Review: Epson Stylus Photo R2400
For the last few years, buying a mid-range photo printer capable of printing up to 13″ x 19″ has involved balancing a number of compromises. While Epson’s Stylus Photo 2200 offered very good results with extreme longevity, the Canon i9900 offered a slightly wider color gamut, without the 2200’s metamerism problems. Meanwhile, if you were interested in black and white output, several HP options, including the PhotoSmart 8700, offered true neutral tones that were difficult or impossible to achieve on either the Epson or Canon products.
Epson’s new R2400 ($850 list price) is intended to solve all of the shortcomings of the 2200 with a product that combines the longevity of pigment inks, a gamut you normally get only from dye inks, and the ability to output true neutral grayscale images. The new printer delivers on all of these fronts, yet it’s not a clear slam-dunk win over its competition.
Their Printer Goes to 8
The R2400 is roughly the same size and weight as the 2200, measuring approximately 24″ x 12.5″ x 9″ and weighing 34 pounds. The R2400 is a little boxier than the 2200, with an all-silver finish (Figure 1). Both the input and output trays feature closing doors that help keep the guts of the printer clean. The output tray has a particularly cool design: Pushing in on the closed tray causes it to pop open and slide forward. Although the printer case is entirely plastic, the printer has a solid, sturdy feel. Three simple buttons on the front provide all of the direct printer control that you need.
Figure 1. The Epson Stylus Photo R2400.
The R2400 has USB2 and Firewire ports, and both of these connections worked fine when I printed from Mac OS X version 10.3 and 10.4. (I didn’t have the opportunity to test Windows connectivity.) The printer lacks any networking features, either built-in or optional. You can, of course, use a dedicated print server, but if you were hoping to stick the R2400 on your LAN, you’re out of luck.
Setup was very simple, and Epson provides a single-page instruction sheet that’s comprehensive and easy to follow.
While the 2200 uses seven separate ink cartridges, with two different options for black, the R2400 uses 8 colors, each in separate cartridges. The new UltraChrome K3 ink system that Epson developed for the R2400 (and which is also employed in the new 4800, 7800, and 9800) is an all-pigment system that uses three different shades of black, in addition to cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, and yellow. The separate black, light black, and light light black cartridges not only allow for improved black and white printing, but also let Epson improve their midtone and highlight detail.
As with the 2200, the R2400 provides two different black options, Photo Black and Matte Black. Providing separate black formulations for glossy and matte papers allows Epson to deliver true blacks for any type of media. Unfortunately, what they don’t provide are separate slots inside the printer for installing both cartridges at the same time. Like the 2200, the R2400 requires you to switch black cartridges any time you want to change from matte to glossy paper. In addition to the hassle, switching cartridges can use a fair amount of ink because the printer sometimes has to activate a cleaning cycle.
The need to switch cartridges is my most serious complaint about the R2400. Though I’m not an engineer, it’s difficult to imagine that it’s that much more complicated or expensive to add an extra ink slot to the cartridge caddy. The 2200 has the same problem, and many users complained about it. In many cases, high-volume 2200 users found the most economical solution was to buy two 2200’s and treat them as separate, dedicated glossy and matte printers.
Epson’s decision to ignore this problem makes it look like they’re either not listening to their users, or they’re happy that the bad design encourages ink sales and possibly printer sales.
In addition to the three blacks, the new ink set offers other improvements.
The metamerism problem in the 2200 is completely gone in the R2400. (Metamerism causes the same picture to exhibit slight hue shifts when viewed in different types of light.) I didn’t see metamerism on either matte or glossy paper, under any type of light.
When printing on glossy paper, the 2200 also suffered from gloss differential. Areas of heavy black appeared to have a different level of gloss than areas of color, as if they’d been varnished. The K3 inks employ a technology that embeds particles of ink in a resin coating. This microcrystal encapsulation effectively eliminates gloss differential, as well as the separate gloss-optimizer pass that some other Epson printers use.
The UltraChrome K3 microcrystal encapsulation also eliminates the bronzing problem that occasionally plagues the 2200, and it produces a more scratch-resistant print. Epson claims that the print is immediately stable, right out of the printer, but I found that most prints had a slight green tinge for about 15 minutes. Since I live in fog-bound San Francisco, this phenomenon could be a result of extreme humidity.
As with Epson’s previous pigment ink sets, the K3 inks are extremely long lasting. Wilhem Research, the standard-bearer for archival testing, rates the K3 inks as lightfast up to 108 years for color images and more than 200 years for black and white.
