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A portable snapshot printer is just about the cutest toy a shutterbug can have. They're not the cheapest photo printers you can buy, nor are they the best: You can get desktop printers for less than $100 that produce passable snapshots, or you can pay hundreds more for printers designed specifically for professionals. But at around $200, these lunchbox-size photo labs don't need a computer to work. Just plug in your camera or a memory card, and they'll turn out high-quality 4x6 snapshots anytime, anywhere.
They're also improving. Epson and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) have just introduced new versions of my two personal favorites. I tested HP's Photosmart 385 GoGo Photo Printer, a minor upgrade from last year's 375 that now can handle 4x12 panoramic shots as well as snapshots. But within weeks HP will have a slightly larger version, the Photosmart 475, which can print 5x7s, too. At $280, about $80 more than the 385, the 475 also will have 1.5 gigabytes of memory built in, enough to store and organize up to 1,000 photos.
Epson's PictureMate Deluxe Viewer Edition is a big improvement over its original PictureMate: It now has a color display for previewing and selecting pictures, which HP has always had. It's faster, too, printing a snapshot in 90 seconds instead of the former 2 1/2 minutes.
But here's the dilemma: Epson's older model is now a bargain, if you don't mind picking the shots you want to print from an index sheet rather than from a color display. You should be able to find it for $150 to $180, and there's a $50 rebate on it that's good through September. That means that you can get the older model for half the price of the new one.
To my eye, there's not much difference in photo quality between the HP and Epson prints. When viewed at an angle, the Epson snapshots are perfectly smooth, while the HP snapshots show little ridges where two colors meet. Some people object to that.
Both are better than what you'll get at a drugstore. For one thing, they're printed on heavier stock, and without the yellow or purplish cast you sometimes see on prints from a photo lab. On the Epson and HP printers, paper and ink run less than 25 cents per 4x6 print. That's competitive with discount store prices, and much less than snapshot printers from Kodak (EK ), Sony (SNE ), Canon (CAJ ), or Dell (DELL ).
It's easy to get hooked on these take-along digital darkrooms. I even carried the 3-lb. HP printer on vacation this summer. In the end, everyone pooled their best shots, and each of us went home with an album's worth of prints.
By Larry Armstrong