By Rick LePage | April 13, 2008
Epson’s Stylus Photo R1900, which was announced in January to quite a bit of fanfare, is now readily available (Amazon link). We’ve been working with a shipping unit in the Printerville labs for about a month now, and overall, we have been quite impressed with this $550 photo inkjet.
Epson bills the R1900 as the ultimate archival printer for printing on glossy media, and the company’s claims are not unfounded — it produces the highest quality glossy images we’ve seen on any pigment-based printer under $2,000. But the R1900 is also surprisingly adept at printing on matte-finish and fine-art media, making it a highly versatile printer for photographers with modest printing needs.
Getting the R1900 up and running is easy; it’s simply a matter of unpacking the printer, snapping the included ink cartridges into place, connecting it to your PC or Mac and installing the drivers from the included CD. The printer has two separate USB ports, designed to let you connect two computers to the printer simultaneously. There is also a PictBridge-compatible USB port on the front, which lets you print directly from any digital camera that supports the PictBridge standard. It doesn’t come with a USB cable, so you’ll need to dig one up or purchase one when you buy the printer.
The R1900 has two top-loading paper feed trays; one handles up to 30 sheets of standard photo paper, while the other is designed to feed single sheets of fine-art or other thick media. Like the R2400, the R1900 also can accommodate roll-fed papers, up to 13" in width. There is also a front-loading slot for the included CD tray, which lets you print on both matte-finish optical discs, a nice enhancement found in many of Epson’s lower-priced printers. Both the top-load paper tray and output tray fold up into the printer, which helps reduce the R1900’s footprint when it’s not in use (and also helps keep dust inside the printer to a minimum).
Epson includes the standard Windows and Mac drivers that it has been shipping for years. They’re serviceable, especially if you’re content to use Epson’s stock papers. Epson includes a good set of ICC color profiles for all of the media supported by the printer, and has been posting premium profiles on the R1900 support site. To be honest, we noticed little difference between the premium profiles and those included with the printer, although there are separate profiles for media at each of the three different print settings: Photo, Best Photo and PhotoRPM (the highest quality setting).
|Stylus Photo R1900 specifications|
|Type||B-size pigment-based inkjet|
|Inks||8 Ultrachrome Hi-Gloss2 (6 printing)|
|Ink colors||Photo Black, Matte Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Red, Orange, Gloss Optimizer|
|Ink cartridge cost||$13.29 (replacement cost: $106.32)|
|Ink cost per ml (est.)||$1.16|
|Maximum resolution||5760 by 1440 dpi|
|Minimum paper size||4" by 6"|
|Maximum paper size||13" by 24"|
|Interfaces||USB 2.0 (2); Pictbridge|
|Operating systems supported||Windows XP, Vista; Mac OS X (10.3.9 and up)|
|Dimensions||24.3" x 12.7" x 8.4"|
|Other features||Roll support; CD printing tray; dual USB interfaces allow two computers to be connected to printer simultaneously|
One thing we would like to see in Epson’s print drivers is a little more flexibility for accommodating third-party papers. With the wide variety of excellent media available in the market, and the increased availability of ICC profiles for those papers, it would be nice to see Epson including a mechanism to add new paper types directly to the print driver. As it stands, if you use a non-Epson paper, you need to choose the Epson paper type that comes closest to your paper. This isn’t horrible, but HP has done a better job in its Photosmart Pro driver, letting you add third-party papers on the fly, and Epson should follow suit here.
Because the R1900 can also print on optical media, Epson includes an application, Epson Print CD, that lets you create CDs using simple layouts with photographs and text. It’s not a terribly polished program, but if you’re printing the occasional disc, it’s fine. If you want more, there are plenty of good shareware CD printing apps for both PCs and Macs.
Second-generation Hi-Gloss inks
The R1900 follows Epson’s successful Stylus Photo R1800, which was introduced in 2003. At the time, the R1800 was the company’s lowest-priced printer to offer both pigment inks and B-size (13" by 19") printing capabilities (a letter-size version, the R800, was also introduced around the same time; it is still available for $400 from Epson). The R1800 had a unique inkset, called Ultrachrome Hi-Gloss, which was designed to produce an optimal print on glossy papers, and included an overcoat spray called a gloss optimizer. This optimizer, which was simply another ink cartridge installed into the printer, helped remove the unsightly phenomenon known as gloss differential (often mistakenly called bronzing), where a print would display reflectivity artifacts between areas of white (where no ink was laid down on the paper) and color. In a high-key image, or one with severely blown highlights, gloss differential can create quite an ugly print.
The R1900 builds upon its predecessor and uses a new inkset, UltraChrome Hi-Gloss 2. Epson claims that the Hi-Gloss 2 inks offer a slightly wider color gamut and better quality on glossy papers than that of the R1800 (which was already quite good). There’s one change in the color line-up: Epson swapped the first generation’s blue ink for orange, a change that’s designed to produce better reproduction of skin tones.
