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User Review

Epson Stylus Photo 2100

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By Ian Lyons

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A Computer Darkroom Review

 

At the time of writing this review the Epson Stylus Photo 2100 has in theory been available for "approximately" 7 months. However, with this particular printer reality differs from theory by anywhere between 5 and 6 months. OK there were some (not many) who managed to obtain a printer in July, August, September or October, but for most the printer was just a "backorder dream". That was until November 2002 when finally Epson managed to begin shipping in quantity.

I had ordered my unit in early June (actually from 3 different outlets). At that time there were no reviews to whip up the "must-have" frenzy we later witnessed, so expectations were high that a printer would shortly arrive - I was to be disappointed for as long as most and longer than a few. Throughout this extended period of wait Epson UK/Europe used excuses such as unprecedented demand, etc but this is only half true - the whole truth will likely never be told. Was the Photo 2100 worth the wait?

Before I begin pontificating about the good/bad/ugly it's worth mentioning that I use both Mac and PC platforms (all versions of Windows, Mac OS 9 and OS X). What follows are my thoughts having used the Photo 2100 on a daily basis for the best part of two months and means that my comments are based on a broad range of workflows and image types. This first page deals with the feature list and page 2 with my thoughts and experiences on matters such as Print Quality & Color Accuracy, GreyBalancer, Ease of Use, Alternative drivers (i.e. ColorByte Software ImagePrint 5 visual RIP) and my Conclusions.

1. Photo 2100 Features & Highlights

  • Photo print quality up to 2880 x 1440 dpi.

  • Long lasting lightfast prints suitable for professional re-sale or gallery display.

  • 7-color printing with new Light Black as standard.

  • Optional Matte Black for improved print density on selected media

  • Individual ink cartridges for maximum ink efficiency.

  • Grey Balancer software for improved Black & White prints

  • Borderless printing on roll or sheet fed media.

  • Flexible media handling; paper roll holder, auto cutter and catcher

  • Direct CD/CD-R/DVD face and card printing (up to 1.3mm thick) enabled by unimpeded direct media path.

  • USB 2.0 High speed, Parallel and FireWire (IEEE1394) connectivity.

Note: many of the graphics used on this page have been downloaded from various Epson web sites

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Top left to Bottom right

Connectivity, Thick Paper Manual Feed, CD Printing & Separate Ink Cartridges

The screenshot above illustrates four of the features that Epson believe will help the Photo 2100 meet the needs of professional users. "Fire Wire" is a useful addition to the conventional parallel port and "USB 2" should eventually help speed communication up as more computers are fitted with the appropriate interface. That said I think the only advantage of the faster ports is quicker "spooling" rather than quicker printing. From my own experience I haven't found any great speed difference between Fire Wire and USB and so my unit remains firmly connected to a self-powered USB hub. The manual feed for thick paper is useful, but still doesn't work with Mac OS X. The same can be said of direct CDR printing. As a Mac OS X user I'm beginning to think Epson engineers managed a minor miracle when they figured a way of making the ink flow through to the paper - OK enough of my sarcasm and on with the serious part of the review.

The Photo 2100 uses a new quick drying 7-color UltraChrome ink set; Cyan, Light Cyan,  Magenta, Light Magenta, Yellow, Light Black  and Photo Black. There is also an option to swap out the Photo Black cartridge and replace it with Matte Black. Epson claim that the two types of black have been developed to satisfy the needs of the photographic and fine-art markets. The Photo Black should provide optimum results on Epson's Gloss, Semi Gloss, and Lustre media, whilst the Matte Black will give best results on matte and fine art media such Watercolor - Radiant White and Epson Velvet.

The screenshot shown below illustrates how the Roll Paper Holder and Automatic-Cutter are fitted. Within the Utility section of the driver the user can decide upon Single Cut or Double Cut action for roll paper. Like the direct CDR feature Auto-Cutter is not yet supported by Mac OS X (more sarcasm). When used with Windows or Mac OS 9 they both appear to function as described in the manual.  I'm sure those who chose purchase their media in rolls will find both items useful.

