Walt Mossberg

Kodak’s New Printer Is a Good Start, Plus It Cuts the Cost of Ink

As part of its long, rocky journey from film to digital photography, Kodak just introduced a line of home inkjet printers. The company has decided to go after its rival Hewlett-Packard, which dominates consumer inkjet printing.

Kodak’s main weapon in this new war is cheaper ink. Traditionally, H-P and other makers have sold the printers for relatively little, then made most or all of their money on the ink cartridges.

So, Kodak decided to reverse that business model. Its three new printers start at $149.99, not sub-$100 bargain prices. But its black ink cartridges cost just $9.99, and the color ones — which combine five color inks — just $14.99. And these are standard-capacity cartridges, not small or starter versions. Comparable H-P cartridges vary in price, but can easily cost double that, or more.

Kodak hopes consumers will be willing to spend more upfront for the printer to save later on the ink.

In a counter-move, H-P announced Tuesday that it will also be introducing new lower-price cartridges. But these new low-end cartridges will work only on future printers (and a few very recent models). And they will hold less ink than today’s standard. Plus, they will still cost more than Kodak’s cartridges: $14.99 for black and $17.99 for the combined color versions. H-P will also start selling larger-capacity “value” cartridges for the new printers that will cost about twice as much as the low-end ink, but print up to triple the number of pages.

How good are Kodak’s new printers? After all, cheaper ink isn’t really a bargain if the printer is lousy. To find out, I’ve been testing Kodak’s midrange model, the EasyShare 5300, which costs $199.99. It’s an “all-in-one” machine that combines a printer with a flatbed copier and scanner.

I compared this new Kodak with a roughly comparable all-in-one H-P model, the Photosmart C6180. This particular H-P model costs $100 more than the Kodak, because it includes some additional features. But H-P says that this printer has the same printing, scanning and copying quality and speeds, in the typical scenarios I tested, as H-P’s C5180, the direct competitor of the Kodak 5300, which costs the same.

My conclusion was that the Kodak EasyShare 5300 is a pretty good printer, with a good enough combination of quality, speed and functionality to satisfy people attracted by the lower ink costs. In my tests, it was better than the H-P at some things and worse at others.

One caveat: I didn’t try to verify Kodak’s claim that, overall, its printouts cost a lot less than H-P’s. Such claims depend on very specific sorts of test files produced and tested in labs. H-P disputes Kodak’s testing methodology and claims that Kodak’s printout costs are “about the same or only slightly lower than H-P’s.”

Also, the particular H-P models with which the Kodak printers most closely compare use a different ink system than most other H-P home inkjet printers. Instead of using one combined color cartridge that can cost over $30, they use five smaller separate ones that cost $9.99 each.

I decided to avoid settling this technical dispute and to just judge the printers using home photos and text pages from Microsoft Office that I considered typical. I used both printers at normal quality levels and didn’t enable any special quality or speed settings. I tested them with a Windows XP computer, though both printers also work with Macs and with the new Windows Vista.

Photo

In general, the H-P was a little faster, but not dramatically so. And the H-P has built-in networking, while the Kodak doesn’t. The H-P also has a better user interface, in my opinion. Kodak’s can be clumsy.

But the Kodak has a cool scanning feature the H-P lacks. You can place three or four photos on its glass plate at once and the printer will separate them automatically into individual images and scan them as separate files — as long as they aren’t aligned too crookedly. To do this on the H-P, you must manually draw lines around each photo with the H-P software.

When I compared plain-paper printouts, in black and white, and color, the printers were about equal in quality. The H-P was a tad faster, but the Kodak was plenty quick.

On photos, I had a mixed result. The 4×6 snapshots of family scenes came out better, to my eye, on the Kodak. They seemed sharper and brighter than the same files printed on the H-P. But I had just the opposite result when scanning several 20-year-old photos into the two machines. The resulting files produced by the H-P seemed sharper and brighter. The Kodak scans, while warmer, seemed fuzzier.

The worst feature of the Kodak is the way it switches between its plain-paper feed tray and its special separate tray for 4×6 snapshot-size photo paper. On the Kodak, you must manually push in and pull out the photo tray to switch between types of paper. The H-P handles this switch without any pushing or pulling.

Overall, however, the Kodak is a good enough first effort to get the company into the game.


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