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How to pick a photo printer that's right for you

If you're thinking about printing more photos this holiday, and need a new printer, there are three main varieties of  printers to consider when you go shopping.
Image: Epson PictureMate Zoom
Epson's PictureMate Zoom snapshot printer ($230 retail) includes an integrated CD burner, so you can copy your photos to CD as you print them. Epson
/ Source: PC World

The holidays are upon us, which means you'll be seeing more friends and family in the next few weeks than you usually do the rest of the year. You'll be taking a lot of photos and sharing them. Rather than sending your guests a digital file in e-mail (how festive!), consider printing some photos and sending them home with bright, sharp prints.

Need a printer? No problem. I've got four tips to help you make a smart choice when you go to buy a photo printer. And after you get that shiny new printer, be sure to check out my five tips for getting great-looking prints with it.

1. Choose the type of printer
Printers are as varied as snowflakes. Well, maybe not quite that much, but there are three main varieties of photo printers you'll need to think about when you go shopping.

Inkjet: You're probably familiar with traditional inkjet printers, which print text documents as well as photos. Inkjet printers accommodate standard 8.5-by-11-inch paper, which means you can make 8-by-10-inch prints. With an oversized inkjet, you can make larger prints, like 14-by-17 inches. It all depends upon the printer's specs.

Inkjet printers also vary by how many inks they use to create the color on the printed page. You'll find printers that use anywhere from four to a dozen cartridges. More colors usually help generate more photorealistic images, especially when reproducing flesh tones and shadows.

Color laser: Color laser printers are another affordable option. Inkjet printers are mainly photo printers that can also do duty for text; think of color lasers as superb document printers that also do a respectable job with photos.

You won't want to rely on a laser printer for all your photo printing duties, though. Laser-printed photos lack the brightness, saturation, and clarity you'll want in photos to frame or share. I use a laser printer to make drafts of photos that I will print on a photo printer later.

Snapshot printer: If all you want is the ability to make great prints, then check out a snapshot printer. These compact printers are generally about the size and shape of a lunch box, so they don't take up much space (and can even be somewhat portable).

Snapshot printers typically use a printing process called dye sublimation, which means they work by transferring heated dyes to special paper. You might not care about the process itself, but the results are some of the best-looking photos you will ever see from a home printer.

The downside: You'll have to look long and hard to find a model that prints any bigger than 4-by-6, so these printers are designed for sharing small prints. And the printers are photo-only —they're not designed to print text.

2. Compare real print samples
Printer specifications are fine, but they don't tell you any more about what a printer will print than megapixels tell you how good your photos will be.

For the best results, go to a store that has printers on display and ask to see real samples. Often, there will be samples on display with the printer. Some stores will let you print something on the spot.

Don't be wowed by bright colors and deep saturation. Instead, check out fine details like hair and the weave in fabric. Also, look for how much detail you can see in the brighter and darker regions of the photo.

Epson's Stylus Photo 1400 printer (retail price: $300) is among those that use archival inks, which are supposed to resist fading for 100 years or more.Epson

3. Think about the future
No matter how great inkjet prints look today, they'll eventually fade. How long your prints will look good is called lightfastness, and it's a selling point for some printers (like, for example, the Epson Stylus Photo 1400).

Printers like this one use "archival" inks, which are supposed to resist fading for 100 years or more (which, honestly, is longer than old-fashioned prints from film cameras were designed to last). You can also look for printers that use pigment-based inks; these are typically archival.

4. Consider convenience
In the days of olde, you'd usually print by transferring photos from your camera to your PC, and then sending the prints you liked to the printer. You can certainly still do that if you like, but these days, it's often easier to print directly from your camera to your printer, leaving your PC out of the loop.

Of course, you'll want to make sure your potential printer has a PictBridge connection (most do), which allows you to connect your camera directly to the printer.

But an LCD display is also important so you can see your photos and edit them before printing(some models allow you to crop, remove red eye, and make other changes). Another option: Some printers have memory card slots, so you can transfer photos without connecting a cable to the camera.

One snapshot printer, the Epson PictureMate Zoom, even includes an integrated CD burner, so you can copy your photos to CD as you print them.

