USB vs. FireWire: does it matter for printing?

When it comes to printer interfaces, most photo printers sold today have a single USB 2.0 port for connecting to your PC or Mac. Both Epson (with the Stylus Pro 3800 and HP (Photosmart Pro B9180, among other models) ship printers that include an Ethernet port, which is great for networking your printer, but USB is the general standard. And, in the case of HP’s Photosmart C7280 All-in-One, you can get a very good printer that is also WiFi-enabled (more on that printer in a future post).

Epson also ships a few printers with both FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 interfaces, notably the Stylus Photo R1800 and R2400, and some of Canon’s higher-end printers have FireWire instead of USB interfaces. We’ve had a few people ask over the years if there was any advantage to using one or the other port, so while we were running some speed tests on a group of printers here in the office (for an upcoming round-up), we ran some tests on an R1800 and a series of 300-dpi photos. The result? No difference at all, from a borderless 4- by 6-inch image all the way up to an expansive 12- by 18-inch print.

The results (shown in the tables below) really aren’t that surprising: USB 2.0 has theoretical throughput speeds (480 Mbit/sec) that are slightly higher than FireWire (400 Mbit/sec), although USB 2.0 tends in practice to be a bit slower for things like file transfers between disks (when other factors are equalized). In this case, even with a 300-dpi file, you still aren’t throwing that much data down the data pipe to the printer.

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HP Z3100, Canon iPF6100 reviews posted has posted our reviews of two wide-format photo printers, HP’s Designjet Z3100 Photo Printer and Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF6100. Both of these printers offer excellent color and black-and-white print quality on glossy, matte and fine-art papers and have good ink efficiency and strong performance.

The Z3100 is priced at $4,095 and has 11 inks; a 12th cartridge, which is a gloss optimizer for reducing the bronzing effect when printing on glossy paper (Unlike most high-end photo printers, it does not have a cyan ink, using blue and light cyan to . The printer also has an embedded i1 spectrophotometer from X-Rite, which lets you easily create ICC profiles for new media types, as well as update the profiles for existing papers (which is often recommended when changing inks). The Z3100’s software is among the best we’ve ever seen for adding new media and keeping ICC profiles current across all your network machines. One other unique attribute found in the Z3100 is the fact that, when printing in black and white on matte or fine art papers, the printer uses four monochrome inks—photo black, matte black, and two grays—in essence giving you quadtone prints. (Epson and Canon printers use photo black with glossy papers and matte black with fine art papers.)

The iPF6100 (which also comes in a 17-inch version, the iPF5100) is priced $500 less than the Z3100. It has 12 inks and supports direct printing of 16-bit images via a Photoshop plug-in for both Mac OS X an Windows XP and Vista. We found the print quality of this generation vastly superior to the iPF5000/iPF6000 series (although subsequent firmware updates did improve the print quality somewhat), and it was definitely one of the faster wide-formats we’ve tested.

These are the first printers in this class from Canon and HP that approach the print quality of Epson’s Stylus Pro line. During our jury testing, when showing prints from Epson, HP and Canon pro-level inkjets, pro photographers and amateurs alike could not consistently pick which printers produced which prints. This is a far cry from years past, where Epson printers consistently produced prints that were recognizably better than the competition. We think Epson’s printers are still top notch, but HP and Canon have gotten into the game.

Product links: Z3100, iPF6100