By Rick LePage | September 14, 2008
Epson’s Stylus Photo R2880, an $800 large-format (13") printer, enters a vastly different printer market than that of its predecessor, the Stylus Photo R2400. When the R2400 debuted in 2005, Epson owned all aspects of the archival photo printer market, and the R2400’s only real competition was the model it replaced, the Stylus Photo 2200. The R2880, however, joins a market crowded by competitors from HP and Canon, as well as Epson itself: there are now five large-format, pigment-based photo printers priced between $500 and $1,000, and Epson’s competitors have done a superb job of catching up to their longtime rival’s print quality. There are many observers who believe that Epson still has the edge in quality, but there’s no disputing that HP and Canon have put themselves into the game, HP with the Photosmart Pro B8850 (and its older sibling, the B9180) and Canon with the Pixma Pro9500. How does the R2880 match up? Read on.
|Stylus Photo R2880 specifications|
|Type||B-size pigment-based inkjet|
|Inks||9 UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta (8 printing)|
|Ink colors||Photo Black, Matte Black, Cyan, Vivid Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan, Light Vivid Magenta, Light Black, Light Light Black|
|Ink cartridge cost||$13.29 (replacement cost: $119.61 for all 9 inks)|
|Ink cost per ml (est.)||$1.16|
|Maximum resolution||5760 by 1440 dpi|
|Minimum paper size||4" by 6"|
|Maximum paper size||13" by 44"|
|Thick paper support||Yes|
|Straight path||Yes, for media up to 1.3mm thick|
|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|
What does the R2880 have that sets it apart from the R2400 (and its competition)? Here are some of the primary advantages:
- An improved version of the UltraChrome K3 inkset used in Epson’s flagship Stylus Pro printers, incorporating the Vivid Magenta inks;
- A new color-matching technology, Radiance, designed to improve color constancy, reduce grain and improve ink efficiency (also found in the new Stylus Photo R1900);
- New mechanisms inside the printer that are designed to reduce head clogging and ink buildup;
- A tray for printing on inkjet-printable CDs and DVDs;
- Two USB ports, on different circuits, allowing multiple computers (PC or Mac) to be connected to the printer simultaneously; and
- Faster performance.
While the R2880 has plenty of enhancements, it also inherits one unfortunate trait from the R2400: the need to physically swap matte and photo black ink cartridges when you switch paper types. Given that both Canon and HP have been able to engineer ink delivery systems that incorporate both black ink types, this is a big disappointment, and one that puts Epson at a competitive disadvantage. For many photographers, this fact alone will eliminate the R2880 from consideration, regardless of the print quality or other strengths. We don’t think this is a fatal flaw, especially given the excellent print quality, but it is a major drawback.
UltraChrome K3 Vivid
Epson added the vivid magenta and vivid light magenta inks to its Stylus Pro wide-format line in September 2007, claiming that the new inks offered a wider gamut and improved black-and-white performance over the previous K3 inkset. 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.)
Attacking the clogged nozzle issue
Clogged print nozzles are a fact of life with inkjet printers from every manufacturer, and the R2400 seemed to be one of those printers that had more than its fair share of problems in this area. With the R2880, Epson is incorporating some new technology to try to eliminate the problem entirely.
The biggest culprit in creating clogs is time. It’s quite simple: if you leave your printer primed and unused over a significant period of time, some ink deposits can solidify and block nozzles. This is one of the reasons that most printers will run a cleaning cycle occasionally if the device hasn’t been used. Of course, this wastes ink, and it doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be clogged nozzles, but we’ve found that it does help.
Epson has added two features to the R2880 designed to reduce clogging: an ink-repelling coating on the printhead, and the addition of tiny glass beads to the ink cartridges. The coating keeps ink from building up on the printhead, theoretically lowering the chances of blocked nozzles, and the glass beads help ‘stir’ the ink while the printer is in use, keeping the viscosity optimal.
The company has also implemented an ink-collection technology that is designed to reduce the stray ink buildup that occurs inside every inkjet printer on the market—tiny amounts of ink that never make it to the paper. (These enhancements are also found in the R1900.)
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. (This is a problem that has begun to plague owners of HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180; for more, check this field report from our colleague Duncan Davidson.)
While we will want to see longer-term reports from the field on the anti-clog features in the R2880, we can say that, having printed more than 1,500 images on the R2880—and another 800 or so on the R1900—we have yet to see a clogged nozzle. We left the printer on for five weeks, with only intermittent printing, and never had a problem, something we couldn’t say with our Stylus Photo R2400 or our Photosmart Pro B8850. (We also left the R1900 on for eight weeks, printing a page here, and a page there, without running into any clogs.)
Like most inkjets today, the R2880 sets up quickly and with minimal effort. The 11ml ink cartridges snap easily into place, and the only real choice you need to make is what type of paper you’ll print on; Epson includes both matte and photo black cartridges with the printer. It doesn’t come with a USB cable, though, so you’ll need to pick one up.
