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Back to Full Olympus Camedia P-400 Printer Review
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|Olympus Camedia P-400 Printer
(Review first posted 12/28/2000)
|314 dpi resolution, continuous-tone pixels (no "dithering").
|16.7 million colors (8 bits per color), 7.68 megapixel print engine resolution.
|90-second printing speed.
|Cropping, Frame, Background, and Stamp functions.
|Prints up to 50 copies at a time.
Finally! A high-quality, easy-to-operate, dye-sub color printer that breaks the $1,000 price barrier! The Olympus Camedia P-400 may seem pricey to photographers who are just looking to output family photos (it retails for just under $1,000), but to professionals who are familiar with the exceptional quality of the continuous-tone, dye-sublimation, heat-transfer process, the P-400 represents a genuine breakthrough in affordable photorealistic printing, and the potential to compete with professional models costing thousands more. Measuring about the size of an average to large desktop laser printer, the P-400 has a medium-size footprint (10.8 x 16.8 x 12.4 inches/ 275 x 427 x 315mm) and weighs 26.45 pounds (12kg).
One of the most exciting features of the P-400 is that you can print directly from standard memory cards without going through a computer. (It must be noted though, that standalone card-based printing is much slower than printing from a computer.) The printer's operating menus allow you to make layout adjustments, color corrections, sharpness adjustments, and even add creative filters, frames, and backgrounds. Two card slots on the front of the printer accept either SmartMedia (3.3V) or PCMCIA PC cards, plus CompactFlash or MemoryStick cards when used with a PC card adapter. In addition, the P-400 has USB and parallel ports for connecting to PC or Macintosh computers. This wide range of interface options gives the P-400 the flexibility to work with any brand of digital camera or computer using standard storage options and file formats. (A computer cable must be purchased separately, if you don't already own one.)
An accompanying P-400 Software Utility CD includes the necessary printer drivers (compatible with Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, and 2000, and Macintosh OS 8.6 and 9) and a limited interface application for printing from the computer. The Camedia P-400 can read DCF, JPEG/JFIF, Exif, or TIFF file types, as well as any DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) files. A starter kit supplied with the printer includes five sheets of A4 paper and enough dye to make five prints. (This raises a major question regarding inkjet vs. dye-sublimation printers -- the cost of consumables. Our estimates put the per-print cost of an 8 x 10-inch photograph at about $1.80 for paper and ink. Compare that to an 8 x 10 print from an inkjet printer which typically falls in the $2 to 2.50 range, although the use of third-party ink cartridges can reduce that.)
The P-400 uses a three-color (cyan, magenta, yellow) heat transfer process to produce its continuous-tone, dye-sublimation prints. It requires four passes of the printer head to produce a complete print, including one pass for each of the three colors and one for the protective laminate overcoat. Olympus estimates that the entire process, at its "fastest" speed, is 90 seconds per print. We found that to be a bit optimistic, especially when printing images directly from a memory card. Our time for printing typical digicam images was about two and a half minutes, whether from card or computer. High-resolution TIFF images though, took as long as four minutes when printed from a card. The P-400 has a maximum printing area of 2,400 x 3,200 dots, which at 314 dots-per-inch resolution, translates to 7.64 x 10 inches (194 x 256mm) on A4 size paper. Color gradations are 24 bits (8 bits per color, 256 levels) to produce approximately 16.7 million colors.
The Camedia P-400 offers four basic printing modes: Standard, Card, Photo Album, and Index. In Standard printing mode, you can print one image per page at 7.64 x 10-inches (A4 sheets, overall size 8.25 x 11.7 inches) or 7.64 x 6.4-inches (A5 sheets, overall size 8.25 x 7.9 inches), or you can choose to print up to 16 images on A4 paper and six images on A5. In the Card printing mode, you can print two or four postcards per page on an Olympus special-purpose card stock. The Photo Album mode is a little more creative, allowing you to print several images per page, with a background or border to make it look like a photo album. Finally, the Index printing mode provides you with a thumbnail index of all the images on the memory card, with the file name of each image printed on the page next to it.
The Image Adjustment menu provides minor image-editing tools to fine-tune sharpness, gamma, brightness, and contrast. There's also a variety of filters, stamps, backgrounds, and layouts for creative photographers who want to produce greeting cards, album pages, or decorative matting to frame their pictures.
