte finish instead of glossy, or are worried about fading, you can take your digital photos to a specialty photo lab instead of the drugstore. If you're printing at home, you can opt for a more expensive grade of paper. But for the best quality prints, the paper should be the same brand as the printer and ink. Or you can splurge on a photo printer that can handle six or more different colored inks, which makes for more gradations of color and reduces the graininess of the print.
The PictureMate, a lunchbox-size printer with a flip-up carrying handle, can print only 4x6 snapshots. That's true as well for the HP Photosmart 375 and the Dell Photo Printer 540 that I tested. Each sells for around $190 or $200. You don't even need to connect them to a computer; just plug in the memory card from your camera and start printing. Canon's $140 Pixma iP4000 is more versatile, but it needs to be hooked up to a camera or computer. It's more the size of a breadbox, but it can handle 8x10 photos and ordinary letter-size documents as well as 4x6 snapshots.
The drawback to Epson's PictureMate? Its liquid-crystal display screen can't display pictures, only menus. So if you haven't used your camera to delete the duds, you'll have to print out an index sheet (at the same 20 cents a sheet) to determine which shots you want to print. Similarly, if you want to crop some of your photos, you'll have to print out a guide (another 20 cents) that shows your snapshot cropped 18 different ways before you pick the one you want to print.
The HP and Dell printers display your pictures on their screens, making it easy to pick the prints you want. With Dell's printer, you can do only limited editing, changing the brightness of the print and choosing between "natural" and "vivid" colors. But HP's offers a wealth of editing options, including cropping, red-eye removal, and decorative borders.
Another difference: Dell's 540 is a dye-sublimation printer -- all of the others are inkjet printers. So-called dye-sub printers use an ink-infused plastic ribbon to thermally transfer the three basic colors and a glossy overcoat from the ribbon to the paper. Because the ribbon, unlike an ink cartridge, is designed to print a fixed number of images, you know your costs in advance. Dell sells a bundle of three of its 40-sheet paper-and-ink print packs for $47, so your snapshots will cost 39 cents each.
The math for the inkjet printers is more arduous. I printed until the cartridges ran out of ink, divided the cost by the number of prints I got, and then adjusted the result to reflect the price of the paper. I got 210 prints from HP's $80, 280-sheet, two-cartridge Photo Value Pack, for example, so I deducted 17 cents for each of the 70 sheets I didn't use. (Staples (SPLS ) sells the same HP paper for $16.94 for 100 sheets.) So each HP print cost me around 32 cents.
At times it doesn't make sense to print at home. I would never print 99 snapshots from my vacation, for instance: It took me an hour and a half on the fastest printer, the Canon, and an agonizing four hours on the Epson. That's worth a trip to the one-hour photo store. But if it's one or two or 10, or if you need them now to send off with friends, it's handy to have one of these printers around. And you're not going to feel swindled when the ink runs out.
By Larry Armstrong