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EPSON STYLUS PHOTO 

870/1270 Printers

 Epson  

By Ian Lyons

A Computer Darkroom Review

The Epson 1270 (A3+) and 870 (A4) were launched into the United Kingdom on 1st February 2000, and sometime around the 6th March 2000 in the USA. The following review is based upon my own experience of the printer.

 

Review:

The following is a review based upon my experience of the new Epson Stylus 1270 printer using the Windows 98 driver, although I'm sure the Mac will probably have comparable features. I have also run the new printer using Windows 2000 with which it works admirably. One word of warning for Windows 2000 though, if using USB then follow Epson install instructions to the letter otherwise you will get communication error messages.

The new printers are significantly quieter and faster than previous models. The head glides across with a smooth whisper, nothing like the crunch and  whine of the Stylus 1200. Even the ink purging is only just noticeable, okay it's not silent but unlike its predecessor it certainly doesn't give the impression that the printer is about to explode.

Epson claim that the new printers and inks are optimised for best quality output using the new Premium Glossy Photo Paper, and as such the prints I obtained are much better than could be obtained using normal Photo Paper, using the "Standard" Epson ICC profile. I think most folk will find the new ink/paper combination highly satisfactory. I also tried the older Photo paper and the Heavy Weight Matt paper, all produced very acceptable results straight off, with a calibrated monitor "What you see is what you get" with these new printers.

Prices for the new printers are comparable to the Epson 750 (A4) and Epson 1200 (A3+) models, as are the costs for consumables. Black ink can be bought in singles, doubles or a light capacity cartridge. Again the costs of these in the UK is "Exactly" the same as for the Epson 1200/750 cartridges.  The new Premium Glossy Photo Paper is approximately 1 or $1.60 more expensive than the Epson Photo paper, but that will probably change as stock levels increase.

Driver Options

The  screen-grab below shows a new look driver interface compared to the older version 4.5x drivers that most Stylus Photo users are familiar. However, the new interface and some features are broadly similar to the new drivers supplied with the most recent "4-colour" Epson's. We see here that the "Ink levels" are shown on the front tab instead of having to delve down 3 levels. In these screen- grabs the ink cartridge has been removed.

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The new Version 5 driver - Main

Notice also the Print Preview "checkbox", there are some very snazzy features in there!! This feature allows you to Preview the image immediately before printing, along with adding "Watermark". Some users may find this feature very helpful, especially since you can request that the "printable area" is identified on the preview. Once satisfied that all is well you simply click "Print". The Preview is pretty accurate in that you will have a good indication of the margin size, but the image colour/contrast/saturation/density is rarely accurate. When the Roll feeder is used Edge-to-Edge printing is possible and the Preview shows this as well. Unfortunately this feature can be something of a memory hog, so if you don't need the preview give it a miss. Actually, I would definitely give it a miss!

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 The new Print Preview Window

Selecting the PhotoEnhance4 Mode gives us the following options:-

  1. Standard - image corrections suitable for most photo images.

  2. People - designed to enhance skin tones.

  3. Nature - image corrections are designed to enhance outdoor images, particularly landscapes.

  4. Soft Focus - similar effect to using a soft focus filter or lens.

  5. Sepia - makes your prints look old

Selecting the "Advanced"  button gives us the following screen:-

"Advanced" Settings - Notice the changes!

The more observant amongst you will be noticing some slight (but extremely important) changes in the "Color Management" section of the window. Notice that we now have the option of setting "Print Gamma" when the driver is set to "Automatic" mode. Basically the new driver and associated ICC profile default to gamma 1.8. This presents Mac users with no real problems. In fact doing a Profile-to-Profile conversion on a gamma 1.8 image using the new "default" ICC profiles show NO change in image density on screen. There are of course colour and saturation changes as the image is brought into the new printers optimal colour space.

Interestingly, the "Help file" suggests that we set the gamma to 1.5 in "Automatic" mode if we require the same "contrast" as was obtained when using previous models. Alternatively, it should be set to gamma 1.8 for higher contrast, and gamma 2.2 when printing images that require matching with other sRGB devices (read PC monitor).

The new gamma feature is only available in "Automatic" mode, but the results using "PhotoEnhance4", "sRGB" and "ICM" modes suggest that Epson are presupposing a gamma of 2.2 anyway. Again, the Help file would appear to confirm this when it suggests these modes are optimised for images created on devices such as scanners, and cameras calibrated for "sRGB" (i.e. 2.2, scanners and digital cameras).

The adjustment sliders basically operate as they always did, but with the introduction of the gamma control I foresee little need for Photoshop users to start tweaking the "Brightness" slider. The new "default" or "canned" ICC profile appears to be very good and I think many will find it perfectly adequate for their needs, the linearity and smoothness of greyscale seems to have been improved, although not to the extent that the Epson 1270 could be considered suitable for serious B&W printing.

