Koos, who is an amateur photographer, recently asked advice about what A3 photo printer to buy. Actually it was originally Koos’ wife who asked me (as this might become a surprise birthday present). Later Koos himself needed to get involved as his wife understandably got overwhelmed by all the intricate technical details needed to sensibly decide.
I personally own a Hewlett-Packard B9180 since Dec 2006 – and I have things I really like and really dislike about it. I, in turn, solicited input from an Epson R3800 owner (Sakke, over in Finland). Sakke’s R3800 A2 printer is the big brother of the Epson’s R2880 A3+ printer. Unfortunately, Sakke doesn’t own his printer long enough to judge its longer term reliability yet. But 2½ years of owning the HP B9180 should be enough – despite only using the printer for photos sporadically.
Sakke and I both happen to own Canon cameras, but neither went for a Canon printer – despite Canon being the other top-3 company in this market segment. There are no real benefits to using a Canon printer with a Canon camera (as usually there is 3rd party PC software in between anyway). Canon just announced (March 2009) that it will update its A3+ printer models to the Canon Pro9000 MkII and Pro9500 MkII.
Currently (this may change) both Sakke and I agree that the Epson R2880 is a safer bet than the HP B9180. When I bought the B9180, the R2880 was not available yet (and both manufacturers tend to leapfrog each other when a new model is released).
My main complaint about the HP B9180 (poor software quality) seems to be confirmed by other users and even by Microsoft. This doesn’t mean that the HP B9180 is a bad printer. Just that the Epson R2880 is a safer bet as long as HP doesn’t get their act together on the software side.
Properties of both printers
+ very high quality – optimized for serious photographers printing in larger sizes
+ use non-fading pigment inks (rather than somewhat fading dye ink)
+ printer should last a long time
+ should have no/little problems with print head clogging due to built-in print head maintenance (daily for HP, on power up with Epson)
+ print heads can be replaced easily (shouldn’t be needed)
+ can printer borderless up to A3+ paper size
- price (roughly 700 Euro). It is not obvious that buying your own printer is cheaper than having your images printed. Don’t buy the printer expecting to save money.
- About 50% of the price is for the hefty ink cartridges. The HP contains 8 cartridges. The Epson uses 8 different cartridges, but cannot hold all 8 at the same time.
- uses huge amounts of free desk space (HP B9180 67 cm wide, significant depth needed for the paper path at back and front)
- requires special paperfor photo printing (don’t even think about printing serious photos on ”plain” paper, you need special coated paper from HP/Epson/Canon/Ilford)
HP B9180 (Feb 2006)
+ suitable as only printer in the household (plain paper tray + special paper manual input)
+ connects via USB or network cable (the latter allows anyone on the LAN to print directly to the B9180)
+ built-in color calibrator (typically used during installation only)
+ no swapping of ink cartridges needed
+ does maintenance on the print heads every 24h (only if the printer hasn’t been used?) by spitting a single test droplet through every single print head hole. The drops are very small.
- occasional paper jam when printing on plain paper (requires cleaning of some rubber rollers in the back)
- long-standing software issues(not all PCs discover the printer on the network, driver issue which interferes when Microsoft Office software shuts down). Arguably this problem doesn’t have an equivalent for the Epson (no network interface). But I am pissed off that such issue still exist (despite firmware/driver upgrades) after 2 years.
- occasionally you need to remove ink grime from an internal ink spittoon called the NEDD. This is a small rectangular tray containing sponge into which the printer spits ink during maintenance. I don’t think the normal manual mentions its existence. Some B9180 have given up on their printer likely because they didn’t know this. NEDD-related tips and photos here.
- requires more desk spaceat the back than the Epson R2880. The back of the printer cannot be too near a wall.
Epson R2880 (May 2008)
+ safe bet as Epson is market leader in this high-end photo printer market
+ newer design (Epson clearly had the time to study the HP’s B9180 contender)
+ roll paper feed (for printing extremely wide panoramas)
+ believe to have less software problems (although the LAN-software issue simply doesn’t apply)
+ option to print on CD-Rs (but optical discs are getting burned less than they used to)
+ needs less space behind the printer (slanted paper holder instead of horizontal paper slot)
- no direct Ethernet interface for a LAN connection
- cartridge swapping between 2 of the black cartridges (when needed?)
- presumably the inevitable long-term reliability issues (although the R3800 is doing fine so far)
- no built-in color calibration (but undoubtedly individually calibrated at the factory – probably no big deal even if you calibrate your monitor)