Because it is a large-format printer—capable of printing up to 13" wide—you’ll need a large enough space for the printer to reside upon, but the top-loading paper tray and the output tray fold nicely out of the way when you’re not using the printer. It also helps keep dust and dirt out of the printer, which is another plus. This design was first used in the R1900, and we like it much more than the one found in Epson’s Stylus Photo 1400, R1800 and R2400: those models’ spring-loaded output tray was flimsy and poorly designed.
The printer has two rear-feed paper slots, one for rigid media, the other for standard photo and matte papers. Like most of Epson’s printers in this class, you can also use roll paper; the attachment isn’t the sturdiest, but it works well when set up. It would be nice to have a built-in paper cutter, however.
The R2880 comes with print drivers for both Mac OS X and Windows (XP and Vista). In addition to the drivers is a background application that displays the printer’s ink levels every time you print, an ink-reminder utility (that can be disabled), and PrintCD, a program for creating DVD and CD labels. The drivers for Mac and PC are almost unchanged from those used by the R2400, although the R2880 does add 16-bit printing support under Mac OS X 10.5.
At this level of the market, the thing that matters most is print quality, and frankly, the R2880 offers the best prints of any desktop inkjet printer we’ve used. The addition of the vivid magenta inks does appear to create a slightly wider gamut, but it also helps increase the quality of black-and-white output, especially in the shadows. No matter what the type of image, or the paper chosen, viewers consistently picked the R2880 output over the R2400, the R1900, HP’s B9180 and B8850, and Canon’s Pixma Pro9000 and 9500.
The R2880 did a great job regardless of the paper type. On glossy papers, prints exhibited minimal gloss differential (sometimes referred to as ‘bronzing’), and papers like Epson’s own Exhibition Fiber (Amazon link) or HP’s Professional Satin (Amazon) produced stunning, richly detailed prints, with vibrant colors. On matte-style papers, the R2880 did an excellent job of reproducing deep, rich blacks and a fairly broad tonal range. Nearly all of the fine-art papers we threw at the R2880 reproduced well, including Epson’s Ultrasmooth Fine Art (Amazon) Red River’s Aurora Natural and Moab’s Somerset Photo Satin. It’s also worth noting that none of the R2880 prints—on matte or glossy media—exhibited any signs of scuffing or ‘pizza’ tracks, which is important to anyone interested in selling their work.
For anyone interested in black and white printing, the R2880 is a stunner. On both matte and glossy media, the R2880’s output is drop-dead neutral, with the widest tonal range of any printer we’ve seen under $1,000. In fact, its black-and-white prints can rival printers more than twice its price. For example, when comparing R2880 prints with those made with the Stylus Pro 3800—our favorite overall printer in the under-$2,000 category—viewers couldn’t find noticeable differences in most color prints. But, with black-and-white prints, most observers felt that the R2880 did a slightly better job than the 3800. On some fine-art papers, like Hahnemuhle’s Photo Rag, the R2880 was able to hold detail much better than the 3800. Overall, this isn’t surprising; part of the reason Epson went to the vivid magenta inks was that it would help increase the tonal range in black-and-white printing (even when using Epson’s Advanced B&W printing mode, some color inks are used), and the R2880 is Epson’s first large-format inkjet to use the new inks.
All of this should come as no surprise; Epson has long focused on quality, and the company has spent untold sums in improving their printheads and screening algorithms, all in the quest to produce the highest-quality prints. We feel that it’s worth noting that the improvements we found in the R2880’s print quality won’t be noticed by many consumers: the R2400, R1900, Photosmart Pro B8850, B9180 and Pixma Pro9500 all produce very good prints on a variety of media types, especially if they’ve been profiled properly. However, if you’re looking for the best possible color and black-and-white prints in a sub-$1,000 device, then the R2880 is your printer.
We’ve spent a lot of time this year dwelling on the topic of measuring ink cartridge life in an everyday setting (as have our friends at Red River Paper). One of the knocks on every vendor is the cost of ink, and while we really don’t want to fuel the ink-consipracy theorists, we think it is important for people to get a sense of what it will cost to print. Using a methodology similar to that of our initial testing (and that of Red River’s), we printed 200 8" by 10" pages of Bill Atkinson’s Profile Test image on the R2880, and, using the weight of full and empty ink cartridges, were able to come up with a measurement of the total ink used, and a cost per print (of ink only).
|Stylus Photo R2880 ink yield measurements (200 pages)|
|Ink Color||Equivalent Cartridges Used||ml||Cost ($)|
|Light Light Black||1.8||20.2||$24.38|
|Vivid Light Magenta||2.4||26.2||$31.64|
|Estimate of ink used in printing 200 test pages at 8" by 10" output size in standard photo mode on an Epson Stylus Photo R2880. Ink usage calculations based on 11ml cartridge size and $13.29 price per cartridge.|
Using this data, we can derive an ink cost per square inch, which lets us come up with an estimated cost per print size, as shown below:
|R2880 ink cost per page size|
|Print Size||Estimated Ink Cost|
While we’re still in the process of measuring a wide range of printers, we can say that the numbers for the R2880 are comparable to those of HP’s Photosmart Pro B8850 and other printers in this class. We want to be careful in setting expectations: the primary function of these tests is to give a comparable set of metrics across a broad range of printers from competing vendors, with a freely available test chart. Depending upon the type of photos you print, the number of copies and print quality levels, you might find that you’re using more or less ink than we are.