Design, Functions, and Controls
The Olympus P-400 body measures 10.8 inches deep x 16.8 inches wide x 12.4 inches high (without the paper trays). The printer's orientation is slightly different from a standard ink-jet model, in that the paper cassette feeds from the top, sending the paper down through the printer, where the thermal heads transfer each dye color (cyan, magenta, and yellow) in a separate pass. The printing process is completed with the application of a protective laminate overcoat. The print is then ejected from the bottom of the printer onto an output tray that sits parallel to the tabletop.
The printer cassette cover is the largest single element on the unit. You open it by lowering the two eject buttons on either side of the cover and swinging it out and downward. The thermal head, which uses heat to transfer dye from a carrier ribbon to the paper, and a thermal head sensor to regulate the output, are affixed to the inside of the cover. The large ink cassette has two horizontal bars, one on top and the one on the bottom, with a flat media transfer area in between. The top bar feeds the transfer ribbon down across the thermal head (when the cover is closed) and the bottom bar acts as a take-up spool for the spent ribbon. The cassette is inserted with the flat side facing toward the paper, and the two rolls cradle the thermal head and sensor when the door is closed.
The P-400's paper feeder cassette is of fairly standard design, with a dust cover at the bottom to protect the loaded paper. Each batch of paper comes with a protective sheet on top for handling. Once you remove the protective sheet, you can't touch the receiver papers with your fingers, or the oils from your fingers will cause very visible fingerprints on your final images. Both A4 and A5 papers come in an 8.25-inch width. The A5 sheets are shorter by 3.5 inches, which is accommodated by a retractable paper guide inside the cassette. To load, you insert the cassette as far as it will go into the cassette compartment at the top of the printer.
The Operational panel is located between the printer cover and the paper cassette compartment. It includes a Mode dial with four function settings on the left (Input, Paper, Setup, and Picture Select), four printing formats on the right (Standard, Card, Photo Album, and Index), and a Picture Select in the center.
Next to the Mode dial is a set of Access Indicators: SmartMedia, PC Card, Printing, and Error. The SmartMedia and PC Card lamps light up when you select Input on the Mode dial (if the appropriate card is inserted), and flash when the card is being accessed. The Printing light flashes when data is being received or processed, and glows when an image is being printed. The Error lamp lights when a problem occurs with printing. A readout of the error is displayed on the LCD panel.
To the right of the Mode dial, the LCD panel previews images that are to be printed and menu options for various functions. The arrow buttons to the right of the LCD are used to scroll through images and menus to select detailed parameters and settings for each mode. A large Print button on the far right starts the printing process.
The LCD panel is one of the few areas we found to criticize on the P-400: It's a monochrome design (black and white), which made it more difficult to see the photos displayed on it. Our feeling was that a $1,000 printer should have had a color panel on it. Then again though, given that the P-400 sells for perhaps a third the price of competing units, we're probably lucky to have an LCD panel of any sort.
Along the bottom of the Operational panel are the Menu/Print button for viewing menus and to cancel printing. The OK/Select button highlights menu selections or switching select on and off when printing a single image. The LCD Adjustment Button adjusts the brightness level of the screen.
SmartMedia and PC Card slots for reading memory cards are on the right of the printer cover, with an eject button for removing the larger PC Cards.
A USB connector for Macintosh and Windows 98/2000 computers and a Serial Port for using Parallel cables with Windows 95/98/MT 4.0/2000 computers are stationed on the back of the printer for direct image transfer from a computer. The AC power connector is also on the back panel, and the On/Off switch is located on the front panel, next to the paper output tray.
The Mode dial has four function settings: Input allows you to choose between four options for image data transfer: Smart Media, PC Card, Parallel Port, or USB; Paper is used to set up the printer for either A4 or A5 size papers; and Setup provides four Setup menu options: Image Adjustment, which controls Sharpness, Gamma, Brightness, and Contrast; Basic Setup, which sets the Date order, reverts to default All Clear, or provides a Demo Mode for use in showrooms or dealerships; Background Setup, which enables you to select a background image and then process it with specific effects, such as fading (Pale All and Pale Edge) and Filter (B&W and Sepia); and Download, which allows you to import more background images or illustrative stamps from the P-400 Utility software on your computer.
