Aardvark Daily
Review: Epson Stylus Color 600 Printer
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Say What?... Printer Image I still have the old dot-matrix printer I bought back in 1984 and it's served me very well for the past 11 years - probably making inky marks on over twenty boxes of lineflow paper during that time.

Of course these days, dot matrix printers are very much in the minority and considered "old fashioned". Technology has come a long way since the Epson MX-80, possibly the world's most popular dot matrix printer and the fore-runner of a family which has seen Epson's name associated with the printer business for a couple of decades or so.

However, the demands of the home and business markets have gone way beyond the abilities of the dot-matrix printer. Now we expect near-silent, high resolution printing and colour to boot.

If you don't need colour then the laser is probably still the most cost-effective and fastest option for most people - but when black and white isn't enough or if are looking for a lower alternative, ink-jet printers are about the only choice these days.

Installation The Stylus Colour 600 printer comes with a manual which details the unpacking and physical installation process pretty well. It would have been nice to have less ambiguous instructions as to how much of the print-cartridge plastic seal to rip off though. The seal covers the entire top of the cartridge but you're only supposed to pull off a small portion. I don't believe the instructions make it clear enough that only one part of the cover should be removed prior to installation. I have images in my mind of confused users struggling with multi-coloured ink-fountains as they discover the whole thing isn't supposed to come off.

Apart from that, everything went swimmingly and it took just a few minutes to get to the point where the printer was turned on for the first time - and what an experience that was!

Apparently, whenever you replace the ink cartridges, the printer must perform some internal contortions that cause about five minutes of the most incredible noises to issue forth from its bowels. If you can imagine a full-grown pig with a bad case of flatulence, you'll get the idea. The manual does warn of these internal gyrations however so it wasn't too disconcerting.

Installing the drivers was also easy but I found it much better Windows 95's "Add Printer" icon than to run the program provided on the CDROM. The CDROM insists on wanting to install a rather stupid piece of software designed to help you use the printer. Unless you have a fair amount of free disk space, don't be tempted to install it onto your hard drive. The program concerned carries with it bags of WAV files and graphics which do nothing to add to its functionality. All in all, I'd rate the help program as an annoyance rather than a bonus.

Print quality The 600 claims a print resolution of up to 1440x720 pixels which is pretty damned good for a $600 machine. Of course you need to invest in the expensive coated paper to take advantage of this enhanced resolution - but I tried it out and I've got to say that I've never seen a better quality photo-quality print output from an inkjet printer at any price. In a few words - it's bloody impressive!

Still, few people will be buying a printer solely to print ultra-high quality photographic images and given that most low-cost colour scanners are only capable of between 300 and 600 dpi resolutions, the printer's "potential" is unlikely to be fully used in most home or small-office situations.

Fortunately the 600 is also extremely good at printing on plain paper. Even at its lowest resolution 360x360 dpi, the results are every bit as good as your average 300 dpi laser but with the added bonus that you can throw in colour when and where you want.

Naturally I did what all new colour printer users do - I scanned and printed a copy of a $20 note. This proved just how easy it has become to produce incredibly accurate copies of paper money. Although my scanner is only capable of 400 dpi, the results of this exercise were astounding in the realism of the results. Okay, put a real note up against the copy and you'll spot the difference immediately - and of course there's no watermark or foil strip - but viewed in isolation it would be very easy to deceive with such a copy, right up until the point when you feel the weight and texture of the paper.

And before anyone tells me off for creating forged notes - I did doctor the scanned images so that they couldn't be mistaken for real notes and I only printed one side. No I'm not about to enter the counterfeiting business, but it's a worry that modern technology makes it so easy for those who might.

Ease of use and speed Just chuck some paper into the feeder chute, hit the print button, adjust the paper type and resolution settings to suit and away she goes. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to drive this printer.

On the speed front it stacks up pretty well for a printer of this price. Not as fast as a laser - except you might get the first page out of the 600 while a laser is still warming up.

If high-volume printing is your goal then the 600 is not the best choice from either a per-page cost or speed perspective but for most home and small business situations it's very good. Even the ultra-high resolution mode printed faster than I'd expected for a printer in this price bracket.

It's worth noting that this printer isn't as quiet as you might expect for an ink-jet. It's certainly noisier than most lasers but the noise level certainly won't wake anyone at night or annoy fellow workers.

Running costs Ink-jet printers will always be more expensive to run than dot-matrix or lasers, but the price differential is dropping.

If you're happy to use plain paper (and with the 600 most people will be for all but the most important presentation or image graphics) then your only costs will be ink cartridges.

The cartridge life is reputed to be around 500 pages for the black and 300 pages for the colour - both at 5% coverage. Those cartridges have a street price of around $35 and $55 respectively which brings the "per-page" cost (excluding paper) to around seven cents per page for plain black text and maybe 25 cents a page for mixed colour and black. If you print lots of images or run at higher resolutions then obviously the costs will be higher.

These running costs are not suited to large-volume printing but they're pretty much in line with other ink-jet printers on the market.

If you're going to use the special ink-jet type paper then you'll be paying around $40-$50 for matte coated paper suitable for use at resolutions of up to 720 dpi or anywhere up to $2 per sheet for high-quality gloss paper for use in the ultra-high res 1440 dpi mode.

Personally I'm just thankful that the 600 produces such excellent results on plain old copy paper.

The Aardvark summary Here's the bottom line...

PRO'S:

  • Truly excellent print quality
  • Good printing speeds even at higher resolutions
  • Reliable, full-featured drivers for Win'95
  • Doesn't need coated paper for most jobs
  • You can't get better than 1440 dpi

CON'S:

  • Lame help program tries to infect your hard disk with useless WAV and image files
  • Ambiguous ink cartridge installation instructions
  • Not as cheap to run as a laser or dot-matrix printer

PRICES
The street price for this printer seems to vary from around $550+GST to 600+GST. At either price it's pretty good value for those who need high-quality colour printing.


Aardvark says:
I've always thought of Epson printers as pretty much "middle-ground" in terms of performance and value but the 600 has shown that perspective to be a little dated. Epson have done an excellent job on this machine and it certainly appears to provide the best quality output I've seen from machines in this price range. Anyone who's looking for something other than a "budget" ink-jet printer couldn't go far wrong investing in the Epson Stylus Color 600.

Bottom line:
"If you need colour this might just be the best machine you'll find under $900. The one I've got here isn't going back!."


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