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The Auto Paper Cutter and Paper Trough

The more observant readers will have noticed by now that I have not yet mentioned the Epson Stylus PHOTO 2200. Well that would because Photo 2200 is not sold anywhere except North America and as such I don't have access to said model. Nevertheless, the main differences (at least those I know about) between the Photo 2100 and 2200 can be summarised as follows:

  1. The Photo 2200 does NOT support direct printing on CD's.

  2. Grey Balancer software is NOT supplied with the PHOTO 2200 nor will Epson North America support it.

  3. Epson North America claim that the Photo 2200 supports printing on Premium Glossy media

  4. Photo 2200 supports an extended color mode called Epson Natural Color

Most of what you will find written on page 2 will apply to the Photo 2200. It's also worth mentioning that with Mac OS 9 and OS X the Epson 2100 will not be recognised unless the appropriate 2100 drivers are installed. Trying to trick the printer into life with the Photo 2200 driver will not work.

With the Photo 2000P we got used to the idea of 100-year inks but now we find Epson telling us that up to 75 years is really good, but of course there are the caveats:

Lightfastness - the lightfastness of printed images is influenced by a range of different factors, the most important of which are:

  • Light - natural or artificial; high or low powered

  • Humidity - the levels of moisture in the atmosphere

  • Temperature

  • Atmospheric pollutants

In order to establish an accurate measurement for lightfastness, EPSON have established stringent test conditions which have been used to determine an accurate figure. Given the debacle we experienced following similar claims for the Photo 1270/870 we can only wait and hope. That said the new UltraChrome pigment based  inks should last a lot longer than the dye based inks of the Epson 12x0/8x0 series printers.

Epson indicate direct support for the following media types:

  1. Archival Matt (called Enhanced Matte in North America)

  2. Watercolor - radiant white

  3. Premium Semi-gloss Photo Paper

  4. Premium Glossy Photo Paper (only North America)

  5. Glossy Paper - Photo Weight (not North America)

  6. Lustre, Resin Coated based media (only North America)

  7. Epson Velvet Fine Art (only North America)

The above media/paper types are available in a wide range of sizes and have been around and in widespread use since the release of the Photo 2000P so there is little point in further comment.

With all the Epson "techno waffle" and hardware attachments dealt we can now progress to how the Photo 2100 actually performs

2. The Photo 2100 in-use

With the introduction of the Photo 2100 Epson appear to have been more generous with documentation and guidance (HTML based), which probably reflects that it's a more complex printer to get up and going. The various leaflets and HTML based user guides should help the user configure the hardware and software for optimum use. Mac OS X users will also find a dedicated Supplement on the software CDROM.

The actual printer driver has changed little from that used with earlier printer models which is a great pity - many of the silly mistakes of the past remain and a few new ones have been added. Since the bulk of this web sites readership uses Microsoft Windows I will use the Windows driver in the screenshots.

Media choice is via the usual pop-down window and comprises five choices plus CDR. These choices may differ slightly depending upon whether the Photo Black or Matte Black cartridge is installed. In addition to the standard media options for the Photo 2100 I have also tried Epson Premium Glossy and it appears to produce barely acceptable prints and  not what we would normally call glossy.. Furthermore, I have been informed that the Photo 2100 produces good results on a range of Lyson Fine Art papers. Outside of North America Epson have chosen not to identify either Lustre or Epson Velvet in the menu. They also warn against the use of non Epson media and suggest that some older Epson media might not work well with the Photo 2100.

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Epson Photo 2100 Media Options

With some media choices "Bronzing" can be a problem - What's "Bronzing"? It's characteristic of  the pigment based ink/paper combination and usually occurs in areas of relatively heavy black ink coverage (something similar occurs in the highlight regions). You can see it by tilting the print at an acute angle whereupon you'll observe weird surface effects. It can be reduced but not eliminated. It's a problem that Epson are still trying to resolve. The way to reduced it is to reduce the "Color Density" setting found in the "Paper Configuration" dialog. Values between -5 and -10 appear to produce the best results.

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Use Paper Configuration to reduce Bronzing!

