As my HP B9180 A3+ photo printer broke down, I needed a replacement. Hewlett-Packard no longer makes prosumer photo printers, so the choice came down to Epson or Canon. As Epson is by far the market leader, and as two friends (Sakke and Joop) were happy with Epson printers, I got myself one too.
I ordered the A2+ sized (17″) Epson 3880. The 3880 is heavy (20 kg) and big, but is still relatively compact for an A2+ printer.
It is the direct replacement of the Epson 3800 which Sakke bought (he always goes for fancy toys) and the bigger brother of the R2440 which Joop has. The 3880 has two benefits over the (already fancy) A3+ printers: I expect to start doing some A2 printing this year, and the 3880 has larger cartridges, thus reducing ink cost by roughly 2x. So regardless of how often you need A2 printing, the more expensive printer can be cheaper than A3+ printers if you print hundreds of prints.
Ink and ink juggling
The machine has 9 ink cartridges of 80 ml each. Two of these are black (see next paragraph), two are grey (light and dark), two are cyan (idem), two are “vivid” magenta (idem), and one is yellow. Nine cartridges at 80 ml each means 720 ml of ink (750 ml = size of a wine bottle). The cartridges sell for roughly $50 or about 0.6 US$ or Euro per millilitre.
However, compared to my old HP, the way Epson uses 9 ink cartridge is a bit of a hack: the print head only supports 8 colors, so shiny Photo Black (PK) and un-shiny Matt Black (MK) use the same pixels (holes) in the print head. Typical photo paper uses PK and fancy matt paper uses MK. Switching back and forth between PK and MK requires a bit of purging, that costs you about 5 ml or 3 Euro per round trip.
So switching is something to avoid unless you have serious amounts of print work to do “on the other side”. For now I am sticking to PK as that matches the paper I had in stock. The printer is not normally used for office printing, but plain paper can be set to use either PK or MK (although MK is probably theoretically better).
I would prefer if Epson provides a feature to block accidental switching, as it is easy to accidentally switch when, for example, you want to print a contact sheet on an A3 piece of plain paper. If you forget to double-check the black for this, you will find that the printer is purging the print head (no way to stop that) and have thus again wasted 3 Euro.
HP and Canon ink jet photo printers are supposed to stay powered on, and automatically do maintenance on the print heads every 24 hours. This avoids the print heads drying up. Epson uses a different print head technology (piezos rather than thermal) and recommends that printers are powered down when not in use. When the printer is turned on, it immediately does its maintenance (in a replaceable Maintenance tray which is essentially a small box filled with dry cotton). The Maintenance tray obviously also fills with the 5 ml of black ink used whenever you switch from PK to MK and back to PK.
The maintenance tray is treated as a 25 Euro disposable supply and has its own administrative chip, just like the more hi-tech print heads. I don’t know if you can replace the cotton in the tray yourself, but this is obviously not what Epson would recommend. Although this sounds like another smart way for manufacturers and retailers to earn money, it is an improvement compared to the HP B9180 which had no real user-maintanable solution for this at all. So instead of discarding a 25 Euro plastic tray you may end up discarding a 500+ Euro printer.
The installation consisted of the following phases:
- unpacking, and tape removal (lots of tape, including pulling a string to extract a folded foam sheet used to lock the print head during transport).
- installing 9 ink cartridges (takes a while if you bother to shake them all)
- printer pushes the ink onto the tubing and ink head – using up 20% of each of the inks (a one-time thing)
- installation of software (see comments on Epson Net Config later)
- print of 1st test page from driver (using PK black)
- print of 1st page of text on plain paper (using MK – arggggh; should have overridden the default and used PK instead)
- Lightroom test print of a photo on Epson A4 Premium semi-glossy (mandates using PK ink; possibly trying to stick to PK ink from here on). Note that you don’t get any paper with the printer itself – it would have been convenient (and good business) to include a set of A4 samples of the various Epson papers.
- In my case, I did a calibration (using an XRite ColorMunki spectrometer) to create an ICC profile for my remaining stock of HP A3 Advance Glossy paper. Normally this will require 2 sheets of A4. But if you try hard, you can convince the printer driver to print both on the same sheet of A4. If you go this route (which I don’t particularly recommend), be sure to set the printer driver to display an on-screen preview first.
- At this point you are in business. Although the next photo I printed was almost in black-and-white because of the usual confusion about whether the application or the printer should handle color management. Lightroom users usually let Lightroom do this. Epson documentation obviously recommends letting the printer do the color management. I stuck to my old strategy: no color management in the printer, as this worked well for me and sounds safest if you would use non-Epson paper with custom profiles.
At this point the ink levels were: MK=89, PK=83%, LK=80%, LLK=80%, C=80%, VM=80%, LC=80%, VLM=80%, Y=80%, Maint=63%. This is pretty consistent with Epson’s claim that initial priming of tubing and print head took 20% of the each ink cartridge. This is a one-time thing.
Epson Net Config versions
I run the 64-bit version of Windows 7. My printer is connected to a router via an Ethernet cable. The supplied version 3.3 of Epson Net Config, the communication setup program, didn’t really work well with 64b Windows (despite lack of error messages). But version 2.2b (recommended at the time for use with 64-bit Windows on the US Epson site) and the brand new version 3.5b on epson.nl site did work fine. You can tell whether the Epson Net Config is working correctly (remember: no clear error messages) by checking whether the utility software can correctly display ink level information from the printer. If so, everything should work fine. If not, start looking into what version of the Epson Net Config you are using and what version Epson recommends for your operating system.
