Epson is still the leader, but are there any alternatives?

By Ron Ellis

Rumor has it that Epson has already shut down the x800 printer production line as they ready new models for fall production. Whenever this has happened in the past there has always been a three to six-month window in which Epson printers are not available.

In addition to the printer changes and the interruption in availability, Epson has recently discontinued production of some very popular papers used by many in the industry. Epson Semimatte Proofing Paper, Epson Premium Photo Semimatte and others have been discontinued. At times like this people begin to wonder if there are alternatives to the Epson product line. In the past, specifically for proofing, there haven’t been many alternatives. At this point in time there are some new alternatives to Epson.


A dominant player in proofing

               Why is Epson so popular? What has led to the dominance of Epson in the proofing market? Epson proofs are crisp and beautiful. The printers have never been the fastest, and in markets like presentation or banner printing, they perform poorly. For proofing, however, Epson printers have always produced superior output. Simply put, in the past you could not get as nice a proof using other printers — and the other printers had a variety of issues when used for proofing such as lightfastness, fading, and stability.

With all this, during the last Epson printer shortage when new printers would not be available for months and months, customers declined to try any other brand of printer and held out under great hardship for an Epson.

               Alternatives have been there but they were problematic. Alternative printers like the HP 5000 were often installed for proofing but the proofs faded if left in light, and the thermal print head required daily recalibration. Canon proofs in the past also faded and complaints of fuzziness were common. All of the factors contributed to the popularity of Epson proofers for proofing.

               Things have changed in the past year though. Both HP and Canon have introduced new inkjet models that target the proofing market. These new printers are being installed in proofing environments and the reports of their performance are coming back.  The printers are different; old preconceptions about these manufacturers and the viability of their printers for proofing are no longer valid, however, the question remains: Is Epson better? Today, if you had to buy a printer for proofing, would you buy an Epson?


What are the new printers?

               HP and Canon both have new printers designed for the proofing market. All of the printers are markedly improved over the older models offered by the manufacturer. The HP product line includes three new printers that are potential Epson alternatives — the HP Designjet Z2100 and Z3100 Photo Printers, and the HP Designjet Z6100.

One of the interesting new noteworthy additions to all of the HP Z Series printers is an imbedded spectrophotometer, which RIPs like EFI Colorproof XF and GMG Colorproof put to use.

All of the Z-Series printers contain an onboard spectrophotometer, but many use it for relinearizing rather than for color matching. Even though it is a genuine GretagMacbeth i1, it doesn’t necessarily give the identical results as an external i1. Those end-users benefit from using the embedded i1 to pull the printer back to a known state, easily a capability of the embedded i1.

               Further, the HP Designjet Z2100, Z3100, and Z6100 differ from older HP Designjet printers because they use a new HP pigmented ink, called HP Vivera Ink. HP’s pigmented ink offers a more than comparable level of light-fastness and stability compared to Epson K3 inks. The HP Designjet Z2100 and Z6100 printers use eight inks, and the Z3100 uses 12 inks. The HP Z-Series printers image at a resolution of up to 2400 dpi; although for proofing most people will be using them at a resolution of 600 or 1200 dpi. At these resolutions, output looks equivalent to that of Epson output. Not exactly the same, because no output looks exactly the same, but the comparison is acceptable according to most users I have spoken with. The Z2100 and Z3100 are available in 24-inch and 44-inch models. The Z6100 is available in widths of both 42-inch and 60-inch.

While the HP Designjet Z2100 and Z3100 move along well, the Z6100 is the speed demon of the bunch, able to output a full 40-inch press sheet in approximately
one minute. This combination of speed and size makes the Z6100 a unique offering that has been selling well and impressing people with its speed and performance. The HP Z-Series printers use semi-permanent, end-user replaceable printheads.

When a printhead needs to be replaced, it can be done so easily and inexpensively. Epson’s theory is that printheads should be ‘set’ at the factory and last the life of the printer. Epson printhead replacement is expensive.  It is often less expensive to replace the entire printer.


Canon products now compete with Epson

               Canon also has some new printers which directly compete against the Epson K3 printers and has a longstanding relationship with EFI. The  iPF5100 (17-inch) and iPF6100 (24-inch) as well as the iPF8000 (44-inch) and iPF9000 (60-inch) are all faster than the Epson’s they compete with, and with these new printers print quality has also improved.

At 1200 DPI, a 40-inch press sheet can be printed in approximately six to nine minutes. These printers are run at up to 2400 dpi and are all 12 color printers using Canon LUCIA pigment based inks which have improved stability and lightfastness as good or better than Epson. Canon printers also contain user replaceable printheads, so that when a printhead fails it can be easily and inexpensively replaced. The iPF9000 (60-inch) as well as the iPF8000 both come with 330 ml tanks (much larger than Epson) and can also be replaced with 700 ml tanks. The iPF5100 (17-inch) and 6100 (24-inch) both come with a built-in densitometer for color calibration, so if multiple machines are being used, all printers can be calibrated to 2 delta Es of one another, or if proofs are being made in multiple locations, constancy can be maintained and managed.


Sounds great but what to watch for

               Of course these printers sound great, but there are issues for reproduction professionals should know. Most of these devices are new printers and have some glitches that are being worked out by their engineers and the RIP software developers.

Before investing in one of these printers it is wise to request samples of your most challenging jobs and see if they make the grade. For most users these printers may stand up to the Epson fine, but there are some cases in which the Epson may be better for your application. Only you can evaluate whether these proofers meet your needs. One way to evaluate — make a sample and hold it up to an Epson. The proof is in the proof.

About the author: Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at