Looking at print speed, the R2880 is a very good performer, showing a modest improvement over the R2400, and leaving its primary rivals, HP’s B9180 and Canon’s Pixma Pro9500, in the dust. As we regularly note, speed is rarely at the top of our list for choosing a printer in this class, but it should be a consideration, especially if you believe print quality is relatively comparable across the different vendors’ units.
The first chart, shown below, displays the times (in seconds) for prints at the printers’ default photo modes. This is the setting most people will use, and one that produces very good results for snapshots and everyday use. As might be expected when looking at the newest member of the class, the R2880 is the speediest performer. (Click on the image to see a full-size PDF of the results.)
The second chart shows the print speeds at the highest resolution setting, the one that produces the most optimal prints, but which also uses up more ink. We rarely use this setting except for when we’re dealing with problematic images, ones with wide dynamic range, or when we want to create gallery-quality prints. Here, the R2880 continues to do well, although the gap is not as wide as it is at the lower quality setting. (Click on the image to see a full-size PDF of the results.)
The rough spots
For the most part, the R2880 really shines as a high-end, consumer-level photo inkjet, but there are a few things that prevent us from making the printer an unqualified, “must buy”:
- First and foremost is the ink swapping. After nearly six years of using separate black ink cartridges (dating back to the Stylus Photo 2200), we shouldn’t have to swap inks when changing paper types. HP and Canon have been able to engineer printheads with separate channels for the matte and photo black inks, and yet Epson—the originator of this market segment—has yet to come out with an affordable inkjet printer that incorporates similar technology.
- We also think that a large-format inkjet, capable of printing 13" by 19" borderless prints with ease, should have larger-capacity ink cartridges. HP’s ink cartridges for the B8850 and B9180 are more than twice the capacity of the R2880’s 11ml cartridges, and, while they are both comparably priced when you factor the cost per ml., you’ll need to purchase more cartridges sooner than you will with the HP printers. As a point of reference, we had to purchase eight additional ink cartridges (which cost nearly $110) to complete our 200-page ink use test on the R2880, while we had to purchase two cartridges (at a cost of $72) for the same test on our B8850.
- Epson continues to provide no mechanism for easily adding new papers to the print driver. If you use a third-party paper, you have to remember which comparable Epson paper type was used to profile the paper (whether you did it, or you’re using the paper manufacturer’s profiles). This is a usability issue, and, as print quality improves, photographers are going to demand much more user-friendly tools. Epson should be a leader here.
- Related to the driver/paper problem, Epson doesn’t even include a driver setting for their flagship Exhibition Fiber paper, which the company claims is optimized for the UltraChrome K3 ink set. The ICC profiles for the paper aren’t even on the Epson Web site; you need to go to the Pixel Genius site to download them. While it’s great that a third-party is producing high-quality profiles, Epson really should have them in the box with the printer.
With the exception of the ink-swapping issue, these really are minor problems that mar an otherwise excellent printer. We can—and do—live with them as small annoyances in our quest to produce the highest-quality prints. And, if you are like most photographers, you’ll gravitate to a few paper choices, all of which will be either matte or photo, and ink changes won’t be a concern. But if you want the widest flexibility in media choice, you’ll either have to choose an alternative printer, or put up with the lost ink used when switching (which we estimate at roughly $1.75 to $2 per ink change).
The Stylus Photo R2880 is a bit of a conundrum. The steps forward Epson has made in print quality and reducing clogs are hamstrung by the continued necessity to swap black inks. If Epson had eliminated the cartridge-swapping issue with this printer, it would be a nearly perfect product; as it is, it’s a remarkable printer with one significant drawback. In the end, if you’re looking for a printer in this class and price range, and print quality is your overarching concern, there is almost no reason not to go with the R2880. As much as we wish that Epson would improve some of the rough edges in their consumer-level printers, the R2880’s prints speak for themselves.
Epson Stylus Photo R2880
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Epson’s R2880 product page
- Excellent print quality, best of any printer under $1,000.
- Outstanding black-and-white output with near-perfect neutrality.
- Handles thick media via two manual-feed paths (including straight-through path.
- Includes number of features designed to reduce clogging, including ink-repelling coating on printhead.
- Can print on optical media.
- Must still swap Photo and Matte Black cartridges when changing paper types.
- Print driver doesn’t include mechanism to add third-party papers.
- Epson doesn’t include driver preset or ICC profiles for Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Paper, despite pushing it as top-of-the-line media for R2880.
- Small cartridge size, considering the B-size printing capabilities.