The Picture Select option on the Mode dial allows you to select a picture, use the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the index, and confirm it by pressing the OK/Select Button below the LCD Panel.
The first step in the Camedia P-400 printing process is to select how image source files are delivered to the printer's memory. They can be input directly using the SmartMedia or PC card slots on the front of the printer, or they can be downloaded from an external computer connection using a parallel or USB cable (we found this to be by far the faster of the two options). If you are using a memory card to deliver the files, you must first insert the card into the appropriate reader and then turn the printer's Mode dial to Input. The LCD display will present a menu of four options: SmartMedia, PC Card, Parallel Port, or USB. (Note that the PC Card slot can be used to read CompactFlash or Memory Stick cards if they are first inserted into the appropriate PC card adapter. The printer ships with an adapter for CompactFlash cards.) Using the left and right arrow buttons, scroll through the menu to choose either SmartMedia or PC Card. The LCD screen will display the word "Reading..." and an adjacent access lamp will flash next to the appropriate selection as it downloads the images.
When the image data is finished downloading, the screen displays the total number of image data files downloaded and the number of images that are formatted as Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) files. If an Error message is displayed, it means the PC card is unrecognizable, or the card was removed from the printer while still accessing image data (a fatal error!).
Next, turn the Mode dial to the Paper position to select one of two paper sizes: A4 (8.25 x 11.7 inches) or A5 (8.25 x 7.9 inches). Make sure the paper in the cassette matches the format you've selected. NOTE: From this point on, printer functions described here are only available for image data provided on a memory card, if the P-400 is set up to download images from a personal computer, the remaining functions must be completed via computer, using the provided printer software.
Once the memory card and paper size are established, the next step is to select images for printing. Turn the Mode dial to Picture Select to initialize the Picture Select screen on the printer's LCD. This allows you to scroll through the images on the memory card using the left and right arrow buttons. Confirm the pictures you want printed by pressing the OK/Select button. If you want to cancel an image, simply press the OK/Select button again.
To choose the number of prints you want made of an image, press the Menu/Print button. You'll see a menu of options on the screen. In the Number option box, use the left and right arrow buttons to select the number of images you want printed. You can print up to 50 copies of any one image.
Just below the Number selection, a Trimming option allows you to crop the selected image, if necessary. Once the Trimming option is activated, a set of crop marks appears on the screen, and the arrow keys drive the direction and amount of cropping (up and down arrow keys crop vertically and left and right arrow keys crop horizontally). There are five levels of preset cropping in both horizontal and vertical directions. Once you've determined the trim size you want, press the OK button to set the crops. (Note: If your image has already been cropped in DPOF, the printer will automatically set its own crop marks. You can change those specifications by scrolling to the New option on the LCD display and pressing OK.)
If you want to print all of the images on the card, you can scroll to the bottom of the Picture Select menu and use the left and right arrow keys to activate the All Select function. Select OK, and all of your images will be printed. Just keep in mind that when using the All Select option, the P-400 doesn't allow you to set the number of prints, crop images, or use the DPOF settings originally selected in the camera.
Once you've selected the images you want printed, you'll need to set the printing mode. The Mode dial provides four printing options -- Standard, Card, Photo-Album, and Index -- to output your images.
Standard mode prints one or more images on a single page (up to 16 images on A4 paper, and up to six images on A5). When the Standard setting is selected on the Mode dial, the first selected image appears on the preview screen. A number indicator on the bottom tells you which image is being displayed out of the total number of selections (for example, #1 of of 2 = 1/2, or #5 of 6 = 5/6). The right and left arrow keys scroll through the available images as they are displayed on the preview screen. Also at the bottom of the LCD display is the number of copies to be printed (x 1, x 2, etc.). This can be changed with the up and down arrow keys (from one to 50 prints).
To view the Standard Menu, press the Menu button. Options include Layout, Print Data (On/Off), and Filter (On/Off). Select Layout and press OK. The screen will display one possible page layout on the paper size you are using. Additional Layout options can be viewed by scrolling through the options with the left and right arrow buttons. Simply stop at the layout you prefer and press OK. You will automatically return to the Standard menu. There you can opt to have the Print Date feature On (prints the date and time on the image) or leave it Off. Finally, the Filter feature provides two optional printing filters: B&W (Black & White) and Sepia. B&W gives you a monochrome version of your color image and Sepia prints a black-and-white image with a sepia tone, reminiscent of old-time photography.
