The Stylus Pro 3800 – Epson kicks it up a notch

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Epson today announced the Stylus Professional 3800, the latest in their growing line of large-format printers aimed at pro and advanced amateur digital photographers. The $1,295 printer – which should be available in December 2006 – doesn’t replace the $1,995 Stylus Pro 4800, although it should cause a number of potential 4800 buyers to rethink their plans. It also comes at a very good time for Epson, which has been facing new-found competition from HP and Canon in this sector of the market.

Key Stylus Pro 3800 highlights:

  • Ultra-Chrome K3 ink set (photo black, matte black, light gray, light light gray, cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta), with nine individual ink tanks, which eliminates previous generations’ cartridge-swap between photo and matte inks.
  • Printing on cut sheets from 4″ by 6″ up to 17″ by 22″; borderless printing up to 16″ by 20″.
  • Three media slots: a top-loading feeder with support for up to 50 sheets of standard photo/matte papers (up to 120 sheets of plain coated paper); top-load manual tray for thicker, single-sheet media; straight-through paper path for papers up to 1.5 mm thick. (There is no support for roll-feed media.)
  • USB 2.0 and 10/100BaseT Ethernet connectivity.
  • New screening algorithm that reportedly improves droplet placement, which Epson says will result in “smoother tonal transitions and greater detail from highlights to shadows.” (One interesting note on the new screening technology is that it compensates for density across resolution, which means you won’t have to have separate ICC profiles for each media type.)
  • Overall speed improvements of 20 percent over the Stylus Pro 4800.
Stylus Photo 3800

In addition to the above specs, the Stylus Pro 3800 is significantly smaller and lighter than the Stylus Pro 4800; it is about 30 percent smaller than the 4800 (15″ deep, 10″ high, and 27″ long), and, at 43 pounds, about half the weight of its older brother. Some of the size differential is due the the lack of a roll attachment, but Epson product manager Mark Radogna told us last week that the company’s primary goals with the 3800 were to design a wide-format printer that had a smaller footprint, included all nine inks, and came in at a lower price point than the Stylus Pro 4800.

The capacity of the ink cartridges has shrunk as well – the new tanks have 80 ml of ink (vs. 110 ml in the 4800), and will be priced at $60 apiece (4800 cartridges are $70). Radogna told us that, with the improved screening and the better ink swapping, the 3800 should be more efficient in its ink usage than the 4800, but the cost per ml of ink will be slightly higher than than of the 4800 (the 4800 can also use the 220ml ink cartridges designed for the the 44″ model, the Stylus Pro 9800). Regardless, anyone who has struggled with the tiny tanks on a Stylus Photo R2400 will be looking at the 3800 with envy.

The Stylus Pro 3800’s big selling point for many will be the new ink system. According to Epson, the swapping between photo and matte black modes will be solely based upon the driver (without seeing a unit yet, we assume that is will be driven by media selection). You’ll still waste some ink when you switch between photo and matte black inks. Epson claims that the printer will use less than 1.52 ml when switching from photo to matte black mode, and about 4.5 ml when going back to photo black mode. The conversion process will also take 2 to 3 minutes, so you will want to be aware of these things when moving between modes, but this is a big step forward for Epson, and one that brings the company closer to what HP and Canon have achieved in their most recent high-end photo printers.

What does it mean?

While we have only seen Epson’s print samples from the 3800, we anticipate that the printer will offer as good or better print quality than the other Stylus Pro printers – which is to say that they should be excellent. We’ve been comparing print samples between the Stylus Pro 4800 and Canon’s 12-ink ImagePrograf iPF 5000, and it’s clear that Canon has finally come up to the bar that Epson set years ago, but we don’t think the iPF 5000’s prints overall are better than Epson’s, and we’ll be interested to see what the 3800’s new screening technology will do in real-world tests. (We should have some first impressions of the iPF 5000 later this week.)

The Stylus Pro 3800 comes at a time when Canon has already shipped the iPF 5000 and HP has announced or shipped a series of printers that target Epson’s entire line of pro printers. The 3800 sits alone, though, for right now. There is no product that creates archival prints up to 17″ by 22″ at the 3800’s $1,300 price point, and that will give Epson yet another edge in this hot market. We think the 3800 will also draw Stylus Photo R2400 buyers who want a little more – factor in three complete ink changes with the 2400, and you’ll start to approach the Stylus Pro 3800’s cost with a higher-capacity ink set.

What all this means is that it’s a good time to be a photographer who wants to make high-quality digital prints. After years of telling us that this was (in the direct words of one Epson competitor) an “inconsequential market,” HP and Canon have finally woken from their sleep and are prepared to compete. We don’t think that Epson will fall behind any time soon – they have been at the forefront of this market by building printers with excellent image quality, ones that exhibit print longevity and consistency that let artists sell their work without worry. The Stylus Pro 3800 is just the kind of smart move we have come to expect from Epson as the market moves on.

We should have reviews and comments on many of these printers in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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