Why Buy: How to Buy an Inkjet Photo Printer

Forget dpi. It's all about drop size.

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Who hasn't been romanced by an inkjet's impressive dpi (4,800 by 1,200) or speed (17 pages per minute!) specs? Unfortunately, this is a formula for disappointing prints. The most important (though not sole) consideration these days is actually drop size-not something printer makers play up on the packaging. Here's what to look for when purchasing your next photo printer, along with a measure of importance.

SIZE OF INK DROPS
Importance: *****
Why? The smaller the ink drop, the better your photo
Look For: At least 4 picoliters. Even better is 2 picoliters, currently the smallest available. The Holy Grail is 1 picoliter, the point at which the human eye wouldn't be able to perceive any graininess

NUMBER OF INK CARTRIDGES
Importance: ****
Why? More colors mean blacker blacks, richer hues, reduced graininess
Look For: Cyan, yellow, magenta, and a dedicated black cartridge-plus light cyan and light magenta. The light colors fake the eye into seeing the equivalent of a 0.6-picoliter drop

PRINTING SPEED
Importance: ***
Why? It's critical if you print lots at once
Look For: A printer that can output a 4 by 6 in less than a minute. (If you plan to do a lot of 4 by 6s, also look for borderless printing.) Warning: Plain-paper speeds are faster, so specifically check speeds of photo-paper printing

INK AND PAPER TYPES
Importance: ***
Why? Longer-lasting inks and paper mean you won't have to redo your scrapbook in 10 years
Look For: A printer that handles pigment-based archival inks. Avoid generic paper; paper formulated for your printer's inks works better

IMAGE PROCESSING
Importance: **
Why? You want your prints to look like the image in your viewfinder
Look For: Print Image Match or Exif 2.0, technology that your camera also must support. Each enables your inkjet to print better skin tones and richer landscapes

DOTS PER INCH (DPI)
Importance: **
Why? More dots are always better
Look For: At least 1,000 dpi (the number of dots horizontally and the first number in the resolution spec). Some inkjets print at a lower dpi in draft mode, so double-check your settings