Epson Stylus Photo 2000P Promises Archival-Quality Prints
Inkjet printers have made amazing leaps in image quality over the past few years, to the point that you can print photographic images of stunning quality with models by Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Canon. As impressive as these images can be, however, a harsh reality remains: Most photos printed with desktop inkjet printers will fade within a few years when displayed even in indirect or low light, and many prints show noticeable fading (often via a shift in one of the ink colors) in a matter of days if subjected to strong direct light. Epson may well be the first vendor to have solved this problem with its $899 Stylus Photo 2000P.
The 2000P promises prints that last 200 years under the same conditions (bright indoor lighting) that limit photographs to fewer than 100. The secret to the printer’s claimed success is its use of archival, pigment-based inks instead of the dye-based inks used by most mainstream inkjets.
Archival inks are nothing new. Companies such as Lyson, MIS Associates, Bulldog, Cone Editions, and others have been providing after-market, pigment-based inks for printers by Iris, Epson, and other manufacturers for years. These inks have had a number of limitations — chiefly higher price and a narrower color gamut — but for the most part they produce beautiful prints for people willing to take the time and the effort to tweak their printers (any damage caused by using third-party inks would not be covered under Epson’s warranty).
By supplying both the printer and the ink set, Epson is entering this market with a big advantage over third parties, which must derive their ink formulas without the benefit of being able to engineer the print head, the driver, or the ink delivery system. Epson is also using a patented pigment technology that encapsulates each pigment in a drop of resin, which the company claims produces more uniform drop sizes, resulting in better coverage and reducing clogging.
Because existing Epson papers are optimized for dye-based inks, the 2000P requires new media types as well. Epson is rolling out four new papers with the printer: Archival Matte, Premium Semi-Gloss, Photo Luster, and a Watercolor stock. The latter has a lovely texture similar to many watercolor papers, although it is not as thick as that found in art supply stores.
For the most part, the 2000P looks and acts like its dye-based predecessors — the Stylus Photo EX, 1200, and 1270 — printing at resolutions as high as 1,440 by 720 dpi on media as large as 13 inches wide and 44 inches long. It comes with both USB and high-speed parallel ports, and includes Windows and Mac drivers in the box. (Setup for either platform is a breeze.) The main change from earlier wide-carriage Epsons is the metallic-gray plastic case, obviously meant to set the 2000P apart from its lower-cost siblings.
The ink system uses two cartridges — one with black ink, and the other with cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, and yellow. Black ink is priced at $32.95 per cartridge and will last for 60 to 120 8- by 10-inch pages, depending on print mode. The $37.95 color cartridges will print 21 to 42 8-by-10-inch prints. Running through three sets of ink cartridges during our testing period, we found Epson’s claims to be generally consistent with our own. The first cartridge through the printer will print well below capacity, however, because of necessary priming of the ink subsystem.
As is the case with the recent Stylus Photo 1270, the 2000P will print edge-to-edge (0-inch right and left margins) on 4-, 8.3- and 13-inch roll or cut-sheet papers. It also uses a new, intelligent-cartridge technology that provides better reporting on ink levels and allows you to remove an ink cartridge before it is empty — for transport, for example — and re-install it later, something not possible with past Epson printers.
One drawback for some users: This cartridge design reportedly prohibits third-party vendors from designing after-market ink sets or continuous ink systems for the 2000P (or other printers that use the design), although we would ultimately expect industrious vendors to overcome this issue.
Epson’s print driver has gotten much better over the years, and the latest incarnation adds the improved ink level indicator, which displays the current amount of ink left in the cartridges. An excellent touch is that the driver will tell you how many more pages the cartridges can print, based on the last page you printed. Another nice feature is the capability to share the printer over a network, using the host Mac or PC as a print server. This can easily be setup in the main driver control panel. Once a host has been designated a server, you need only install the printer driver on any machine on the network.
Speeds and Feeds
The 2000P has two main print modes, Fine and Photo, which essentially track to 720 dpi and 1440 dpi, respectively. There is a Draft mode for printing text, as well as a Normal mode, for printing on plain paper, but frankly these options are a waste of the printer’s capabilities and the price of the ink used.
Fine mode is faster and uses less ink than Photo mode, and for many prints — especially at smaller sizes — you won’t really notice the difference in quality between the two. Our advice: To conserve expensive ink, use Fine mode for all but your most important jobs.
Print speeds will vary by the paper size, ink coverage, and paper type. In our testing, a letter-size page of multiple photographs printed in Fine mode in a little less than 4 minutes on matte-finish paper and 6 minutes on glossy paper. In Photo mode, the same page took less than 7 minutes to print on matte paper and approximately 11 minutes on glossy. Clearly, the 2000P isn’t going to set any speed records, but for its intended purpose, it is definitely fast enough.
The Quality Factor
The 2000P wouldn’t amount to much if its print quality were sub par. and here the printer excels, even with the radically different ink set. With the new paper types, it is nearly impossible to see dots, and it is worth noting that 8-by-10-inch images printed from the current crop of 3-megapixel digital cameras looked quite good and natural.