While the R1900 has eight ink cartridge slots, at heart it is a six-color printer, like most photo printers in the $100-$400 range. There are five color inks — cyan, magenta, yellow, red and orange — one black (photo or matte, depending upon the paper type chosen in the print driver), and the gloss optimizer, which is used only when printing on glossy or semigloss paper types. Unlike the pricier Stylus Photo R2400 and HP’s Photosmart Pro B8850 and B9180, the R1900 lacks any light-density black inks, which means that it’s not really an ideal printer for producing black-and-white print. On the flip side, however, you don’t have to swap the matte and photo black cartridges when you change paper types, which you have to do with the R2400: the R1900 automatically uses the correct black ink when you print.
In conjunction with the new inks, Epson is using a new color technology called Radiance, developed in conjunction with the Rochester Institute of Technology, that purportedly provides more efficient ink usage, higher quality images, and improved color constancy when viewing prints under different lighting conditions. (If you’re interested in a bit deeper discussion of Radiance, we recently covered some of the technology behind it.)
Improvements under the hood
There are other feature enhancements in the R1900 that are neither readily apparent to the eye, nor will they necessarily be noticed when you start printing, To reduce the possibility of ink clogging the printer, Epson has added two features: one is a ink-repelling coating on the printhead, and the other is the addition of tiny glass beads to the ink cartridges.
Clogged heads is a problem that has dogged Epson for years. Although the company claims that the issue is overblown, we do know plenty of people who refuse to buy Epson printers because they think they tend to clog more than other vendors. Our experience has been mixed; in our testing we’ve had sporadic problems with printers from HP, Canon and Epson, but we’ve also had a few bad experiences with clogs on at least two R2400s. Regardless of the past, the new printhead and the glass beads should go a long way towards reducing these problems in the future, however endemic they really are. (We’ll also add that we’ve rarely had an issue with Epson’s professional printers.)
Epson also added an ink-collection technology, designed to reduce the ink buildup that occurs in every inkjet printer on the market. If you use an inkjet printer long enough, you’ll notice that ink deposits and tiny amounts of paper fuzz can accumulate underneath the printhead’s carriage. This can often lead to paper jams and ink smudges on prints, and Epson representatives say that the R1900’s mist collection system, which uses a special electric charge to capture any ink overspray, is one more little feature that will help reduce printing problems over time. It won’t reduce the tiny amounts of paper dust that slough off a page as it goes through a printer, but it should reduce the sludge that builds as a result.
Gloss to the max
One of the big differences between pigment- and dye-based inks is the way that the ink bonds to the substrate of the paper. Dyes are absorbed by the paper’s substrate, while pigments sit on top of the paper, often causing the paper’s finish to be obscured by the ink. Epson’s early pigment printers produced poor glossy output, but over the years, the company (and its competitors) has refined the technology — by adding glossy-specific black ink, reducing the pigment size, encapsulating the pigment particles in clear resin, and developing improved substrates — to the point where pigment printers can produce a very good glossy prints. The problem of gloss differential or bronzing has diminished greatly, but even high-end pigment printers that lack some sort of gloss optimizer can produce poor prints on glossy paper, especially if there are large areas of pure white in your image. (HP’s wide-format Designjet Z3100 is the only high-end pigment printer that uses a gloss optimizer.)
With the R1800 and the original Ultrachrome Hi-Gloss inks, Epson specifically chose to optimize its printer for glossy output, and they succeeded: the R1800’s glossy prints rivalled the best dye-based printers in the market. With the R1900, Epson has kicked it up a notch; the refined Hi-Gloss 2 inks and the improved gloss optimizer let the printer produce glossy prints that are unequalled on any printer under $2,000, in our opinion. Nearly every person who viewed our test prints picked the R1900’s glossy photos as the best of the bunch, better than Epson’s B-size, dye-based Stylus Photo 1400 and Canon’s dye-based Pixma Pro9000. Even when we tossed in prints from the $1,300 Stylus Professional 3800 (which we consider the top photo printer in the under-$2,000 market) viewers still generally chose the glossy output of the R1900 as the best.
One of the areas where Epson’s choice of red and orange inks seems to help is in skin tones; again, the R1900 produced the most lifelike images of people of all colors. While competitive printers like the Pixma Pro9000 and the B9180/B8850 do a very good job of reproducing skin tone, it appeared to our jury that the R1900 produced slightly better images over all.
The glossy output of the R1900 is so stunning that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the printer also does a great job on matte- and fine-art paper types. It produces deep, rich blacks and vibrant colors, and, despite the fact that it uses red and orange in place of the standard light cyan and light magenta inks found in most comparable photo printers, we detected no discernable difference between R1900 prints on matte paper and the same prints with the Stylus Photo 1400, HP’s B8850, and Canon’s Pixma Pro9000. There are subtle differences between the printers’ output, but for the R1900’s target market — advanced amateurs — they will be of minimal concern.
