A few years back, when digital photography began to soar in popularity, printer companies naturally assumed there would be a similar rush into home photo printing. While sales of printers, ink, and paper have shown steady growth, it's nothing like the explosion in camera sales. Kodak (EK), a name that once dominated photography, aims to change that.
There are lots of reasons printing has lagged. Back when everyone was shooting film, prints were the only way to see the results. Now you can view pictures on your camera, mobile phone, iPod, laptop, or TV. And if you still want prints, it's generally simpler and cheaper to use an online service, a retail photo finisher, or the increasingly popular option of sending your pictures over the Internet to a local Walgreen's (WAG) or Ritz Camera. For a 4x6-inch print, such outlets typically charge 15¢ to 19¢, compared with about 25¢ or more in ink and paper costs per print using your home setup.
After watching much of its photo mojo disappear during the digital revolution, Kodak wants to stage a comeback with a line of consumer photo printers that rewrite the price equation. Instead of practically giving away printers and then making customers pay through the nose for ink and paper, Kodak is focusing on the higher end of the home market and beating competitors on the price of supplies.
Several Good Choices
The results are pretty impressive. Kodak is offering three all-in-one printers priced at $150, $200, and $300. I'm betting the $200 EasyShare 5300 will be the overwhelming favorite. It scans, copies, and prints from either a Mac or Windows PC or from memory cards inserted directly into the printer—a great convenience. The low-end EasyShare 5100 can't print directly from cards. At the top, the 5500 adds fax capability.
Kodak's breakthrough is in the pricing of ink and photo paper. A bundle consisting of a black ink cartridge and a five-color photo cartridge for the EasyShare costs $22. A similar ink supply for Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) $149 PhotoSmart C3180 all-in-one costs $35.
For the best results, you should use paper designed for your printer. Kodak's paper is actually slightly more expensive than HP's, $13.99 for a pack of 100 4x6 sheets of Premium Photo Paper, compared with $11.24 for the comparable HP product. The real bargain is Kodak's value pack, 135 sheets of paper and a five-color photo ink cartridge for $19.99. The company says this combination will produce 4x6 prints for 15¢ apiece. Another bundle takes the estimated price down to a dime a print, but it uses lower-quality paper and less ink to produce prints noticeably inferior to what you would get from a lab.
Prints Are a Snap
I found the EasyShare simple to set up and use. To make 4x6 prints, you load the paper into a special tray and slide it in. Larger prints require replacing the regular inkjet paper in the main printing tray. A code on the back of each sheet tells the printer the type and size of the Kodak paper. The printer cranks out about two 4x6 photos per minute. Nonphoto pages print at a rate of 32 per minute for black only and 22 per minute for color.
Copying and scanning were both simple on the EasyShare. The photo-management and editing software that comes with it struck me as awkward and somewhat counterintuitive, but it's easy to swap other software. In the Mac version, Kodak was smart enough simply to integrate with iPhoto.
I'm not sure all of this will lure most digital snapshooters away from online or retail services. But even with most prints produced by labs, home printing is a lucrative market. HP is protecting its turf with a restructuring of ink prices that will lower costs, especially for heavy users. Whether or not Kodak strikes it rich in this market, its entry looks like a winner for consumers.