Tough at the top
What makes it such a close call is that the Epson R800 (above) and the Canon i990 (top) are so similar in so many ways; the same graphite livery, the same smooth contours and - most importantly - the same exceptionally high performance.
Used with current digital cameras, both printers deliver stunning high-resolution images quickly and quietly. Where Canon opts for a seven-colour cartridge set that includes light cyan, light magenta and red, Epson goes for an octet with an extra black, a blue, a red and a gloss optimiser. In terms of colour fidelity this gives the Canon prints a vibrancy that borders on hyper-realism and the Epson prints a lustrous quality that comes very close to conventional silver halide images. In terms of cost, Canon just, er, shades it. You can, of course, buy individual cartridges but expect to pay somewhere around pound;55 to replace the i990 set and pound;75 for the R800.
There are, however, other considerations which could sway education buyers. The i990 usesthe new PictBridge standard which allows direct printing from any compatible digital camera or camcorder. It's USB2-enabled for high-speed printing. In fact, both Epson and Canon offer USB2 or FireWire connections, but don't bother looking for the older parallel socket on either machine. And if you've ever struggled with postcard-size prints you'll welcome Canon's excellent Easy PhotoPrint software and the clunky, but extremely effective cassette feeder for small media.
With many schools now burning records of achievement, projects and homework on to CDs and DVDs the Epson's direct print to CD feature is likely to be a welcome option, as are the rollers for custom-cut roll paper, which can represent a considerable saving.
What might just clinch the argument for the Epson is the archival ink system. Prints are said to be light fast for up to 80 years - no small bonus for anyone who's ever watched their favourite digital displays curdle to a milky white over a relatively short time.
So, who's the daddy? On this occasion, paternity rights go to the Epson R800I but only just.
Price: pound;225; Epson
Fitness for purpose *****
Ease of use ****
Value for money ****