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Cut out the middle-man (your computer or processor) with direct printers

Printing photos straight from your camera is the latest thing, Steve Place puts you in the picture

The new range of compact photoprinters are simplifying the task of turning digital photos into the borderless, postcard-sized, glossy prints that we all seem to want. Compared to sending them to a commercial processor or using a computer and printer, these compacts have a number of advantages.

We've looked at four leading brands: the Epson PictureMate (pound;146.15); HP Photosmart 375 (pound;150); the Canon Selphy CP 400 (pound;86); and the Sony FP30 (pound;97).

Any of these photoprinters could be used at home or in school to provide excellent results. All of them can be used to print directly from the camera (although each one comes with drivers for transferring images to computer). This is achieved either with a cable direct from camera to printer or by plugging the camera memory card into the printer.

All four are portable, particularly the Canon and the Sony which are about A5 and easily fit into a small bag. These two are also the most straightforward to use, but, sadly, can't be accessed by all digital cameras. Neither takes memory cards, and the cable connections only work with cameras with PictBridge or similar functionality. Furthermore, both require a small external cassette for the paper.

The Epson and the HP are slightly larger. The Epson has a handle that can get in the way of attaching cables and feeding paper. The HP was the only one to come with its own handy carrying case. It also has a bluetooth adaptor for images from mobile phones. Both printers took the memory cards of all the digital cameras we could find and both have rudimentary on-board controls (such as selecting and cropping pictures) - the Canon and Sony are both operated through the camera itself.

As far as the printing process goes, Epson and HP use inkjet technology while Canon and Sony work by dye sublimation where the printing ink is transferred to paper by a heat process. In all four cases, printing heads will require a certain amount of cleaning.

Aesthetically Canon and Sony beat Epson and HP. The former two are neat and compact, while the latter two have gone for an old-fashioned-radio look.

The print quality of all machines was as good as you'd get from Kodak or Jessops, but the standard of print is also dependent on the original digital image.

Aside from the original outlay for the printer, a new colour ink cartridge and 40 sheets of 6"x4" glossy paper will cost around pound;20. So with a typical print shop charging something like pound;5 for up to 25 prints, buying your own photoprinter will only be more economical for short-run prints.

The advantages are portability and ease of use over standard printers, as well as making printing a lot more convenient and flexible. This immediacy is also useful for rewards, displays or when instant prints are at a premium, eg for visitors.

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