Can Canon make a decent photo printer?

The new Pixma Pro9500 represents Canon’s entry into the higher end of the photo printer market, which includes Epson’s Stylus Photo R2400 and Hewlett-Packard’s Photosmart Pro B9180. Like its competitors, the US$850 Pro9500 offers very good print quality, printing on papers up to 13 inches by 19 inches in size, support for thick media types, and more. After some initial problems, largely related to the version of the print driver that shipped with the printer, I was able to get beautiful prints out of the unit, especially on matte-finish and fine-art papers.

The basics
The Pixma Pro9500 uses 10 individual, pigment-based ink cartridges. In addition to the standard set of photo inks — cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, and yellow — the Pro9500 adds green, red, gray, and two versions of black inks, one for glossy photo papers, the other for matte and fine-art papers. In contrast with the Stylus Photo R2400, you don’t have to swap the black inks to change between paper types with the Pro9500, a great feature also found on HP’s B9180.

Setting the printer up is easy; the hardest part is making sure there’s enough clearance behind the printer to accommodate thick papers when you use the flat paper path (a top-loading tray is used for standard papers). The Pro9500 comes with a CD-ROM that contains a print driver, a lackluster photo printing application called Easy-PhotoPrint, and Easy-PhotoPrint Pro, a Photoshop CS/CS2 plug-in. (I was able to find a Photoshop CS3 version of the plug-in by digging through Canon’s European Web site.) This plug-in is nowhere near as comprehensive or as easy to use as the one that Canon ships with its professional-level 17-inch printer, the imagePROGRAF iPF 5000, however.

Print quality
Canon says that 10 inks give the Pro9500 a wider colour gamut than that of its competitors, which results in better tonal gradations and more vibrant prints. However, at first it looked like the added inks made photos look worse, not better. My initial prints had flat colours and generally muddy tones, and, when I tried to bypass Canon’s driver and print directly from Photoshop or Aperture using Canon’s ICC colour profiles, the results were even worse.

Things improved when I downloaded an updated version of the Pro9500 driver from the Canon site. Using Canon’s driver-based colour and Canon papers, I got much better results. Most people who viewed the Pro9500 prints in a group felt that they were quite good, although when viewed in a jury setting alongside prints from HP and Epson printers, the Pro9500 prints rarely were voted the best. On glossy and semi-gloss prints, most people felt that HP and Epson’s prints looked much better. On Canon’s own fine-art and premium matte papers, however, many viewers felt that the Pro9500 was at least comparable to B9180 prints, and close to but generally behind prints made with the Stylus Photo R2400 and Stylus Professional 3800.

The Pro9500 does a good job with black and white images. When examining such prints on their own, most people felt that the tonal gradations in the Pro9500’s black and white prints were good, although our jury picked the Epson prints — which use a black ink and two grays — over the Pro9500 in every instance.

Performance and ink life
The Pro9500 is no speed demon; on average, it would print an image in twice (or even three times) the time it took its competitors. For example, the Pro9500 took approximately 6 minutes to output an 8-by-10 inch print in the default photo mode, 3 minutes for a 4-by-6 inch print, and 16 minutes for a 12-by-18 inch image.

The Pro9500 cartridges ($15 each) are fairly small for a large-format printer, but I was generally impressed with the ink usage. I ran out of gray and photo black ink after approximately 110 prints of various sizes (mostly letter-size), and none of the other colours ran out until I reached nearly 200 prints. This is less usage than I get out of my B9180, but much better than my experience with the Stylus Photo R2400, which devours ink quickly, especially when switching between paper types.

Macworld’s buying advice
Canon’s Pixma Pro9500 is a decent printer that produces very good prints, especially if you’re using Canon’s matte and fine art papers — and if you have the most current driver. I wouldn’t recommend it if you planned to print solely on glossy paper, however; there are much better alternatives (the B9180 or Epson’s Stylus Photo 1800, for example) for that task. If you’re looking for a speedier printer with better ink usage and great print quality on nearly all printer types, it’s hard to beat HP’s $700 Photosmart Pro B9180.

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