Once you've selected all of your options, you can return to the Standard printing preview menu by pressing the OK/Select button. The preview will show which image you've selected and how many prints you want. Scroll to the next image, and repeat the process to prepare the next image, and so on. Once you have all of your print orders entered, you can literally "batch-process" your prints and let the printer complete your order. At any time, you can press the Menu/Print button to halt the printing process. (It may take several presses before the cancel order registers.)
The Card printing mode works with Olympus' special printing card stock, which is perforated to create two or four post cards, depending on the paper stock you're using. Select the Card setting on the Mode dial to bring up the selected images on the LCD preview screen. Two Size options are available: Post Card and 4 Precut. The Post Card setting accommodates two images on the page, and the 4 Precut fits four images.
Like the Standard menu, the Card menu offers Print Date and Filter options, plus it offers a Stamp feature that allows you to put whimsical icons anywhere on the print. Ten stamps are provided in the printer's memory and you can access up to 100 more on the accompanying software CD. The printer's internal stamp options include bars of music, a birthday cake, fireworks, palm trees, and more -- all accessible by scrolling through the Stamp options with the left and right arrow buttons. Once you select a stamp you like, you can set the print size (50 to 100 percent), orientation, and position on the image.
Additional stamps are downloaded by going to the Setup menu and scrolling to the Download option. You must designate the download source using the left and right arrow buttons. Choose either a USB or parallel connection and press OK. Start up the P-400 Utility software on your computer. It will give you the option of downloading Backgrounds or Stamps. When you've selected the category, you'll have the opportunity to click through all of the selections and view them in the dialog box. Click Download for those files you wish to install on the P-400.
|Spooling to Disk
(incl. pic. select)
|1st color done
|2nd color start
|2nd color done
3rd color start
|3rd color done
While not quite rising to Olympus' quoted specifications, the print times achieved by the P-400 are lightning-fast when compared to the print times of many photo-quality inkjet printers. (Which generally have print times measured in many minutes in their highest-quality printing modes.) Overall, the P-400 is pretty close to as good as it gets when it comes to photo-quality print times.
This is an area that's difficult to evaluate accurately for inkjet printers (due to widely varying ink coverage in different photos), but quite simple to assess for dye-sublimation printers like the P-400. In the case of dye-subs, the print cost is always the same, whether you're covering the entire page with color, or just printing type. This is because dye-sub printers use an entire "page" of their ribbon for each print, regardless of whether they're just printing a few words of printed type or a full photograph. (The ribbon contains enough pigment to produce the maximum black at every point of the page. Unused dye just remains on the carrier ribbon and gets spooled onto the take-up reel when the print is completed.)
In the past, in addition to the high cost of the print mechanism itself, dye-sublimation printers had fairly high consumables costs as well. Dye-sub media cost has steadily dropped over time, from the $5 or so per sheet of several years ago to an average of several dollars today. The P-400 has assumed a leadership role in this respect as well though, with a total per-print cost of a little under $1.80.
A per-print cost of $1.80 actually compares quite favorably with consumables costs of typical photo-quality inkjet printers. Inkjet users frequently have a poor sense of just what each print they make costs them, and manufacturers have generally been reluctant to raise the issue. Beyond a cost of $1 per sheet for the highest-grade inkjet paper (and some premium brands go higher than that), typical ink costs for full-coverage photographs can easily run $2 or more, using manufacturer's ink sets. (Third party inks can significantly reduce that price, but to date we personally have had bad luck with third-party inks, clogging the heads on two printers.) Thus, comparing manufacturer-supplied media, the P-400 comes out looking very good relative to the photo-quality inkjets.
Print Longevity & Durability
This is a rather uncertain area, but one of great concern to our readers, thanks in part to the bad name inkjet technology has generally gotten for itself, arising from prints from some devices that fade noticeably in less than a year even in brightly-lit home and office interiors. (Some excuse could perhaps be made for fading in direct sunlight, but just hanging on the wall in a home or office? Really!)
