It's no secret that many printers are sold as loss leaders. A manufacturer can give away great hardware if he can sell the ink at $35 a cartridge and paper for 25 cents a snapshot. That's where the profit is today.
Given that business model, I've always been suspicious of printers equipped to print photos directly from a camera's memory card without going through a computer.
For me, editing photos is the whole point of digital photography. A perfect shot is rare. With a computer you get a chance to adjust the exposure, crop the image, lighten the shadows, eliminate red-eye and smooth out the occasional wrinkle. All of this happens before you commit to paper. So printing straight from a memory card has always seemed to be an invitation to waste money on bad shots.
But I've changed my mind after spending a week with the new Epson PictureMate Dash. The latest in Epson's line of small-format printers turns out spectacular 4 x 6-inch photos in 45 seconds - with or without a computer.
A caveat: This compact machine is strictly for snapshot-sized prints. But at $99.99, it's small and inexpensive enough to keep next to your regular printer, especially if you're the family photographer and expect to churn out a lot of prints.
At 26 cents for paper and ink combined, PictureMate shots are slightly more expensive than online photofinishers, but relatively cheap for at-home printing For many photographers, instant gratification is well worth the extra pennies.
With a 6-by-8-inch footprint, the PictureMate Dash didn't claim much desktop real estate. Setup was easy: I inserted a print cartridge, flipped up the lid, pulled up the hinged LCD display window and loaded 4 x 6 photo paper from the top.
A handful of buttons on the top control the printer with the aid of on-screen menus, while front panel slots accommodate all popular memory cards. There are two USB ports, one for a PC and another for cameras that support direct printing. A wireless Bluetooth adapter is available for the cable-challenged, and a $50 battery pack will print 140 photos between charges if you're on the road.
Brushing skepticism aside, I began work without hooking the PictureMate to a PC. I popped a Secure Digital (SD) memory card loaded with vacation pictures into the slot, and a few seconds later I was viewing the images on the surprisingly bright, 3.6-inch LCD screen. The buttons and menus made navigation easy - I could view one shot at time, or peruse a lineup of thumbnail images (actually, in that small window, they're really "pinkynail" images, but still viewable).
One irritant of digital photography is that cameras record images with a 4-to-3 aspect ratio - the same proportion as standard TV screens and PC monitors. Unfortunately, most commercial photo paper and picture frames are designed to accommodate 4 x 6-inch prints, with their elongated aspect ratio. That means you have to crop most images slightly to make them fit properly.
The PictureMate made this cropping chore surprisingly easy from the control panel. Same for adjusting basic exposure and color settings.
What amazed me is how little adjustment most decent exposures needed. With automatic enhancement turned on, the PictureMate churned out one gorgeous, well-balanced glossy photo after another. Each one took about 45 seconds, which is more than twice as fast as my general-purpose printer, an aging but reliable HP Photosmart 1100.
Also, to my surprise, the PictureMate accurately removed red-eye from several flash pictures and did its best to adjust for some badly exposed shots - although it couldn't perform miracles.
Among other bells and whistles, the PictureMate prints in black-and-white or sepia, and offers multiple photo layouts. They include thumbnail images of all the photos on a card, dual wallet-size or four mini-wallet-size prints, double passport-size photos, 3- or 4-inch square images, and other entertaining if less-than-useful options.
When I finally got around to hooking up the PictureMate to my PC, the drivers installed without a problem under Windows XP. For real editing, Epson bundles a version of ArcSoft PhotoImpression, a quirky but reasonably competent entry-level program. It produced excellent prints, as did Adobe PhotoShop Elements and Microsoft's Digital Imaging, the two photo editing programs I normally use.
For prints with a long life, I usually recommend photofinishing services, which use real photographic paper and chemistry, instead of ink. But Epson now claims its inks will last 96 years under glass and 200 years in a closed album - a lot longer than I'll ever last.
Can you believe those claims? Who knows, since tests can only simulate the effects of time. But there's no doubt that today's inks are more permanent than early formulas, which were prone to smudging and fading.
Unlike most competitors, Epson bundles its ink cartridge and paper in PrintPaks, which cost $40 for 150 glossy photos (26 cents a shot) or $35 for 100 matte prints (35 cents each). That makes Epson consumable supplies hard to compare directly with Hewlett-Packard, Canon and other vendors who sell ink and paper separately. But my take is that the per-print price is on the low end, considering the quality.
For those with bigger budgets and more ambition, Epson makes a $200 version of this printer called the PictureMate Zoom with a built-in CD burner. This accessory allows users to make photo CDs for friends and families without a computer, but it sounds pretty expensive for marginal additional utility.
Bottom line: Given its reasonable upfront cost, superb images and economy of operation, it's hard to find much fault with the basic PictureMate Dash.
If you're getting started with digital photography and don't want to use a computer as middleman, the PictureMate Dash does a great job with images straight out of the camera. If you're an experienced digital photographer and want a gadget that can spit out a stream of high-quality snapshots in short order, it's a nifty gadget.