Out of the very large box the Photo 2100 produces very nice color prints. That is assuming the user knows how to configure Photoshop. BTW: comprehensive instructions on configuring Photoshop and printing can be found elsewhere on this web site. Actually our perception of color accuracy really depends upon the viewing light source, and other than the Photo 2000P before it no other Epson Photo printer comes close to confusing (or should that be confounding) the uninitiated inkjet user. If we assume that the monitor is accurately calibrated then most users can expect to obtain reasonably color accurate prints without much effort. However, to expect perfection is asking too much. Your first prints might appear mildly magenta or green and to assume that they actually are would be a mistake - give them 30 minutes and then view the prints under a range of lighting types - e.g. tungsten, fluorescent daylight, etc - ideally you should include something close to 5000K. Only then should you decide if the color is off -  all things being equal the odds are in favour of the prints being pretty close to what you want under one of these lighting scenarios. What you are seeing is a characteristic of the pigment based inks and is usually referred to as "metamerism". It isn't anywhere near as bad as the case with the Photo 2000P but it is an issue, albeit minor.

Also, if the user compares the above prints with similar examples obtained from say a Photo 1270/1290 they will likely be disappointed (some have expressed their disappointment in stronger terms). Like all previous pigment based ink-sets the prints will tend to appear low in contrast (lack punch). However, this apparent shortcoming of the Photo 2100  is its secret weapon - the prints contain more detail and are far smoother than previous models. The color gamut of the Photo 2100 far exceeds that of printers folk think look better. The use of the 7th ink - Light Black - ensures that shadows extend further than ever before and explains the almost endless range of shadow detail that we can now print. Shadows "blocking" or "sooting up" is not an issue with the Photo 2100.

Color Management Options

Photo-realistic mode rather than the Automatic (not available with Mac OS X) is the default color mode. Photo-realistic works in the same way as it did with all previous Photo series printers and has been optimised for photographic images. Vivid is the last option and is best suited to graphic images. The default gamma setting is 1.8 and remains the most appropriate. If you find yourself having to adjust any of the sliders by much more than few units then I really would question the accuracy of your monitor calibration. Personally I don't use the sliders, but for many there may be no other option. PhotoEnhance4 mode is also missing from the Mac OS X driver and currently.

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Color Modes

PhotoEnhnace4

14 February 03

No Color Adjustment mode was broken in the original Mac OS 9 Photo 2100 driver. For OS 9 users this meant that any attempt to use media profiles with the Photo 2100 would result in a horrid fluorescent magenta cast over the image - it couldn't be dialed out and any custom created profiles would also produce pretty ropey prints. This problem only effected the printer when Photo Black ink was being used and so those using Matte Black may not even be aware of a potential headache lurking in the background. Thankfully Epson have woken up from their slumber and a new fully functional Mac OS 9 driver dated 10 February 2003 can be downloaded from Epson Australia. It only took them 6 months to find the problem!

Epson have also kept faith with another previous and idiotic decision - the driver defaults to "bi-directional" printing (also known as "High Speed") when the user changes the media type. It's fairly easily fixed but why they can't just configure the defaults for quality rather than speed beats me.

One pleasant surprise is the apparent increase in image sharpness that can obtained when using 2880dpi mode rather than the more usual 1440dppi. More dots certainly appears to pay dividends, but not in the way folk would expect. I think Epson have spent a fair amount of time refining the dither patterns used by the Photo 2100 and the improvements are plain to see.

Printing Black & White Images

When first announced Epson made a big fuss about how well the new Photo 2100 reproduced Black & White prints. The older Photo 2000P was absolutely useless for B&W due to the problem of "metamerism". Although I know a few photographers who produce drop-dead-gorgeous B&W prints from it using only black ink. The caveat being that we don't get too close or the dots will jump out and bite. Another drawback being that these prints only appear neutral in tungsten lighting. BTW: using only black ink with the Photo 2100 will produce awful results. It was claimed by Epson that the GreyBalancer software would solve the "metamerism" problem, but in reality it's only a "band-aid". As I indicated above "metamerism" is not dead and is still going to cause some headaches for B& W workers! So what is GreyBalancer?