In truth most of the above is all pretty much academic for Photoshop users. I have found that Optimum prints are obtained by simply selecting "ICM" or "Automatic" (with driver gamma set to default gamma of 1.8) in the driver and setting the Photoshop print dialog as follows. Based on images created in both Adobe RGB (1998) and ColorMatch I found using these settings resulted the final prints matching the screen image pretty well.

Photoshop 5.5 Print Dialog Settings

Using Photoshop 5.02 may be more problematic in that the "Printer Color Management (PCM)" feature is known to be broken. Thankfully we can simply select the Epson default profile in the "Space" popup window and "Uncheck" PCM feature as shown below. The results using comparable printer settings and either method of configuring Photoshop Print dialog are virtually identical.

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Photoshop 5.02 Print Dialog Settings

The following table summarises the modes that I tried and found operated successfully. Hopefully it will allow you to make the first stab at getting good prints. Also note that I found choosing the gamma of 2.2 in the driver settings produced a print that was darker than I would have expected, hence my choice of sticking with the default gamma of 1.8. By-the-way it doesn't much matter which colour space you use in Photoshop, so long as you set the driver and Photoshop up as suggested below you should get very good results.

Photoshop 5.02

(Print dialog) 

 

Print Driver

 

Photoshop 5.5

(Print dialog) 

 

Print Driver

 

 Adobe RGB or ColorMatch

 Space = Epson ICM profile

 PCM = "Unchecked"

  Automatic (gamma 1.8), or

  ICM mode

 

 

Adobe RGB or ColorMatch

 Space = RGB

 PCM = "Checked"

 

  Automatic (gamma 1.8), or

  ICM mode

 

Photoshop and Driver Settings Summary

I have already put through 18 A4 prints (excluding target prints and test images) and reckon the quality I'm getting is exceeds the Stylus 1200 by a fair margin (before you ask - some ink remains in cartridge, but not much). The the range of printable tones has been extended, with both shadows and highlights containing more information and less noise than my Stylus 1200. The highlights are particularly good, as are skin tones. I printed images in both ColorMatch and Adobe RGB (1998) colour spaces and found that even solid coloured patches of cyan, magenta and yellow printed with plenty of saturation. For ColorMatch I used Andrew Rodney's RGB test print and for Adobe RGB (1998) the now famous PhotoDisc Test Image (see Preview image on Page 1).

Apparently the drivers found on some early CD's for the PC version of the 870 and 1270 are faulty. The results tend to be light and desaturated because the colour management system is being called incorrectly or not at all. You should check the version number of the driver in the properties dialog. The most recent, and known to work versions are V5.01 for Windows 2000 and V5.02 for Windows 98. In case you are confused by the references you find at the Epson web site (me too) 5.0b is actually  5.01 in the driver when you install it, and 5.0c is 5.02 when it's installed. Just to confuse matters further 5.0a is the same as 5.00.

The previous misnomer of "No Color Adjustment" being found under "Color Controls" has now been fixed, it's out there plain for all to see, and does EXACTLY as the name describes, nothing!! No doubt this will be the mode of choice for when we get sufficient quantities of the new Premium Glossy Photo Paper and begin creating "Custom" ICC profiles. Although I think it fair to warn you that creating a satisfactory (scanner derived)  "Custom" profile is a difficult, but not impossible task. The new Premium Glossy paper has a very high gloss, much like you would expect from a glossy print from the "Photo Lab", and this gloss along with a blue bias seems to throw the scanner way of the mark. It has been suggested that optical brighteners may be at work, but until more folk try and profile the new paper/ink combination who can tell.

As mentioned earlier PhotoEnhance4 comprises a few additional "Tone" and "Effect" options. The following two screen grabs will give you an idea of what's available. With the exception of the "Monochrome" mode I haven't tried any of these effects.

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Tone Options in PhotoEnhance4 Mode

All the "Tone" options are based upon "Coloured" inks, although the inclusion of term  "Monochrome" may be the source of the "Quad ink" rumor that was circulating for while. I think many will find the monochrome mode a real "boon". There doesn't appear to be any significant "crossover" although I find that prints made using "Normal" speed mode are a tad more cyan/green than I would like. Strangely I also found that when the driver was set to "High Speed" the cyan/green cast was reduced and the prints look more neutral.

A note of caution  "High Speed" printing is the default, make sure you "Uncheck" it if you want the best quality printouts. May be the reports of very neutral mono prints that have been appearing in the various newsgroups and forums are down to the fact that users haven't realised that they were printing in High Speed mode. Actually short of looking at the prints with an 8X Lupe you'll not notice any real deterioration in print quality, so may be I'm being over cautious in suggesting High Speed printing is switched off.