Epson’s R&D teams have been able to come so close to the color gamut of dye-based inks that even we couldn’t always tell the difference between the two ink types without looking at the back of a print to determine which printer was used. Given that many companies with years of experience in producing pigmented inks have been unable — until recently — to come close to approximating the brilliant output of dye-based inks, Epson’s achievement is all the more impressive.
Also stunning are some of Epson’s new media choices for the 2000P. As we noted earlier, there are four new paper stocks, one with a matte finish, two glossy-style papers, and a textured watercolor paper. We appreciated the matte paper as a good, general purpose paper type (which is like a thicker version of Epson’s old Photo Quality Paper), but the two glossy papers are quite unbelievable. Both the Premium Semigloss and Premium Luster papers are true resin-coated (RC) papers that have the weight, look, and feel of true photographic prints. The Luster paper has a light sheen and a textured surface to it, and during testing many people looking at the images printed with this paper assumed they were from a traditional photo lab. The Semigloss paper is also gorgeous: It has a little less sheen to it but still manages the feel of a traditional photo.
As one might expect, the new media aren’t cheap, but they’re generally less than $1 per page for letter-size output. The Archival Matte paper is the least expensive, coming in 50-sheet packs in letter size for $17.99, A3 for $44.99, and SuperA3 (roughly 13 by 19 inches) for $56.99. The Premium Semigloss Photo Paper will come in 20-sheet packs in letter size ($16.99) and SuperA3 ($56.99); a 4-inch roll will be $19.99, and a 13-inch roll will be available later this year. The Watercolor Paper will come initially only in a 20-sheet SuperA3 pack, priced at $26.99. Pricing for the Premium Luster Photo Paper will be forthcoming when the paper ships in volume in mid-August.
There are two notable limitations of the 2000P. Neither should affect a great many people, but it’s important to properly set expectations when you’re talking about an $899 printer.
The printer’s most significant limitation is its lack of true monochrome output. While capable of generating beautiful color prints, the 2000P isn’t really designed to print black-and-white images with the proper tonal range. You can print grayscale images, but they will be converted to RGB mode and will tend to print with a greenish color cast. Using Photoshop’s Duotones, you can create a toned monochrome image with a color cast of your own choosing, but the 2000P isn’t really designed to reproduce black-and-white photography. If that’s what you’re after, check into the Quadtone ink sets from companies such as MIS Associates, or into Cone Editions’ beautiful Piezography BW system for the Epson Stylus 3000 or 1160, all of which are designed for this specialty market.
The other limitation with the 2000P is paper stocks. In the third-party archival printing market, many paper manufacturers offer a wide range of coated papers for the growing number of archival ink sets. Many of the coatings found on these papers won’t provide optimal results on the 2000P, and most are thicker than the printer can handle. Epson says that it will unveil a wider range of paper types for the 2000P in the coming months, and many paper manufacturers will likely jump on the 2000P bandwagon over time. But for now the best output will be realized with stock Epson papers.
It is worth noting that Epson’s Stylus Pro 7500 — a large-format inkjet printer announced around the same time as the 2000P — uses the same archival ink set as the 2000P, but it has a more robust paper feed mechanism that will handle thick stocks with ease. It has a maximum print width of 24 inches, and a number of roll paper manufacturers have already announced coated paper stocks for it. (We’ll review the 7500 once it becomes available in late August.)
The trick to getting the best output from the 2000P is to save images in RGB mode, not CMYK or Grayscale. Despite the printer’s use of six inks, four of which are CMYK, its color space is RGB, and any image not sent in this mode has the potential to come out looking different than the screen image. (See Bruce Fraser’s Color Management Made Stupid for more on this topic.) The minimum resolution of any file sent to the printer should be 240 dpi.
The Archival Quality
While we can evaluate plenty about this printer, we cannot accurately test Epson’s longevity claims, although there is plenty of reason to believe that the ink and paper combinations Epson has created will stand the test of time. Wilhelm Imaging, an independent test lab with extensive research in the area of photographic and inkjet print permanence, is currently evaluating the 2000P. Its preliminary accelerated fade testing has thus far indicated a print life of at least 100 years for some of the paper/ink combinations, which is already well longer than the 25 to 60 years you’d expect with most photographs. If you’re interested in the tests for the 2000P (or other printers and ink sets), check Wilhelm’s site; many of the reports are available for download in PDF format.
To informally test the printer, we placed a variety of unframed images both from the 2000P and from dye-based inkjets in direct sunlight for weeks (and in the case of one, a 2000P demo image from Epson, for months). In that time, we’ve seen no evidence of fading or color shift in the 2000P prints, while the dye prints have shown differing degrees of degradation.
The combination of wide-gamut, pigment-based inks and true photo-style media types are worth the premium price of the Stylus Photo 2000P by itself. And, while we can’t vouch for the longevity of the prints, the testing we did in a few sunny weeks with the printer gave us no indication that the claims were untrue.
Assuming Epson’s 200-year claims are even half right, the company has produced a consumer version of the Holy Grail of digital imaging — prints that truly compete with traditional photographic processes in both quality and longevity. For professional artists and photographers looking to go digital, the 2000P provides the ability to sell inkjet prints with the confidence they will last.
Read more by Rick LePage.