I don’t have a Mac OS machine, so cannot comment on “the other side”.
Comments and critique
- Black ink musical chairs
As explained above, having 9 inks and a print head designed for 8 inks is not good. For Epson, it appears to be an improvement over manual switching in previous models. But with manual switching of ink, at least you didn’t accidentally switch inks. I don’t know how the bigger Epson printers handle this. Maybe if you print A2 or larger all the time, (professional) users don’t worry about wasting 5 millilitres as the relative overhead decreases.
- Firmware upgrade
My firmware (“main board”=P0079C & network interface=01.03) was up to date. You have to check which version is available manually (hmm). Beware that the firmware in the US has a different version identification than in Europe (different set of languages?).
- Power button
You can leave the printer powered on (which makes sense for a network printer). But in a YouTube interview with Michael Reichmann, a representative of Epson Canada warned against leaving the printer turned on when it was not in use. Turning the printer off parked the heads in a way that allowed less ink to evaporate. As turning the machine on again does use extra ink, it would be useful to know where the cross-over point is between leaving the printer on and turning the printer off. The printer manual also recommends turning the printer off when the printer is not used for longer periods.
The printer is actually a bit intimidating. This obviously largely comes with using a professional printer, but my HP B9180 was significantly simpler (even though its software had a bad reputation). Examples of design choices that cause this complexity:
- The amount of features and options in the device driver
- It is not easy to recall all user settings from disk (available, but hidden away).
- The not-quite-transparent use of two types of black ink, and no warning beforehand that the ink will switch.
- 3 ways to feed paper, and some types of paper require specific choices
- Multiple software tools for print settings, with the resulting uncertainty what the printer will really use (partly a Windows problem?)
- Adjustable “platten gap”, which is largely automatically handled, but not properly explained in the manual.
- The “turn off the printer” policy does add another thing which can go wrong. It is not prominently stated in the documentation.
- The usual problem of managing colors in the printer versus managing colors in the application or operating system (valid for most printers).
- No auto detection of what kind of paper you load (HP has a bar code for their own “Advanced” series of photo paper)
- Borderless is tricky to achieve. You can’t just depend on the preview generated in Lightroom to see whether it will work as intended.
- Epson Print Preview
The printer driver has a preview option which is useful when you are playing with borders or multiple photos per page or multiple pages per photo. It’s colors are however way off: you see much higher saturation on-screen than in the actual print. You certainly don’t want your color prints to look like the Preview images. Once you know this is just a bug, you don’t need to worry about it.
Comparison to the HP B9180
This comparison is not quite fair because the HP is 3 years older, can only handle up to A3+, and is in fact no longer in production. But then again, it is reasonable to compared the new product against a known older product:
- The HP was roughly half of the price of the Epson, but the ink costs are significantly lower on the Epson (larger cartridges are say 50% cheaper per ml).
- An Epson representative at PhotoKina 2010 mentioned a figure of on average 7 ml ink per square meter for professional Epson printers. This would mean that a borderless sheet of A3 (0.125 m2) would cost almost 1 ml worth of ink. Meaning about 0.6 $ or Euro worth of ink (plus 1 Euro, or occasionally more, worth of paper). The HP equivalent (for the B9180) is closer to 2 Euro of ink per borderless A3.
- The Epson makes less noise than the HP B9180. And the Epson doesn’t suddenly make noise when it initiates its daily cleaning cycle.
- The HP B9180 has built-in optical calibration, although this presumably not as accurate as real print calibration tool. HP’s optical calibration only calibrates the printer with a fixed paper type. The Epson is calibrated in the factory. It may have some kind of optical check built-in (but for different purposes: automatic print head alignment option).
People who sell prints and people that buy (too) fancy printers tend to worry about what paper to use. I have experience with using glossy paper (HP Advanced Glossy A3). But now need to switch brands and stock up on at least one type of A2 paper.
- Glossy versus matt
I read somewhere that portraits and landscapes may be better/nicer on matt than on glossy. In general, one strategy is to always use glossy paper (never wrong, highest contrast) or to use matt for selected photos. Probably the choice is partly a matter (no pun intended) of taste.
- Test pack
Epson sells a test pack with 6 types of fancy paper (10 sheets of A4 each; recommended price 60 Euro; local shop 50 Euro). The paper types:
- Galerie Smooth Lustre Duo (280g/m²)
- Galerie Smooth Gloss Paper (290g/m²)
- Galerie Smooth Pearl Paper (290g/m²)
- Galerie Smooth Fine Art Paper (190g/m²)
- Galerie Smooth Heavyweight Matt Paper (200g/m²)
- Galerie Smooth Gold Fibre Silk Paper (310g/m²)
- Cross-paper consistency
With the right profiles, colors on HP Advanced Glossy (own calibration) and Epson Archival Matt (Epson’s profile) match quite well when using the Epson printer.
- Matt hates deep shadows
With the Epson 3880 on Epson Archival Matt paper, the blacks are less dark and -worse- you lots of shadow detail. Note that Epson Archival Matt has been renamed to Epson Enhanced Matt.
- Cross-printer consistency
Despite calibration, the colors on the HP PhotoSmart Pro B9180 (HP Advanced Glossy) and the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 (Epson Archival Matt) don’t match. This is weird as the same printer gives a good match on both types of paper. And as the differences between the printers should have been taken care of by calibration. The test image had differences in pastel tints (so it is unlikely to be a difference in gamut? could be tested with soft-proofing).