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Effect Options in PhotoEnhanace4 Mode

10 Year Inks

The new Ink cartridges complete with a microchip (see below) are designed to ensure the driver is always reflecting the estimated ink levels. So unless you figure out a way of resetting (very doubtful) the microchip, then refilling the cartridge in the way we did previously is History!!! Furthermore, "if" as seems VERY likely; Epson have designed the print driver to only allow printing from a cartridge with a microchip, then alternative non-Epson pre-filled cartridges are equally doomed (unless someone wants to pay Epson a License fee). Apparently all future Epson printer models will be similarly configured.

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Roll Paper & edge to edge prints

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 "10 Year Life Inks"

Selecting the "Status Monitor" from the "Utilities" Tab produces the dialog for "Ink levels" plus an "Information" button. Selecting this new button is actually quite interesting because we now see the type of information being fed back to the driver (there's a lot more, but not yet being used). Much has been made over recent weeks of the purpose underlying this new feature.

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Ink Level Information

As suggested above many believe the purpose of the new "microchip" is to thwart the "refill" brigade or stop 3rd party ink manufacturers, may be it is! However, I believe there to be message hidden deep within the new "Information dialog", the context of which may become clearer over the coming months.

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Cartridge Information

Once you get your head round the fact that the "microchip" is not really some dastardly trick simply to prevent refilling and 3rd party ink supplies you will become more appreciative of its more useful features. Every time I open the "Properties" tab to check the ink levels up comes another surprise, look at the following screen-grab as an example. The information that 13 prints remain is probably quite meaningless without you knowing that I had already put through 36 A5 (7.5 by 5 inch)  full colour images.

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Feedback on Pages remaining

Media

Of particular concern to some is the choice of "Media". In particular what options the new driver allows the user to select from. Obviously the loss of any media option could have dire consequences for those that use alternative paper choices, along with "Custom" ICC profiles. I even notice on some forum's comments such as "Back Lit film is no longer an option" and "Quads inks will be a selectable option", well the FACTS are, at present NEITHER is true, as can be seen below.

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Checkout the Media Table

The new drivers are aimed firmly at the masses who much prefer (as do I) to play safe and use Epson's own ink and paper combinations. Given past experience it is probably better that choice is kept to a minimum, that said it is also important that the user has some flexibility in choosing the ink/media type, etc. When the above media choices are taken in combination with the information that can be contained within the new "microchip" on the ink cartridge who knows what lovely surprises Epson have in store for us in the future.

Conclusions

I hope this review addresses some of your concerns/expectations. Of course there will always be those expect more for less, but the reality is, these new printers have the potential to produce exceptionally fine colour prints, and all at the same cost as their immediate predecessors.

The variable dot size technology really comes into its own when printing images that have soft tones and gradations. The question now is can Epson or anyone else get it better? Personally looking at the prints on the new Premium glossy paper  I have before me; I don't think it matters a lot how much smaller the dots are made. Short of using a 8XLupe you will not see dots. At proper viewing distances the images are to all intents and purposes "Photographs". One area that appears to have benefited greatly from the new dot size and dither patterns is sharpness, the prints are sharp, really sharp.

In terms of colour accuracy and final print density I have already mentioned that the default "High Speed" mode provides the most neutral prints, and that they are a very close match to the original in terms of density. For why this should be the case that I don't know, but it sure is annoying that the highest quality print mode produces the less accurate results in terms of colour.

Another thing that became apparent almost from the very first print I made was the fact that whereas previously it was very easy to get blue skies becoming over saturated (i.e. similar to over zealous use of polarising filter); the new printer prints them just like the original. In fact I think that many who liked the real deep blues of the older ink set will need to increase saturation slightly. From what I have been told the colour gamut of the new paper/ink combination exceeds that of the Stylus 1200, so we haven't been short changed.

The abundance of  poorly documented modes is still something of a concern, but thankfully I think all are functioning correctly. Likewise the issue of Photoshop and printer driver settings has the potential to be as complex as before if you don't use Photoshop 5.5, hopefully the table I provided on Page 2 gives some guidance.

Finally, the old chestnut of the Pizza Tracks seems to have been significantly reduced when using the new Premium Glossy Paper. Notice I write seems!, I'm  always wary of the being too definitive when discussing pizza tracks. Some have reported that the pizza tracks are totally gone, time will tell if this is correct. From what I can see the printer does NOT leave any obvious trace of the pizza wheel marks when using the new Premium Glossy, that's not to say they aren't there!

 

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