GreyBalancer is a combination of software, a pre-printed series of paper greyscale targets and a 122 page Adobe Acrobat instruction manual. The greyscale targets are supplied as a single flimsy glossy paper sheet. The user then is meant to cut it into the appropriate strips and punch four holes in one strip. GreyBalancer is supplied on the driver CD package provided with every Photo 2100 printer - yet it is not compatible with Mac OS X and likely never will be.

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GreyBalancer Software

Pre-printed Greyscale Target

My first experience of GreyBalancer was in late June 2002 using a Windows based computer - I was not impressed (with Grey Balancer)! Time and use haven't caused me to change my mind. Within certain limits the software works well and certainly achieves the objective of neutralising color casts resulting from viewing B&W (and color) prints under non 5000K lighting. However, the methodology used to achieve this objective is clumsy. The paper greyscale targets mentioned above are a disgrace and clearly demonstrate that Epson have made only a half hearted attempt at addressing what many believe is still a serious shortcoming in pigment based inks - "metamerism" (I'm starting to sound like a broken record).

The problem with GreyBalancer, as I see it, is the fact that it fixes one problem only to create a bigger problem further down the line. By this I mean that a print corrected for neutral greys when viewed under say tungsten lighting will appear green when viewed in daylight. Quite frankly I can think of much better ways to obtain neutral B&W prints. Unfortunately they don't come cheap and are therefore beyond the means of many Photo 2100 users. That said I think Epson could have spent a few more "jelly beans" on the flimsy greyscale target and at least gave the impression that they saw GreyBalancer as being more than just a "stocking filler". If you're going to use GreyBalancer, and many will, then I recommend that you throw the Epson greyscale target in the trash and get yourself the Kodak Grey Scale; then follow the instructions provided by Vincent Oliver at photo-i

Also be warned that with GreyBalancer active and an adjustment in place all images (color or B&W) will have that adjustment applied. If the adjustment is for matte paper and you begin using semi-gloss then the adjustment will not be correct and the final prints will likely not meet expectations. Of course the same problems exist when using media profiles - but you can usually see that they have been selected. If ever there was a case of having to read the manual then GreyBalancer is it - ideally with a full glass of your favourite tipple :-)

6 January 03

Note: Are you getting fluorescent magenta prints when using media profiles with an Epson Photo 2100/22200? If so then it is VERY likely that a GreyBalancer adjustment is active. To TOTALLY disable ALL GreyBalancer adjustments and thus completely avoid ANY possibility of you unwittingly applying an adjustment when you don't want to then make sure the main GreyBalancer is configured as shown below. Both pop-ups/drop-down windows MUST be set for ***No Adjustment***

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Disabling GreyBalancer

To obtain the best B&W prints I recommend one of the matte surfaced papers and for deep blacks it is necessary to install the optional Matte Black ink cartridge. This ink cartridge is designed to improve the density of blacks when using matte media and there is no doubt that it is needed - it also works very well, but at the cost of the extended shadow detail I mentioned earlier.

For their own reasons Epson North America chose not to ship GreyBalancer with the Photo 2200. Personally I think they made the wrong decision, but they made it for the right reason, and that is the only comment I'm going to make regarding its absence.

Making it Better!

Using custom created media profiles for my printer (GretagMacbeth ProfileMaker Pro 4.1 and the Eye-One Spectrophotometer) I can achieve quite lovely color prints that match anything produced in the conventional wet darkroom. Near perfect neutral B&W prints can be obtained without resorting to GreyBalancer. More importantly the neutrality remains across a broader range of lighting environments than is the case for a GreyBalancer corrected image. However, there is still scope for improvement as some cross-over is still evident in the 3/4 tones.

ColorByte Software ImagePrint is an even better and a lot more flexible alternative to the Epson driver. This application is actually a RIP (Raster Image Processor) that completely replaces all aspects of the Epson driver, but unlike most RIP's ImagePrint  is designed to work with RGB images. CMYK is fully supported but this is not a workflow with which I have any experience and so my observations are limited to RGB images. ImagePrint is available for both PC and Mac platforms although it was only in late 2002 that an OS X version became available. More details of ImagePrint and why it performs so much better than the Epson driver can be found in my ImagePrint review.