Dye-sublimation printers generally have somewhat more stable dye sets than traditional inkjet printers, and some (like the P-400) also incorporate a UV-resisting overcoat later to provide further protection. Unfortunately, there is no reliable third-party data available yet on the P-400's print life, so we're a bit up in the air on fade resistance. The images are quite durable though, resistant to damage through scratching or exposure to water, thanks to the transparent overcoat layer that the printer deposits across the entire image area of the print as a final step in the printing process.
Bottom line, the P-400's prints are likely to be both more durable and longer-lasting than those of most inkjet printers, but perhaps less so than the latest, pigment-based ink sets. Overall, we'd expect P-400 prints to last about as long as conventional color photo prints, stored under similar conditions.
Operation and User Interface
The P-400's user interface is relatively simple, though it did take some time with the manual to completely understand the controls. (At 150 pages, this manual uses a lot of illustrations to walk you through each function from start to finish. We can't complain about the detail, but it was a little hard to navigate) The black-and-white LCD panel functions well as a menu display, but having the image previews in black-and-white was somewhat limiting, especially when we wanted to use the image enhancement functions to tweak gamma, brightness, and contrast.
The printer features relatively few control buttons, each of which is clearly labeled as to its function. The only button we missed was a Cancel button to back out of menu options. Instead, you have to turn the Mode dial to another setting to cancel out the menu. This worked just fine once we figured it out, but it would be much simpler to include a Cancel button. LED lamps beside the LCD panel report what type of memory card the printer is reading, as well as the printing and error status. The P-400 has a very informative demo mode, which should be beneficial to first time users.
Mode Dial: Located on the far left side of the operation panel, this dial selects the printing mode, as well as various camera settings modes. The following options are available:
Menu/Print Cancel Button: Just beneath the LCD panel, this button accesses the settings menus when in any of the four printing modes, and also cancels printing once the printer has begun the printing process.
OK/Select Button: To the right of the Menu/Print Cancel button, this button confirms menu selections. In Picture Select mode, this button selects images on the memory card for printing.
LCD Adjustment Button: Calls up an LCD adjustment screen, for increasing or decreasing the brightness of the display.
Arrow Buttons: These four arrow buttons (one in each cardinal direction) are located on the right side of the LCD panel. They navigate through printer settings menus and options. The top arrow button allows you to rotate images, as well as change the number of copies to be printed.
Print Button: To the right of the arrow buttons, this very large button starts the printing process when printing from a memory card.
Power On/Off Button: Located on the bottom left of the printer's front panel, this button turns the printer on or off.
Printer Mode Menus
These menus are accessed by pressing the Menu button when the Mode dial is set to the following printing modes.
Standard Mode Menu:
Card Mode Menu:
Photo Album Mode Menu:
Index Mode Menu:
Picture Select Mode Menu:
The P-400 produced beautiful prints in our testing, easily living up to our expectations based on its dye-sublimation heritage and technology. It has been our experience that, regardless of ever-finer droplet sizes, inkjet prints are always distinguishable from photographic ones by their finish and tonality. Inkjets may boast a broader color gamut (range of reproducible colors), but they never quite convince us that they're photographs. Output from dye-sublimation printers such as the P-400 on the other hand, generally do a better job of "fooling" us into viewing them as photographic prints.
As noted, the P-400 seemed to hold very true to this heritage, producing prints with beautiful tonal gradation, and particularly delicate renderings of pastels and shades of off-white. (A particular problem area for inkjet printers.)
That said, the tonal range of the P-400 didn't extend as far into the deep blacks as we're accustomed to seeing in either photographic or inkjet prints. The three-color (cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes, no separate black) printing process of the P-400 results in blacks that are slightly murky and shallow-looking to our eye, falling short of the jet-black that we prefer.
To its credit though, while P-400 doesn't produce blacks as deep as those from some inkjet printers, it does seem to carry more color information in them. Many inkjet printers have poor black generation that tends to obscure subtle color differences in deep shadows. By contrast, the P-400 maintains very good hue accuracy all the way into the darkest shadows.
Like all dye-sublimation printers, the P-400 has a lower addressable resolution (314 dots per inch) than inkjet printers, but more than makes up for it through its ability to produce continuous-tone gradations for each color in every pixel. (Inkjet printers generally need to "dither" tiny dots of ink across a larger area to achieve smooth tonal gradations. This can lead to a graininess in highlight areas, where fewer droplets of ink are deposited.) Printing from memory cards, or from the host computer in situations where the computer image resolution exactly matched that of the print engine(314 dots per inch), image resolution was everything we could ask for: Edges of objects were rendered smoothly, and fine detail in images was crisp and sharp.
