PART IV: 5300 DIARY
Final ThoughtsBy MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter
SAN FRANCISCO -- I've rolled up my sleeves at the keyboard here not to bury Kodak's All-in-One printers but to praise them. "The stuff we're stumbling over is all addressable by a nice, warm firmware update," I concluded the last diary installment.
And guess what? Kodak has released a firmware update for all three of its 5000 Series All-in-One printers. Unlike the previous update, the Mac updater was released at the same time as the Windows updater.
But Kodak didn't release a change log with the update, so we have no idea what the update fixes.
In our routine use, we haven't noticed any improvement.
We returned the 5300 a few weeks ago, preferring to concentrate on the 5500. We were concerned about being outnumbered.
But inside they're the same machine. Same printheads, same inks, same feed mechanism (although the 5500 included a duplex attachment to print on both sides of the sheet).
Our experience with the 5500 was as dismal as our experience with the 5300, though. We never did figure out how to get the automatic document feeder to believe a single sheet of bond paper was not photo paper. Even after the firmware update, it continued to warn us against putting photo paper in the ADF.
You can read <A HREF="http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRINT/K5500/K5500.HTM" TARGET="_new">our 5500 review</A> if you want to commiserate.
But before we grappled with the 5500, we took a little trip across the country to Rochester, N.Y. where, at Canal Ponds, we learned a good deal more about the technology behind these printers.
That, to our mind, is the real story.
As disappointing as the 5000 Series has been, the disappointment remains an issue of firmware. Even though the recent release hasn't addressed our concerns, the fact that an updater was released simultaneously for both platforms gives us reason to hope that Kodak will eventually improve these otherwise impressive products.
What's so impressive about them?
In a nutshell, it's the inks and the printhead design. While our 5500 review revealed all we learned at Canal Ponds, we've decided to conclude our 5300 diary with a recap. The 5000 Series won't be last Kodak printers to use this exciting new technology that promises to bring an unparalleled level of quality and permanence to the humble home print.
Before we had a chance to do any serious printing, however, we flew off to Rochester where we snuck around the labs to see what was going on. We ended our tour at Canal Ponds wearing safety goggles and walking through the custom cartridge assembly line with Diana, who put together a cartridge from scratch for us. It's an interesting process.
The various brews of ink formulations had to be packaged in cartridges for testing, of course, and this is where it happened. The custom built equipment, each module of which went through wooden prototypes before the final metal versions, was designed to build and fill the cartridge tanks.
It may not look like much from the outside, but the plastic wrapped cartridge is actually enclosed in Argon gas which is pumped into the bag with the full cartridge before it's sealed. The Argon gas blocks contaminants from entering and cushions the cartridge, which will last up to 18 months stored in the bag.
Under the paper label with the color information is a mylar label that seals the top of the gray vent cap's vent system. It takes both labels to seal against evaporation. The vent cap itself is welded to the black tank using high speed vibration that melts it on in a very precise operation.
Inside, the tank is filled by a large felt that absorbs the ink. No mystery there. Except it would seem to make it difficult to prep the ink by shaking the cartridge.
We asked Diana if she recommended the cartridge be shaken before it's installed (which we do with every cartridge anyway). You do have to shake non-stabilized inks, she said, but Kodak's inks are stable. You don't need to shake them.
Installing a Kodak ink cartridge in the printer is really one of the most pleasant experiences we've had. Just snap it in. It makes contact at six points to stabilize the cartridge as the printhead rapidly moves over the sheet.
But one of our pet peeves about the printhead installation process is just how hard you have to press the delicate printhead to get it seated in the printer. How come is that? Again, it's a hedge against the high velocity at which the head will be traveling. It's secure, no doubt about it.
Earlier Dr. John Reczek proudly showed off the pigment ink technology used in the new system. We've reported on this extensively, beginning with the product introduction announcements (http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRINT/KAO/KAO.htm), because it's really the key to the system. Without these inks, there wouldn't be a Kodak inkjet. So we'll summarize here.
They are pigments not dyes, to begin with. But they are unlike other pigments because they are quite small. Kodak drew on pigment grinding patents going back to its X-ray film emulsion technology to develop its miniscule 20 nanometer ink pigments with polymer binders. The X-ray project was an attempt to replace a dye interlayer designed to prevent color contamination that scattered too much light with a pigment layer that would scatter less light and therefore avoid losing sharpness.