Making your best prints
Suppose you have just taken an award-winning photo with perfect composition, great exposure, and a Pulitzer Prize-worthy subject. Or, at the very least, you've managed to avoid the five most common photo mistakes, and you want to hang the result in the living room.

In the old days, photo printing was left to the professionals who developed our film. These days, though, we often print our digital photos at home, on our own equipment. All our hard work is for naught if we don't take care during the printing process. That means we have to master the art of photo printing.

Here are five tips to help you get better results from your inkjet photo printer.

1. Choose the right print size
Computers are obedient machines: You can tell your PC to print a photo at any size and it'll comply. That doesn't mean the results will be any good, though. You need enough pixels in your image file for the printed-out photo to be sharp at the desired print size. There are a lot of factors that go into print quality, but it's safe to say that you need at least 200 dots per inch (dpi) for acceptable image quality, and at least 300 dpi for excellent print quality. But what does that mean, and how can you figure out the best print size for a particular photo?

You can ignore any properties in your photo editing program that report a particular dpi value or recommend a particular print size; that's hogwash. Instead, just do this: Determine the maximum recommended print size by dividing the photo's pixel size by 200 (or 300 for higher-quality prints).

Not sure how many pixels are in your photo? Right-click the image file's icon, choose Properties, and click the Details tab. You should see the width and height listed in pixels. (Or, if you are using Windows Vista or Windows 7, you can just click a photo's icon and look for the information in the details pane at the bottom of the folder.)

Suppose your photo measures 2,000-by-3,400 pixels. Divide each dimension by 200, and you get 10-by-17. That means you could print the photo as large as 10-by-17 inches and get acceptable results. If you want a higher-quality printout, divide the pixel size by 300. That gives you 6-by-11, which means you should print it no larger than about 5-by-7 inches for the best results.

Of course, this is approximate; a lot of other factors affect photo quality. This technique, however, gives you a good rule of thumb for deciding whether a photo will print well.

2. Choose the right paper
You can get some stunning photos from modern inkjet printers, but not just any paper will do. Plain paper, for example, absorbs the ink. This washes out the colors and destroys fine detail, reducing the print's overall sharpness. It's fine for text, and you can use it to print drafts of your digital images. For best results, use the printer manufacturer's recommended photo paper.

Of course, you're still not out of the woods. Photo paper comes in a variety of formats. The most common varieties are glossy and semi-glossy (also called matte). Glossy is exactly what it sounds like: It's shiny and gives your photos a resounding visual punch. Glossy paper is very reflective, though, and it can generate glare in direct sunlight. It also smudges easily.

If you want a less reflective, less smudgy alternative, consider matte. It's not quite as sharp as glossy paper, and fine detail can get lost in the surface —but, personally, I like the freckled finish of matte paper.

3. Stick With the manufacturer's ink
I might not win any popularity contests by saying this, but I highly recommend using the ink recommended (and sold) by your printer's manufacturer.

Printers aren't stand-alone gadgets that work with any fluid you pour into them, like oil in a car engine. They're engineered to work best with specific ink formulations, and using "remanufactured" or refilled ink cartridges will result in lower-quality prints. This can be especially obvious when you're printing photos.

4. Verify the print settings
When you're ready to print a photo, double-check all the important settings. You might think that's obvious, but you'd be surprised how often you get lousy prints because some of these settings are loopy.

Is the paper loaded correctly? Photo paper is designed to be printed on a particular side. If you print on the wrong side, the ink won't absorb properly, and your photo won't look good.

Did you set the right paper type and ink type in the print settings dialog? Be sure those settings match the specs on the box. It's not so bad if you configure the printer for premium paper and quality ink when printing on plain paper, but you definitely don't want the printer to think you're using plain paper or draft settings when outputting to high-quality photo paper.

5. Maintain your printer
Take good care of your printer. Inkjet printers have finicky print nozzles that occasionally clog and need to be cleaned. Every month or two, it's a good idea to run your printer's print head cleaning and print head alignment utilities (usually available from the printer options in the Windows Control Panel).

And you shouldn't let your printer go unused for weeks at a time. Even if you have a printer that's intended just for photos, I highly recommend printing on it at least once a week whether you need to or not. That keeps the nozzles from gumming up, which can spell disaster.