We did encounter rather anomalous resolution behavior when we printed from the computer (either Mac or PC, we tried both) and the incoming file was scaled to something other than the engine resolution. (Either higher or lower image resolutions produced the same results.) When the image and print engine resolutions didn't match, computer-generated prints showed noticeable "jaggies" along high-contrast edges in the image. The photos below show this behavior in two images. The image of the house is taken from the ultrahigh resolution scan we used to produce the House poster used in our digital camera tests. For this test, it was scaled down to 31 megabytes, a good bit more resolution than the printer itself provides. The photo of the flower is from the ISO "SCID" standards disk, converted to RGB via Photoshop before output, at about 15.7 megabytes, a little less than the resolution of the print engine.
The P-400 showed some "jaggies" when printing image files from the computer at other than the engine's native 314 dpi resolution. It didn't seem to matter whether the source images were higher or lower resolution, both conditions resulted in jaggies. Printing the same images from a memory card in standalone mode resulted in perfectly smooth edges. (Note the very large scale of these macro shots though: The jaggies are so small that it's quite likely many users wouldn't notice them.)
Both of these extreme close-ups were shot with multiple close-up lenses attached to an Olympus E-10 4 megapixel SLR we also had in-house for testing about the same time. In both test images, there's a quite noticeable stairstep effect along the edges of objects. This is particularly visible along the eaves of the central dormer from the house, and along the green flower stem against the black background. This is evidently caused by the resampling algorithm used in both the Mac and Windows printer drivers: When the image is resampled to 314 dpi in Photoshop first, the stairsteps disappear, as seen in the lower set of photos. Likewise, printing the same images from a memory cards resulted in smooth edges with no stairsteps. This is somewhat bad news for anyone wanting to just queue up images from Photoshop and let the printer crank away: For best results, you'll need to resample your photos to 314 dpi before printing. On the other hand, the good news is twofold: 1) You can eliminate the stairstepping by resampling -- There's nothing wrong with the print mechanism itself. 2) Given that the problem appears to be in the Windows and Mac print driver software, it's a software issue and therefore amenable to an easy fix. (Release new print drivers.)
Colorimetrically, the P-400 seems fairly accurate, with good, accurate color, albeit not the extreme gamut of some high-end inkjet printers. Bright greens and blues are a little muted, but the overall impression is quite pleasing.
The illustration below shows a projection of the P-400's gamut map in Yxy color coordinate space onto a two-dimensional xy color plane. This gives a basic idea of how broad a range of colors a printer can reproduce, particularly in relation to the RGB color spaces employed by digital cameras and image-editing programs. In the figure, elongated colored area represents the total range of colors that can be seen by the human eye. (For the techies out there, this plot is done in the "Yxy" color space, in which equal distances correspond to equal differences in perceived color value. Thus, it fairly accurately represents the range of human vision.)
(Yxy perceptually uniform color space, 2D projection onto xy plane)
|Relative to the Kodak Personal PictureMaker 200 (low-end standalone photo-grade inkjet), gamut is actually slightly larger, better in the bright reds, greens, and some blues, slightly weaker in purples and some yellow-reds.
|Relative to a standard SWOP color space (standard web offset press - conventional 4-color printing presses), the P-400 shows stronger performance in the blues, much weaker in the green-cyan region.
In each panel of the table, we compare the range of color the P-400 can reproduce with the range of another device. In the first panel, we see a comparison relative to the "sRGB" color space used by many computer monitors. In the middle panel, we compare the P-400's performance with a competing standalone inkjet printer, the Kodak Personal PictureMaker 200. Finally, in the third panel, we compare the P-400's color range with that of a commercial printing press, the so-called "SWOP" standard.
Overall, the P-400 performs very well in the two-dimensional plots, although we can see where it loses some of the bright greens and cyans, as we observed visually. It's also somewhat deficient in the extreme purples, a difficulty apparently shared with many print devices. It's important to note though, that the 2-D plot above only shows the ultimate limits of the printer's gamut, and tells nothing about how well it does across the full tonal range. If you think about it, it's obvious that color rendition will certainly vary as a function of the tone or brightness of an image. Thus, to get a really complete view of what a printer can do color-wise, you really need to look at a three-dimensional plot of its gamut.