Driving the R2400
Epson has revamped their driver for the R2400 with the addition of new black and white toning controls. While the printer does an excellent job of producing a truly neutral print, you can use the printer driver’s new toning controls to warm or cool a grayscale print, and even apply full-blown tinting effects.
The toning control is very simple to use. An interactive color wheel lets you easily dial in tone (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The R2400 print driver includes an excellent interface for toning and tinting black and white images.
The R2400 ships with profiles for all of Epson’s papers. One of the differences between the R2400 and the more expensive 4800 (in addition to the 4800’s wider paper size and larger ink tanks) is that the 4800 allegedly provides higher-quality profiles.
The profiles provided with the R2400 are good, but I found the matte profiles to be far more accurate than the glossy profiles. Whether this is a function of the quality of the profiles or the idiosyncrasies of my particular unit is unclear. With the right hardware, you can make your own profiles, of course, but for getting started, the included Epson profiles are very good.
The R2400 is speedier than the 2200, grinding out an 8″ x 10″ print in a little more than a minute. While the speed improvements aren’t enormous, they’re welcome — every little bit helps.
It was a little easier reviewing photo printers just a few years ago, simply because each generation brought a huge level of improvement in image quality. Nowadays, things aren’t so clear. The Epson 2200 is an excellent printer; in fact, Epson isn’t replacing the 2200 with the R2400. The 2200 is still for sale at a suggested list price of $650.
While the differences between the 2200 and the R2400 are not huge, that’s mostly because the 2200 is such a good printer to begin with. Nevertheless, there are some noticeable discrepancies.
The most conspicuous differences between the two printers are the R2400’s lack of metamerism, gloss differential, and bronzing. If you’ve been frustrated by these problems on other printers, the R2400 will be a relief.
Compared to the 2200, the R2400 provides a little extra brightness in the yellows and reds and in some greens, and a slight saturation boost overall. The new K3 ink system improves detail, too. I viewed 2200 and R2400 prints side by side and saw noticeably more fine details in the R2400 print. Also, because the K3 system allows for truly neutral grays, the R2400 does better with gray elements in your color images. Cloudy skies and other gray subject matter fares better on the R2400.
The most noticeable quality difference, though, is in black and white printing. While it’s possible to get a good black and white print out of the 2200, achieving true neutrality can be extremely difficult. Not so with the R2400. If you do a lot of black and white printing, this feature alone might be the closer.
Which to Buy?
If you’re in the market for a high-quality photo printer with 13″ x 19″ output, the bad news is that the R2400 complicates your decision. The good news is that the decision is complicated because there are several really good choices.
For color quality, the Canon i9900 delivers output that is extremely competitive with the R2400. The i9900 produces bright, vivid colors, and the R2400 matches these with little difficulty. The R2400 produces much better grayscale output. The R2400 has a slight advantage in detail, and its inks are rated for much longer light-fastness. The i9900 is slightly faster and $350 to $400 cheaper.
The HP PhotoSmart 8700 matches the R2400 on grayscale quality but suffers a tiny bit in detail, and the 8700 can’t match the R2400’s archival rating. On the other hand, the 8700 is a bit speedier and $350 cheaper.
Then there’s Epson’s own 2200, which costs $200 less than the R2400, provides almost the same archival specs, and has very similar image quality. The 2220 suffers a bit on black and white printing and can occasionally exhibit bronzing and metamerism, but you can put the extra money into inks to avoid these drawbacks.
If money is no object, go with the R2400. You’ll get all-around better image quality and extremely good archivability. You’ll also get access to Epson’s excellent selection of media. Offering a broader range of matte, gloss, and fine-art papers than anyone else, Epson’s media selection is top notch.
If price is an obstacle, then the 2200 might be a good alternative. You’ll still get extreme archivability and Epson’s media selection.
If an archival span of thirty to forty years is long enough for you, then either the Canon or HP products are excellent choices for the photographer on a budget. The quality differences between these two models and the R2400 is slight. (For example, I’ve decided to use my i9900 as a dedicated glossy printer and keep the R2400 configured for matte.) I print far more matte than glossy, but when I need to output something on glossy media, the i9900 delivers excellent results and saves me the hassle and expense of swapping cartridges in the R2400.
The R2400 is a great next step for Epson. It’s a shame that they stuck with the swappable black cartridge, but the improvements in image quality are welcome. If you own a 2200, you’ll probably see little reason to upgrade, unless you’ve been particularly frustrated with the few shortcomings of the 2200. For everyone else shopping in this market, the R2400 is a must-see printer.