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The latest opportunity to read the fine print

With its latest set of printers, Epson has taken quality in production to new heightsI and this is just the beginning. Merlin John takes a look.

Around 40 per cent of UK homes now have PCs, 75 per cent of them have inkjet printers, and 95 per cent of inkjets are bought for the home and the home office. Add to this the fact that 2 billion photos are taken every year and that photography is the world's number one hobby, and you can see that the potential for these printers is absolutely massive.

If you wanted to do reams of black and white printing your best bet would be to get a laser, but most people now want colour - for documents that include graphics and, increasingly, for photographs taken with digital cameras. So teachers buying PCs under the Government's Computers for Teachers scheme are likely to go for an inkjet, as are schools or departments wanting to print out colour documents and photographs.

There are plenty of manufacturers to choose from, but the market is effectively dominated by four - Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Canon and Lexmark. Printers from all four are good quality and good value, but Epson's quality, particularly for photo printing, has the edge which is why it leads the pack with 35 per cent of the market.

Now Epson is out for a bigger slice with two new high-quality printers at budget prices - the Stylus Photo 870 and the Stylus Photo 1270 (pound;203.40 and pound;339.57 respectively, excluding VAT). They replace the Stylus Photo 750 and 1200.

What's so special about them? They're 50 per cent faster than the previous models and are said to be the quietest inkjets available. The droplet size is 30 per cent smaller so quality is up. Both printers offer edge-to-edge printing, which means that photos no longer require trimming.

Epson has also introduced new ink cartridges. The Intellidge cartridges are more sophisticated and can monitor ink usage, so you can easily tell how many prints you have left, even when the cartridge has been swapped.

The inks have been improved with an eye to permanence. Epson says that if you use them with its improved papers they guarantee "light-fastness" (permanence of image quality) for up to 10 years. This might sound like marketing hype but it is important. Inkjets are still relatively new so no one has been certain how long photo prints are likely to last in daylight, for example if the are on display. In the early days of fax no one thought much about permanence and people were surprised and perplexed when important faxes faded beyond legibility.

Making such a statement on the issue of light-fastness is an attempt to bring stability and credibility to a young market, and you can be sure that these standards will not remain static. Competition between manufacturers is intense so expect interesting developments.

The new printers also come with improved software that can offer more enhancement and manipulation. Photo Reproduction Lab software helps with edge-to-edge printing for 4x6 prints that are, for most people, just as acceptable as those from a photo processor in the high street. You can do multiple prints of the same image and even run some together for a panoramic view.

There's even a roll holder that takes a continuous roll of paper that can run off a string of pictures. The only thing missing is a guillotine but we'll probably see one of those soon - so keep either a scalpel or scissors handy.

The Stylus Photo 870 also has LivePix 2.1 picture editing software with special effects facilities that help you get rid of that awful "red-eye" effect that makes you look as if you're suffering from the mother of all hangovers. Its print speed for black and white is 9 pages per minute and 8.8 for colour.

The Stylus Photo 1270 prints at approximately the same rate but can also handle A3. For anyone requiring quality A3 images, eg for public display, it is very attractive.

The 1270 also comes with Adobe Photoshop LE software. This is a cut-down version of Photoshop, the professional photo manipulation program (used to produce TESOnline) and is extremely versatile and powerful.

And for those who want straight snapshot facilities, Epson is producing an interesting version of the 870 in June this year with a PC card slot (PCMCIA) on the front. The 875DC (a price is not currently available) can handle all the popular forms of memory cards used in digital cameras. So you can simply take the card out of your camera and put it into the printer. The images pop up on your PC screen, you make a couple of simple choices and out come your prints.

When any new range comes out the competition steps up a notch and some bargains emerge. So watch out for them over the next couple of months.

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