The only weak spot we found in the R1900 is in its black-and-white output. Lacking any light-density gray inks and light magenta (which most pigment printers use in black-and-white printing), the R1900 produces monochrome prints with slight color casts. In our view, this is an entirely acceptable compromise, given the thrust of the printer. For us, it comes down to a simple point: if you have to ask, this isn’t the printer for you. Most users rarely print in black and white, and for them, the occasional R1900 black-and-white photo will look fine. If you think that more than 20 percent of your photos will be black and white, then look at the HP offerings or at the R2400 and Stylus Pro 3800, which offer the best-possible monochrome printing.
Performance and efficiency
As we noted recently, the R1900 is quite speedy, trailing only Canon’s Pixma Pro9000 among comparable photo printers. After print quality, speed is a secondary consideration when you’re looking for a photo printer, but it is important to some, and, compared with both the R1800 and HP’s Photosmart Pro B8850, the R1900 is a speed demon.
In the standard Photo mode, the R1900 spit out a 4" by 6" print in 36 seconds, and a 12" by 18" photo in under 3 minutes. At the highest-quality setting, the R1900 printed the 4" by 6" photo in 39 seconds, and required only 5 minutes to print the 12" by 18" image. In all our tests, at both the default and the highest print settings, the R1900 was significantly faster than the B8850 and the R1800. (Click on the images below to view a full-size PDF of our speed tests.)
There have been some complaints on the Web about the fact that the R1900 has smaller-capacity ink cartridges than the R1800, although it wasn’t noted that the R1900 ink is also $1 cheaper per cartridge than the R1800. Epson counters those complaints by saying that the focus on cartridge size is misplaced: increased ink efficiency is what’s important, and that is one of the benefits users will see from the Radiance technology.
At a basic level, Epson appears to be correct. In our tests, we had to replace an ink cartridge in the R1800 after approximately 90 prints, most of which were letter-size or greater. With the R1900, we printed nearly 120 photos before we had to replace any ink at all (photo black), and nearly 160 before we had to replace a second cartridge. Ink usage also seems to be a bit more even than it was with the R1800; the R1900 does a much better job of using all six inks when printing, based on our experience. This is one of the tangible benefits of Radiance, where the print driver is using more efficient mixing when choosing which color to print at any given moment.
While we laud Epson for doing a better job at ink efficiency, we do think that any B-size printer should have larger ink tanks. If you choose to use the R1900 to its maximum potential — creating 13"-by-19" prints — you’ll find that you’re changing inks more than you’d like. We don’t understand why Epson doesn’t provide larger-capacity cartridges. Again, HP’s B8850 cartridges have a capacity of approximately 28ml, while those of the R1900 are reportedly about half that. It’s not a question of cost (although many people will grouse about the high cost of ink), but one of convenience: we would much rather have to change inks as infrequently as possible.
The archival question
While both Canon and HP have made big strides with their printers in the past few years, Epson continues to be the primary choice among photo professionals. This preference is not unwarranted: Epson has mastered the screening algorithms, the ink processes and the paper technology required to produce gallery-quality, archival prints. While its not a printer aimed at professionals, the R1900 gets the benefits inherent in Epson’s history. Chief among those benefits is archival print life.
Epson has done a great job at providing a broad selection of papers, that, when used with Epson’s inks, will produce prints that have a print life of 85 years or more, according to preliminary tests done by the print-permanence experts at Wilhelm Research. Wilhelm’s initial tests show R1900 print life ranging from approximately 100 years (for Premium Glossy and Velvet Fine Art) to 200 years (for Watercolor Paper Radiant White).
One paper that isn’t recommended for use with the R1900 is Epson’s new Exhibition Fiber media (Amazon link), which is unfortunate, because it’s one of the finest papers available. We did do some test prints with fiber-based papers from Harman and Ilford, with decent results, but it’s clear that the R1900 is truly optimized for traditional glossy inkjet papers.
While the R1800 showed that it was possible to get high-quality glossy prints from a pigment-ink printer, the Stylus Photo R1900 raises the bar to the point where we believe that a pigment printer can produce better glossy prints than a dye-based printer.
What’s astounding about the R1900 is that it is at the entry level for pigment printing. It’s not perfect: if you you print a lot of images, or, if you want the best possible black-and-white prints, you really will want a printer with higher-capacity ink tanks and light-density black inks. But, for $550, its possible to create stunning output on glossy or semigloss papers that outshine nearly any other printer in its class, and it does a great job on matte-based papers as well.
Epson Stylus Photo R1900
- Excellent print quality, especially on glossy paper types, but matte and fine-art printing is also superb.
- Gloss optimizer eliminates gloss differential issues found in comparable pigment-based printers.
- Handles thick media via manual-feed tray.
- Fastest pigment-based printer in its class.
- Includes number of features designed to reduce clogging, including ink-repelling coating on printhead.
- Efficient ink usage overcomes smaller cartridge size.
- Can print on optical media.
- Black-and-white output has slight color cast.
- Print driver doesn’t include mechanism to add third-party papers.
- No straight paper path (although rear manual feed slot minimizes paper bending).
- Small cartridge size, considering the B-size printing capabilities.