Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Compact Photo Printers Expand Their Reach

Compact photo printers, the toaster-shaped gadgets made popular by Hewlett-Packard a few years back, can still wow a crowd. They use special photo paper — usually of the 4×6 variety; can accept most digital camera memory cards; and produce beautiful prints right on the spot, making their owners the hits of parties and family gatherings.

These printers are also well-liked because of their ability to work independent of a computer: just plug in your digital camera’s USB cable or a memory card and press print. But because most of these printers have typically lacked good editing options, users were still returning to their computers to make adjustments on important images.

This week we tested three of the newest compact photo printers from HP, Epson and Canon that include features that make them more like mini-computers all their own, including extensive editing options and even internal memory and a CD burner in the HP and Epson, respectively.

But with these new features come higher prices. The $200 Canon Pixma mini260, $250 HP Photosmart A716 and $300 Epson PictureMate Flash cost significantly more than the mini-printers we reviewed almost two years ago. Back then, the most expensive of the three compact photo printers we tested was $200.

We’ve been printing directly from memory cards plugged into these three printers for the past week to see if their higher prices were delivering better results. Overall, we were impressed by the quality of the prints. We were also pleased, though not surprised, to find that the cost of paper and ink supplies has dropped about 10 cents per print, overall. The most inexpensive supply pack, from Epson, offers prints for 27 cents apiece, though this is still about 12 cents more than Kodak Gallery’s online store.

We printed photos taken with two different digital cameras, as well as photos captured on a cellphone’s 1.3-megapixel camera. Neither of the cameras was made by the makers of the printers.

We found the Epson’s prints to be the best overall, even though they cost the least. The Epson produced sharp images with rich, vibrant colors that churned out in just 45 seconds each, the fastest time of the three. And, though we had to do some in-printer editing to produce a red-eye-free image of a friend with the Epson, the final version of this photo also looked good. The Epson is larger and costlier than the others, but the company makes a less expensive, smaller model with the same picture-printing features and quality.

The HP more easily eliminated red-eye with its Photo Fix button, but its other prints looked somewhat less vivid than the Epson’s. And at a speed of two minutes per image, we grew tired of waiting for these prints. The Canon’s images looked sharp, but were slightly yellow in tone when lined up side-by-side with the other prints. They took about a minute each to print.

All three of these compact photo printers have built-in handles for portability, 2.5-inch viewing screens to preview images and optional sold-separately batteries for cordless use.

The $250 HP Photosmart A716 looks much like its predecessors: white and toaster-shaped with accessible memory card slots and a USB port on the front side. But this printer comes with four gigabytes of internal memory, enough to hold up to 4,000 pictures according to HP. We easily saved various images to the HP Photosmart’s memory by pressing a Save button on the printer’s top side.

One advantage to HP’s internal memory: at a party or family gathering, you wouldn’t have to rush to print out as many images as possible before people taking pictures left with their cameras or memory cards. Instead, you could just save the images onto the printer for later. For $70 less, HP sells the Photosmart A616 — the same printer without internal memory.

The HP Photosmart A716 really shines in the editing department, offering image improvement options that truly made a difference. But we weren’t able to easily view multiple photos at once on its screen — this view can only be seen by selecting Print Index View, which is buried four steps deep in a menu. In addition to 4×6 photos, you can also print 5x7s using the A716.

Epson’s $300 PictureMate Flash stands higher than the HP and Canon printers, partially due to the CD burner that is built into its base. This feature lets you copy digital photos onto CDs, which can then be handed out in addition to, or instead of, prints. You can also print an index of the images that are being copied onto the CD.

We quickly burned 50 digital shots from our SecureDigital memory card onto a CD; when slipped into our computer the CD’s images appeared, ready for editing, emailing or Web posting. Epson also sells its PictureMate Snap — the same printer without the burner — for $100 less.

The Epson PictureMate Flash has colorful buttons that are well labeled and easy to understand, including a smart Display button that easily switched our screen’s view from full-screen to thumbnail. At 6.6 pounds, this compact printer weighs in as the heaviest of the bunch.

When we pulled the $200 Canon Pixma mini260 out of its box, we wondered how it would transform into a printer. But after a few clever fold-backs and compartment openings, we were in business. This printer’s most useful button is a round navigational dial, like that used by Canon in its digital cameras. The mini260, like the Epson, easily switches from one image view to the next using a soft key below the viewing screen.

But even with the navigational dial, we found that using the Canon Pixma was more laborious than operating the other two. For one thing, inserting a memory card into its side slot didn’t trigger the printer to automatically pull up the images. We had to first open another menu to see our photos. And a screen filled with options like paper size, type and print quality had to be bypassed before each printout. The other printers smartly hide these settings deeper within their menus.

A host of editing options are offered in the Canon, but even with all of these settings turned on or adjusted for the best results, edited pictures still weren’t as good as those from the HP or Epson. The red-eye in one image, for example, wasn’t fully removed even after we turned on red-eye correction.

In the end, we liked the $300 Epson PictureMate Flash best. If its price tag makes you wince, try the $200 PictureMate Snap, which doesn’t include the CD burner. In our tests, the Epson produced the best prints for the least amount of money in the fastest time per photo. Consumers who are in the market for a portable photo printer won’t be disappointed by this new gadget.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at and Katherine Boehret at

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