This is the comparison between the P-400 (colored outline) and standard SWOP (white) color gamuts, seen in 3-D color space ("Lab" space, in this example). This view clearly shows the extent to which the P-400's color gamut exceeds that of a commercial-grade printing press. This is not at all unusual for a photo printer. One aspect of the P-400's gamut plot that is significant is the way in which the low-luminance area (bottom of the 3-D figure above) covers a fairly broad range of chrominance values, as evidenced by the relatively flat bottom. (Some inkjet printers tend to "neck down" at low brightness values, due to overaggressive black generation algorithms.)
The illustration above shows a three-dimensional plot of the P-400's color
gamut in "Lab" color space, again with the SWOP gamut overlaid on
it. In this view, the printer's gamut is shown by the colored lines, while the
SWOP gamut appears in white. (Even animated like this, it's still hard to see
all the details of the graph: Ideally, this would be a VR object that you could
twirl around in your browser, to see it from all angles. We don't have the software
to do that yet, but as an alternative, Mac users can download the 3D
data file in Rotater
format. The freeware Rotater
program will let you view the gamut map interactively.
The 3-D plot shows just how good the P-400 is, compared to a conventional printing press: The green/cyan limitation shows mainly in the midtone region (admittedly an important area, for accurate rendition of sky colors), while we can now see how much more total color "volume" is covered by the P-400 than by the printing press. Relative to the Kodak Personal PictureMaker 200, the comparison (not shown here) is much closer, with the P-400 winning on some reds and yellows through greens, but losing on purples and dark green through cyan colors.
Overall, we felt that the P-400 had a surprisingly broad gamut, particularly relative to inkjets. (It's been our impression that inkjet printers usually outperform dye-sublimation units, although we'll know more on that score as our printer-testing effort develops.) The colorimetric data did reflect the weakness in midtone cyans and greens that we observed visually. (Cyan is traditionally a tough dye color to fabricate, so this a weakness there is perhaps not hard to understand.) All in all though, very good color.
The Olympus P-400 is a genuine "breakthrough" product, offering full-page (A4) continuous-tone, dye-sublimation printing at an unprecedented price. Not only is the printer itself inexpensive, but at $1.80 per full-size page, the media cost is lower than we've seen before as well. Considerably faster than typical photo-quality inkjet printers operating in their "high quality" modes, the P-400 looks like a good choice for professionals or advanced amateurs looking for high-quality continuous-tone photo printing.
Overall, the Olympus P-400 is a versatile, relatively easy-to-use printer that outputs excellent quality images. We loved being able to print directly from any type of memory card, and the ability to choose from an wide range of page layouts and creative options. The built-in color adjustment and B&W and Sepia filters are nice, but the monochrome LCD limits the image enhancement capabilities when working directly from a memory card. If you have the P-400 connected to a computer, the color enhancement capabilities provided with the printer driver will allow you to make fairly accurate adjustments (provided the computer monitor and printer are calibrated with respect to each other), with on-screen sliders for Gamma, Brightness, and Contrast control. In our tests, the P-400 worked much faster when connected to the computer, as the host's CPU was processing the data.
As a standalone unit, the P-400 provides a lot of creative options, but those options aren't mirrored in the host-computer driver software. Connected to the computer, it becomes a generic (albeit, high-quality) dye-sub printer, providing only standard printer driver functions. It would have been nice if Olympus included some of the creative options in a separate image manipulation software package, so users could achieve the same level of creativity when working from the computer as they can when working off a memory card. For this version anyway, users will have to rely on their own print manipulation programs and plug-ins to be creative.
This printer is well suited for advanced amateurs and serious photographers who are interested in producing more than a standard 4 x 6-inch print, as well as small business owners or government offices that need to supply high-quality product shots, portfolio images, real-estate photos, short-run promotional pieces, or photographic records. Overall, we were very impressed with its performance, versatility, and print quality.
Have you tried Olympus Camedia P-400 Printer? If you're thinking about trying it out, click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Olympus Camedia P-400, or add comments of your own. (Read what's here, then add your own!)
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