By Rick LePage | December 9, 2008
In my Stylus Photo R2880 review, one of the biggest questions I get is not about the quality of the printer, or even comparisons with HP and Canon printers in the same price range. No, it is: “How does it compare with Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800?”
This is understandable: while the R2880 is a very good printer, it does suffer from a few issues, notably the smaller ink tanks and the necessity to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges when you want to move between matte and glossy papers. The 3800 also requires a switch, but the process is automatic and requires no user intervention. The 3800 does waste a few dollars of ink per switch, which is troublesome, but given the rarity with which people change paper type—and its high-capacity (80ml) cartridge size, this is a lesser issue for many pro users.
Right now, the Stylus Pro 3800 is under $1,200 at Amazon (a savings of $100 or so), while the R2880 is priced around $650 ($150 off the list price). If you’re looking at the two printers, how do you choose between the two? I think it’s pretty straightforward: what follows are some of my thoughts, based on fairly heavy usage of both printers (and nearly every other photo printer in the $300 to $5,000 price range).
Why a two-year old product is still the best printer on the market
The Stylus Pro 3800 was introduced two years ago, and Epson currently has no stated plans for a replacement. In that time, HP and Canon have introduced printers that significantly increased the competitive pressure on Epson (especially in the $300-$800 range), but they haven’t really dented Epson’s hold on the photo printer market. And no one has really come out with a printer that rivals the 3800’s basic specs:
|Stylus Pro 3800 specifications|
|Type||C-size pigment-based inkjet|
|Inks||9 UltraChrome K3 (8 printing)|
|Ink colors||Photo Black, Matte Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan, Light Magenta, Light Black, Light Light Black|
|Ink cartridge cost||$60 (replacement cost: $540 for all 9 inks)|
|Ink cost per ml (est.)||$0.75|
|Maximum resolution||2880 by 1440 dpi|
|Minimum paper size||4" by 6"|
|Maximum standard paper size||17" by 22" (can print longer than 22" via custom paper sizes)|
|Thick paper support||Yes|
|Straight path||Yes, for media up to 1.5mm thick|
|Interfaces||USB 2.0; Ethernet (10/100)|
|Operating systems supported||Windows XP, Vista; Mac OS X (10.3.9 and up)|
|Dimensions||27" x 15" x 10.2"|
The biggest number to look at is the 3800’s extremely low $0.75 per ml ink cost, which is 35 percent less than that of the R2880 (and 40 percent below HP’s ink costs for the B8850 and B9180 printers). That alone will mean that you’ll save money on ink if you print lots of images.In our testing of the Stylus Pro 3800, the HP Photosmart Pro B8850, and the Stylus Photo R2880, the ink cost per 8" by 10" photo on glossy paper at the printer’s standard print mode was 61 cents per page for the 3800, 78 cents per page for the B8850 and 90 cents per page for the R2880. (The HP printer, while having a higher per-ml ink cost, laid down less ink on the page than either of the Epson printers, which is why its cost per page came out lower than that of the R2880.)
Ink capacity and cost
It gets even more interesting when you start looking at the ink cartridge costs. While the 3800’s ink cartridges list for more than four times the price of those of the R2880, you get 80 ml of ink for free with the 3800, while you need to purchase seven sets of ink—totaling $837—to get the same amount of ink with the R2880. That total cost, over $1400 (adding the $650 for the printer), is more than the cost of a 3800.
When my friend (and professional photographer) James Duncan Davidson came to visit Printerville a while back, we had a discussion about the economics of the ink regarding this: his post Inkonomics, does a much better—and more thorough—job of explaining this than I could, but the central conceit is the same: if you are planning on printing in any appreciable volume on larger paper sizes, the economics of the Stylus Pro 3800 are hard to beat.
By way of illustration, when printing our 200-page ink test, using a full set of ink cartridges on a fully primed printer, I had to make four cartridge swaps with Epson’s R2880, which cost me roughly $53. The HP B8850 required two cartridge swaps, which cost $68. The Stylus Pro 3800, on the other hand, was still ready for more—a lot more.
The quality equation
When it introduced the Stylus Pro 3800, Epson made a big deal of the new printhead, advanced screening algorithms and highly precise dot placement as the reasons why it produced the best prints of any desktop printer on the market. While it’s easy to lay that all as marketing hype, I can say—with plenty of backup from other photographers—that the 3800’s output is regularly better than any printer at its price range or below.
