We computer users are becoming image-crazy, and I'm not talking about having the right look or driving a snazzy car. Low-priced scanners and digital cameras began the frenzy a few years ago. As the Internet took off, bringing with it the ability to save any image seen on a Web page with a single mouse click, hard drives quickly became chock-full of images.
But disappointment quickly set in when you wanted to print the images for viewing by clients and those not-so-computer-savvy family members and friends. Using your color inkjet printer to produce a grainy digital image on letter-sized paper just doesn't cut it.
Enter a new breed of printers designed specifically for computerized images: digital photographic printers. Instead of inkjets, these printers use a method called dye sublimation. This is the same printing technique used by high-end graphics shops to produce photo-quality prints of their computer work. The difference is the printer's price.
While a professional full-size dye-sublimation printer typically costs at least $1,500, a consumer digital photo printer will set you back $300 to $700. That may seem a little steep for a single-purpose printer. However, if you really want to print the images collecting on your hard drive whether they originally came from a scanner, digital camera or the Web, these new printers are worth a look.
Fargo Electronics' ( 327-4622; http://www.fargo.com) dye-sublimation printers have a solid reputation among graphics professionals. So it comes as no surprise that they introduced the first digital photo printer, the FotoFun, way back in 1995. Priced at about $500, it's a great printer for producing image prints measuring 4 by 6 inches. This size is larger than most digital photo printers except for the Epson Stylus 700 (detailed below). The FotoFun is available for Windows, Mac and even Amiga computers.
Aside from snapshots, a novelty that puts the fun in FotoFun is a picture mug kit. This lets you bake a digital image right in your oven onto one of the included mugs.
At about $400, Casio's ( 327-1266; http://www.casio.com) DP-8000 digital photo printer is pretty average in terms of price and image quality. One downside I found was the maximum print size of 3.2 by 4.3 inches. However, if you don't mind smaller prints and already own a Casio digital camera, this may be the photo printer for you because you can connect it directly to your digital camera. This means if you want to, you can bypass your personal computer altogether. Just connect the Casio camera to the printer and seconds later out come your photographs. Another bonus: the bundled standard paper package that includes paper for calendars, postcards, collages and adhesive labels.
For about the same $400, Olympus' ( 645-8130; http:// www.olympus.com) digital camera owners have a companion printer with the Olympus P-300U digital photo printer. In addition to connection ports for both PCs and Macs, the P-300U has a direct connector for printing from your Olympus digital camera. Just hook the two together, press the big green Direct Print button on the front of the printer, and you get prints with a maximum size of 3.3 by 4.5 inches.
Epson ( 463-7766; http://www.epson.com) enters the photo printer category with its Stylus Photo 700. Affordably priced at $299, this Windows or Mac printer produces hard copies of images that almost rival the quality of snapshots developed at a photo lab, more so than the other printers I looked at. Here the maximum print size is a full 8 by 10 inches. If you have the company's $499 Photo PC digital camera, you can print directly with it, as long as you spend an extra $99 for Epson's Direct Print Kit.
The Panasonic PV-PD2000 ( 211-7262; http://www.panasonic.com) is quite likely the most versatile digital photo printer on the market. It has ports for both PCs and Macs, but it also has video and S-video connectors that allows you to print directly from virtually any video source, including camcorders, DVD players, TVs and VCRs. The maximum print size is 3.3 by 4.4 inches for computer and camera-generated images; video images are set at 3.2 by 4.2 inches.
The PV-PD2000 also includes a PC Card adapter that accepts the flash memory cards from any digital camera so equipped. That means if your digital camera stores its images on a flash memory card, you can print directly to the PV-PD2000, no matter what brand of digital camera you own.
Usually to get more, you have to pay more. The PV-PD2000 is priced at about $700, but if you need multiple output versatility, this is one tough act to follow.
Frankly, any computer-generated image print isn't as detailed or sharp as a real photograph. Unless you're in a real hurry for prints from your digital camera, you're actually better off feeding the images into your computer before printing. This is because your computer increases the photo's resolution.
Remember that the printer's purchase price represents only part of the total cost of ownership. If you plan to print lots of images, the cost of special paper and dye-sublimation cartridges or ribbons will add up quickly. On average, you can expect to pay about a dollar per print, with the price going up for specialty papers such as adhesive labels. That expense may be enough to make you think twice.
On the other hand, digital photo printers are relatively new, and that always means relatively expensive. As time goes by, rest assured that the cost of both these printers and their supplies will come down.
Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at email@example.com. Her national talk radio program can be heard from 7 to 9 a.m. Saturdays on 97.1 KLSX-FM.