Portable Inkjet vs. Dye-Sublimation Printers

I photograph a lot of party events and dances, and wanted something specifically for the purpose of printing out 4″x6″ prints on-location, so it had to be as small as possible while producing images of acceptable quality for sale to party guests.

The two models I tried out for this purpose were the Epson PictureMate Charm (PM225) inkjet printer and the Canon Selphy CP900 dye-sublimation printer. I wanted to see what significant real-world differences I could find between the two models, which both specialize in printing 4″x6″ prints. I brought them to actual dance events and printed guest photos on them throughout the evening using Adobe Lightroom 4 (which was also tethered to my camera).

The Epson PictureMate Charm inkjet printer immediately impressed me with its sharp contrast and colors using images straight out of camera. I have generally been very pleased with the quality of Epson photo printers, and this was no exception. The availability of a matte / lustre paper option was very appealing, as it has a very professional quality to it, and also reduces fingerprints from marring the photo surface. The print drivers also easily supported borderless and white-bordered options without any difficulty. All in all, I found the Epson PictureMate Charm to be a pleasure to use. However, my concerns with it revolve around the cost per print, and long term usability of the unit. As an initial cost, the printer itself is at least $50 more than the Canon Selphy CP900. The ink and paper are generally purchased together as a package, but a basic search for reviews online show that many people seem to run out of ink in the cartridge long before the paper is used up. It seems to me Epson should’ve erred on the side of the paper running out before the ink to avoid customer complaints. Long-term, there are also the typical reports that the ink cartridge and print head can dry up if you go too long without using it, which is a problem if I want to store the printer in between party events. It would be a nightmare if the photos started coming out streaky or missing bands of color due to clogged print heads. One final concern is that Epson appears to have discontinued this printer (and possibly the PictureMate series), so you may be stuck if you grow to rely on this printer and then can’t get replacement units or parts.

The Canon Selphy CP900 dye-sub printer had its own share of strengths and weaknesses revealed during my testing. Right out the door, the printer itself cost $50 less than the Epson PictureMate Charm and was even more portable. The paper and ink cartridge packages were also quite a bit less expensive per print. One interesting property of dye-sub cartridges to note it that it will print exactly as many prints as it is rated for. A 50-print cartridge will generate exactly that many prints, no more and no less, regardless of the image content. I actually found myself appreciating this trait; even though it means you won’t be able to squeeze out a few more prints from a cartridge, it also allows you to very accurately predict how many more prints you have, which cannot be said for the inkjet printers. So what about the print quality? I’d have to say that even though the dye-sub printing process is known to produce continuous tones like that of film prints, I found the overall image quality to be a bit softer than I preferred, especially when held side-by-side against a high-quality inkjet print. Further, the dye-sub printing process is extremely sensitive to dust particles, which can easily get into the paper path and get baked into the photo, resulting in colored blobs in the final product. Dye-sub printing is a 4-color process, and the way the Canon Selphy CP900 works requires it to allow the paper to exit the printer 4 times to allow each plate of ink and glossy coating to be applied. Not only does this design allow for dust to slip into the print, but it is possible for over-enthusiastic guests to accidentally disturb the printing by pulling out the print prematurely during one of the passes. The Selphy series does not appear to offer a matte option, and the paper itself bears slightly unattractive tear-off edges that need to be manually removed after printing. Also note that the resulting sheets are every so slightly smaller than an actual 4″x6″ print. Finally, the Canon print drivers don’t seem to make it easy to print perfectly borderless nor bordered prints. I found the printing offsets to be a bit unpredictable, requiring some tweaking to actually get the images to be perfectly centered on the sheet. I suspect that most people would have been willing to guess and check with test sheets until they got the measurements just right. Being a dedicated 4×6 printer, I feel that this should have been built-in functionality in the print drivers.

All in all, here are my recommendations. If you want the best quality 4×6″ prints that exceed what I’d expect from your typical drugstore prints, and you don’t mind the added cost and possibility that you won’t be able to get replacement units/parts/media, go for the Epson PictureMate Charm. If you want an economical choice that makes some compromises on quality (that most people honestly might not even notice, except for those pesky dust blobs), and you like the idea that the ink will basically never go dry, then go with the Canon Selphy CP900. Either way, both printers make an impressive showing and highlight the promising options for portable photo printers.


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