Does the Vivid Magenta in the Stylus Photo R2880 give that printer an advantage over the 3800? With some images it might, but it’s hard for anyone to see on a consistent basis, and, when you add the higher cost per page for the R2880, it’s hard to see why a pro photographer would go with the R2880 for high-volume printing.
And, while HP has made huge strides in the wide-format market with the new 12-ink Designjet Z3200, the B-size B9180 and B8850 just aren’t printing at the same level as the 3800—or the R2880, for that matter. (HP will also have its hands full competing with Epson’s recently announced Stylus Pro 7900 and 9900 wide-format printers, which could ensure that Epson continues to stay at the top of the image quality heap.)
The 3800’s drawbacks
The 3800 is far from perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. Working with two units, and observing the usage of about five other units among colleagues, there are three things that regularly cause grief, some big, some small:
- Ink swapping. While much less impactful on the 3800 than it is on Epson’s desktop inkjets (the R2880 and the older R2400 and Stylus Photo 2200), is still wasteful. We know that many photographers have looked to HP and Canon printers as an alternative, but the print quality—especially at the price—remains in Epson’s favor.
- The rear manual-feed mechanism. It often requires multiple attempts to load a piece of fine-art media via the rear tray. Again, this is a minor issue. However, if you’re thinking of printing on thick fine-art media regularly, using a roll-feed printer like the Stylus Pro 4880 is a better long-term alternative.
- The flimsy plastic front door. The 3800, like many of Epson’s recent photo printers, folds up nicely, which helps keep dust out of the paper path. Unfortunately, the front door, which slides down and out, generally breaks off after a month or so of use.
Most of these issues are generally minor, but they’re worth mentioning in a context like this.
What about the R2880?
Does this mean that we don’t think that the R2880 is not worth buying? Not at all. If you want excellent prints, are looking to print less than 50 photos per month, and the the idea of spending more than $1,000 is anathema to you, the R2880 is a great buy. As we said in our review, the ink swapping is really the biggest problem with the printer, and, if you rarely switch paper types, then you won’t find it as big an issue as we did.
The other thing that constantly comes up is the mythical “Stylus Pro 3900 ”, the unannounced successor to the 3800. Epson has given no indication that such a printer will ever be made available, but we continue to hear from people who won’t buy a 3800 because they believe such a printer is “around the corner.” But we don’t put any stock in it, especially given the logistics of building a high-volume, 9-channel printhead when they’re already moving to a 10-channel head with the UltraChrome HDR inks in the Stylus Pro 7900. (See my comment below for more on my thoughts here.)
Given Epson’s track record, the 3800 is probably still going to be the company’s flagship printer for the foreseeable future, and with HP staying out of the 17-inch market and Canon still floundering—despite the decent reception surrounding the (pricier) imageProGRAF iPF6000 and iPF6100—the 3800 remains the best printer in the class.
I’ve worked with nearly every major photo inkjet that has been released in the past decade, and in all that time, there have been few printers that have both the high quality and design for hard duty. I have banged hard on two 3800s for nearly two years, and they rarely have disappointed me. Like Epson’s other Pro-series printers, the 3800 doesn’t clog, prints quickly on a wide range of media, and produces gallery-ready prints. Sure, there are little problems here and there, but the comments I made more than 18 months ago regarding the 3800 still stand:
If you’re looking to sell your work professionally, and you don’t need anything bigger than a 17-inch-wide print, the Stylus Pro 3800 is without a doubt the current benchmark at this level of the market. There are some fine photo inkjet printers priced under $1,000, but they’re not designed to be workhorses that will churn out print after print. The 3800 will do that in spades.
Epson Stylus Pro 3800
- Excellent print quality, best of any printer under $2,000.
- High-capacity ink cartridges reduce per-print cost considerably.
- Outstanding black-and-white output with near-perfect neutrality.
- Handles thick media via two manual-feed paths (including straight-through path.
- Wastes ink when changing between photo and matte paper types.
- Occasional paper-load problems with rear manual-feed tray.
- Flimsy front door.
[Edited 12/10/2008 to clarify competitive set and to add comment link.]