3. Conclusions

The Photo 2100 is the BEST desktop inkjet printer ever produced by Epson. Overall the print quality is "light years" better than the Photo 2000P ever achieved and in my opinion much better than models such as the cheaper Photo 1280/90. Likewise build quality is significantly better than other prosumer class inkjet printers from Epson. However, it is not without some faults and good as it is the Photo 2100 is not necessarily the best choice for everyone.

Contrary to popular belief the individual ink cartridges may actually make the Photo 2100 more expensive to run than earlier models. Remember that every time you change one cartridge the other six get purged - ink gets used and no print. Light magenta gets used quicker than most no matter what image type you print.

The final prints can lack the punch (they have lower contrast) that many seem to demand/expect. Nevertheless, shadow detail from the Photo 2100 is vastly superior to earlier models and color gradients and greyscales are much smoother. This smoothness appears to be as a result of the improved dithering pattern. Even though it may not always seem like it the Photo 2100 also reproduces color more accurately than any other prosumer class photo inkjet. The only real quirk in print quality is "Bronzing".

Whilst the Photo 2100 is much quicker than the Photo 2000P I don't honestly think that many professional photographers will find it a suitable alternative to outsourcing bulk prints. If they like producing their own prints in-house then the more expensive Epson Stylus PRO 7600 is a much better option. Nevertheless, for small print runs with no time limit the Photo 2100 is very hard to beat. I can just imagine the stampede if/when Epson release a 5000 series printer with similar properties to the Photo 2100.

Fine Art Photographers and Artists will look upon the Photo 2100 as a dream come true. The Photo 2100 excels at producing "limited edition" fine arts prints for sale or exhibition. I'm told that using the Matte Black ink along with matte surfaced media such  Epson Velvet (not available in the UK) clearly demonstrates just how good the Photo 2100 really is as a fine-art printer. I am also told that Lustre produces nice prints. Sadly the same cannot be said of Premium Glossy Photo Paper as it shows "Bronzing" at its worst.

As for GreyBalancer; it tries to fix a problem, but if you don't understand the problem you'll make an unholy mess of your prints and confuse yourself into the bargain. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that GreyBalancer is bad but it really should have been better thought out. It should have been integrated into the main driver and we should have been provided with a clear means by which we could tell that a correction is active. As it stands there are too many traps for unwary users; far too many opportunities for the user to apply a correction that is inappropriate for the image type or media because they have forgotten that it's active - be warned!

As I implied in my introduction I have a few gripes regarding the Photo 2100. Poor availability was one, but now appears to have been addressed. The second was the broken driver for Mac OS9 - this has now been fixed. The third (actually a long list) is full and proper support for Mac OS X. Epson claim that support for certain features remain out of reach because OS X still does not include the necessary "hooks". This may be so but the method  required to force the OS to see the Photo 2100 or even to recognise the presence of the Matte Black cartridge doesn't always work and shouldn't be necessary. Many who purchased the Photo 2100 will have waited long and paid good money for direct CDR printing, borderless printing, auto-cutting, thick paper feed, and some 15 or 16 other missing features. Whilst their absence doesn't cause me much concern it's damned annoying for many others. Likewise I don't consider the absence of GreyBalancer, PhotoQuicker or PIM a major loss. However, they are components that Epson that other reviewers chose to praise. The fact that they are absent for a large group of users is an issue that Epson needs to address. As for the other reviewers I've heard rumours that Epson will issue dark rather than rose tinted spectacles next time round :-)

In summary the Epson Stylus PHOTO 2100 is a very fine printer that produces images with a quality that knocks "nine-bells" out of every other inkjet printer under $2000. If you need quality prints there is nothing in this price bracket that even comes close. The Epson supplied "bells and whistles" can in my opinion be done without, but that's me - you may well have a different view and they may well be exactly what attracts you to the Photo 2100; if so who am I to argue? Finally and as mentioned earlier ImagePrint by ColorByte Software takes the Photo 2100 to an even higher quality level (Note: that ImagePrint is available for a wide range of printers including those from vendors other than Epson).

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