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Inkjet printers offer the convenience of do-it-yourself photo printing, but there's a downside: The images may not last.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2000


The picture looks perfect on the computer screen. It rolls out of the inkjet printer looking sharp. Months later, though, it's just not the same.

It's greenish, or the print seems to be fading.

No print lasts forever, not even those processed at a drugstore. But millions of Americans who have been turning out precious family photos on their computer printers may be surprised at how fleeting those inkjet images can be.

It depends on the kind of printer used, the ink and the paper. While the printer industry has been working to improve all three elements, those using printers that are just a few years old, ink formulated for those printers and everyday supplies of paper may be in for disappointing results.

According to tests by Wilhelm Imaging Research Inc., prints from older Epson Photo 700 and Photo EX printers using standard Epson ink and Konica Photo Quality Inkjet Paper from 1997 showed noticeable fading in about six months.

The results from older Hewlett Packard printers were a bit better. An image from an HP 722C with HP Deluxe Photo Paper would last about a year, while one from an HP 2000C with the same paper remained intact for two to three years.

But newer set-ups seem to produce a far more enduring image.

On newer Epson Stylus Photo 870 and 1270 printers using Epson inks and heavyweight Epson Matte Paper, prints would last 24 to 26 years and nine to 10 years on glossy paper, according to Wilhelm's tests. HP's PhotoSmart P1000 and P1100 printers with HP's Premium Plus Glossy Photo Paper had some fading after four to five years.

As more people move into digital photography and make their own prints, the quality of that work has become an increasingly important consumer issue. The printer industry advocates what it calls a complete system to produce the best results: an inkjet printer with high resolution, good ink (predictably, manufacturers tout their own brands with their machines) and high-quality paper.

A few years ago, inkjets were used mostly for text, graphics and clip art, and "there wasn't a push to get the inkjet longevity because there just weren't applications out there to print photos," said John Stoffel, inkjet ink technical manager for Hewlett-Packard. "Now that's changed. You can see the software applications are out there, and . . . the image quality of inkjet is truly photographic."

The printer industry claims that inkjets sold today can produce quality and longevity to match the prints someone could get from processing film at a drugstore, claims that seem to be supported by Wilhelm's test results.

But moving the darkroom to the desktop leaves problems that can affect a print's life span even with the newer printers, according to experts:

The ink: Some inks are made with pigments, which tend to last longer than those made with dyes. But pigments tend to be duller than dyes, which isn't as good for photos. And then there's magenta.

"The biggest problem was the magenta would fade," said Greg McCoy, senior product marketing manager at Epson. "Magenta's not a real color. . . . Scientists have never been able to perfect it." Magenta is a combination of red and blue, and it's one of the basic colors used in printing.

Progress has been made in improving the longevity of dye-based inks, however. "Everyone's working on new formulas of dye which are not as susceptible to the usual contributions to print failure," said Ned Bunnell, director of product marketing for Canon. Bunnell says four-color printers use mostly pigment-based inks, while newer six-color printers are based on improved dyes.

Exposure to light: It's hard to escape the sun in Florida, but avoiding direct sunlight will help prints last longer.

At Hewlett-Packard, Stoffel said the company uses a "fadeometer" to test inks and exposure to light. One test gives a print seven years' worth of light exposure in just three weeks. To ensure accuracy, a parallel tests gauges the impact of low light.

And darkness also can affect a print, Bunnell says, because the ink can "migrate" over time.

Humidity: That's another problem Floridians will have a hard time escaping. Stoffel says putting a print in a protective sleeve will help. Another factor is ozone, which can break down prints.

The paper: It may seem obvious, but the better the paper, the better the print will look and the longer it will last. Epson's McCoy says prints on its matte paper will last up to 25 years.

Of course, there's a price to pay for fancy photo-quality paper: Epson's Premium Glossy paper costs $16.99 for 20 letter-size sheets, or about 85 cents a sheet. Its Matte Paper Heavyweight costs $14.49 for 50 sheets, or about 29 cents a sheet.

Ye olde printer: For those not inclined to buy a new printer, the companies suggest that people at least invest in better paper. Even then, results on older inkjets may not be satisfactory. "If you go back too far, the image quality isn't going to be photographic," Stoffel said.

New machines offer better resolution, more "dots per inch" that make up a print and give it the smooth, photo-like quality. Older inkjet printers might have produced color prints at a resolution of, say, 300 dots per inch, which give a photo a grainy look that would make fading more noticeable. Some of today's inkjets have a resolution of 1440 dpi, making a fade less noticeable.

Despite reports to the contrary, the companies say text documents printed in black ink should not have fading problems.

For those interested in producing photos regularly, the best bet may be to avoid today's bargain-price inkjets, the ones that sell for less than $100.

"You really need to think what you want your printer to do," said Lisa Cekan, staff editor at PC World magazine. "The big thing that consumers are finding is the real cost of printers is in the ink and cartridges and the consumables."

Epson estimates an 8- by 10-inch print with its Premium Glossy paper costs about $1.25, including ink and paper. The same print at Walgreens costs $4.49, although a smaller 5 by 7 costs $2.29.

It also takes dedication to make a lot of prints. Epson says the 8 by 10 takes two minutes to print, and an 11- by 14-inch print about four minutes.

But PC World says an analysis of two years' worth of its tests shows inkjets run a lot slower than the manufacturers' claims, averaging between 40 and 73 percent of rated text speeds. And photos take more time to print than text documents.

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