The exceptionally small size of the pigments provides two key benefits, John told us. First, because they scatter less light, they provide a larger gamut than normal size pigments. Second, they increase printhead reliability, clogging the nozzles less frequently.
The color gamut issue is a confusing one. Kodak actually claims their pigment set has a larger gamut than dye-based ink sets, not just other pigments. But in our tests back at the bunker, Canon's dyes exceeded the Kodak pigment gamut, as we reported in our 5300 review (http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRINT/K5300/K5300.HTM). We asked John about that.
The Canon print, he pointed out, has the advantage of having been made with a high fidelity ink set. While the Kodak print relied on a set of just three color inks plus black, the Canon had the advantage of a set of eight inks. As a former pressman, I can vouch for that explanation. And in fact, when you compare the output of an HP three-ink print like those from the A626 we reviewed (http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRINT/HPA626/HPA626.HTM) to the Kodak prints, the Kodak has deeper shadows and more contrast. No doubt using a black ink helps Kodak here, too.
The smaller particles also improve gloss performance, John said. In fact, the clear ink in the color cartridge is not a gloss optimizer (as you might find in an Epson inkset). Instead, it's a polymer coating that is designed to seal the ink in the porous papers Kodak uses. Kodak's papers are not the swellable sheets typically used with dye-based inks to encapsulate the dye in a gelatin layer. They are porous sheets that suck in the liquid vehicle that delivers the pigments to the surface of the sheet. The clear coat seals those pigments on the paper and provides instant-dry handling. That slight tackiness you feel when you touch a print fresh from the printer is that coating. It extends over the full width of the image, we noted, regardless of the printed image size.
One of the more interesting stories in the development of Kodak's pigments involves what they early observed as a haze that would form over the image in some places. The effect was the result of subsequent drops of ink physically distorting the drops of ink that had been previously laid down on the sheet. Light was being scattered by the distortion, forming the haze.
Because Kodak developed every ingredient in the ink, it could optimize the formula to defeat this effect rather than merely find some compromise. There were many variables to working this out, John told us, including hue.
That prompted us to ask if the technology was restricted to a three-hue set of inks. Not at all, John answered enthusiastically, without giving any further details.
Anyone who has used an Epson pigment printer knows about clogged printheads. It's revealing that in our inconstant usage over several weeks, neither Kodak clogged.
Cathie Burke referred somewhat shyly to the Kodak printhead as "permanent." Nothing, of course, is permanent. But what Kodak has achieved in the printhead will pass for permanent.
Cathie explained that the Kodak drop ejector is designed so the heater will never be "attacked mechanically." To eject a drop, a heater in the firing chamber is pulsed on, forming a vapor bubble in the ink. As the bubble expands, surface tension pulls the ink into a droplet. After the heater is pulsed off, in many designs, the vapor bubble collapses onto the heater with significant force, and over time will damage the heater. In the Kodak design, the vapor bubble vents to the atmosphere, and the chamber refills with ink. Fire it as many times as you like, the heating element remains untouched.
That wasn't easy to achieve, she pointed out, even though Kodak had printhead technology from earlier projects. She credited the companies superb fluidic, electrical, and Micro Electro Mechanical Systems or MEMS simulation capabilities, which provide the ability to mimic the real world consequences of a design before it escapes the computer. That saves a lot of time, she said.
Early in development, she confided, they witnessed what seemed to be random early failures of some heating elements. Diagnosing the cause of the problem wasn't simple. But Kodak isn't your average home improvement show. It's more like a collaboration of crack CSI investigators with red ink on their gloves. They investigated the problem using microscopic images of cross sections of the printhead. And that revealed the cause of the problem. An otherwise undetectable variation on the surface over which the ink had to travel was the culprit.
Firing the printhead requires electricity and we were amused to learn how Kodak determined the power consumption had to be 35 volts. In some countries, Cathie said, special permits are required to operate equipment at voltages above 40. Keeping it at 35 volts meant it qualified as an appliance worldwide.
The printhead's quick-firing nozzles operate at 24 kHz, whereas the competition runs between six and 12 kHz. That delivers faster prints and consistent laydown.
But it also illustrates how Kodak's control of the entire design -- ejectors, ink, media -- lets them optimize instead of compromise. And from our chat with John and Cathie it was clear that's something they really love to do.
The jury is still out on the 5000 Series. But not on Kodak's inkjet technology. They're winners. And we look forward to perhaps simpler printers that make them available to do what they do best: produce excellent quality prints that last forever for much less money than competing products.