Katherine Boehret

Three Machines With Three Functions

All-in-one machines that print, copy and scan are becoming much more compact and affordable, and most important, easier to use.

This week, I was curious to test the performance of three all-in-ones that cost around $100. I tried Eastman Kodak‘s new $130 ESP 3 All-in-One Printer, Canon‘s $100 PIXMA MP470 and Hewlett-Packard‘s $100 HP Photosmart C4280. These particular machines are geared toward home users so they don’t include the ability to fax, and they print great quality photos. Each machine measures roughly the same size and has a lid that lifts to reveal a glass surface where documents are placed for scanning and copying.

These all-in-ones don’t include some of the heavy-duty features found in bigger, more expensive machines for businesses such as automatic feeders that suck in stacks of documents. And they aren’t nearly as fast as a company Xerox machine. But their compact size and convenient features — like memory-card slots, editing software and PC/Mac compatibility — make them useful in a home.

A year ago, Kodak took an aggressive tack when introducing its first consumer printer. Kodak charged more for the printer and less for ink compared with rivals, reasoning that people would rather pay more once for a machine than paying more for ink throughout the life of the printer.

But these companies make it very difficult for consumers to figure which ink cartridge will give them the most for their money because each uses different methods for testing page yields. The Kodak ESP 3 uses a $10 cartridge of black ink and a $15 color cartridge. The HP’s black and color cartridges cost $15 and $18, respectively, while Canon’s cost $16 and $20. (None of these all-in-ones use color cartridges that let you replace individual colors if you run out of one color.) When measuring pages printed from a black cartridge, Kodak (EK), HP (HPQ) and Canon (CAJ) claim 342, 200 and 219 pages, respectively.

Photos printed using the Kodak and HP printers looked most appealing to my eye. Their colors were natural yet vibrant, whereas some of the colors in the Canon images looked a bit too bright. And other Canon shots, such as one of my sister and me at the beach on vacation, appeared slightly muddy and not as sharp as the Kodak or HP images. Regular black-and-white documents looked fine on all of the machines. While the Kodak and HP come with better software than the Canon, I preferred the buttons and physical design of the Canon.

I got started with the Kodak ESP 3, which ships with new software that includes a Facial Retouch editing feature I first tried at January’s Consumer Electronics Show. In one click, Facial Retouch smoothes wrinkles, erases blemishes, blends blotchy skin and whitens teeth. While this tool deserves points for efficiency, it bordered a tad too much on the dramatic face-lift side, causing some subjects’ skin to appear waxy and unrealistic.

Physically, the Kodak ESP 3 looks handsome in all black. Its lid is indented with a waffle-like pattern, and its paper trays fold up neatly for storage. But this all-in-one lacks a key feature found on the Canon and HP: a color viewing screen. The Kodak, HP and Canon have built-in memory-card slots that — if used with preview screens — make photo printing a computer-free cinch. But without a preview screen, the Kodak ESP 3 can’t work independent of a computer screen to print photos from a memory card.

The Kodak ESP 3 uses a fast new type of scanner that uses LEDs to illuminate a document rather than a lamp, which takes more time to warm up. As a result, in my tests, the Kodak scanned a bit faster than the Canon and noticeably faster than the HP.

All three all-in-ones allow users to lay about three 4×6 photos on the scanning glass, and as long as they aren’t touching, these images will register as separately scanned photos. I learned the hard way that overlapping prints will be scanned as one image; this was the case with each scanner. But separating photos into a position of two horizontal and one vertical allowed me to upload three shots at a time with the Kodak, HP and Canon.

The HP Photosmart C4280 had the most trouble with this multi-photo-scanning trick. Instead of performing one scan and then assessing three images on the glass, as the Kodak and Canon did, the HP seemed to look at each individual photo, taking at least 15 seconds per photo to capture each image.

This all-in-one comes encased in a glossy white plastic with a gray lid. Its eight buttons line the left-hand side, but most act as soft keys that correspond to words on a screen rather than acting as their own buttons, making navigation a bit clumsy. And though the HP has a 1.5-inch viewing screen, it doesn’t tilt up like the Canon’s, so I couldn’t use it without standing up and looking down.

Though the HP did well on photos, I found its color copies to be a little fuzzy when compared with those from the Canon and Kodak all-in-ones. I liked that these devices can make copies without using the computer, which could prove convenient in a pinch.

The Canon PIXMA MP470 felt more solid to me than the Kodak and HP printers. Its 1.8-inch flip-up viewing screen made it easy to sit back and use, and this screen is designed to cover up the machine’s buttons when it’s folded down — a plus if you want to port it around. Its front and sides are coated in glossy black, and its lid is colored gray.

But even with its tilting viewing screen and memory-card slots, the Canon lacks an xD memory-card slot, and I was using two digital cameras — a Fujifilm FinePix and an Olympus — that use xD memory cards. Canon suggests using an adapter to remedy this issue. Another odd physical trait of the Canon is its short power cord, which measures just half the length of the Kodak cord and about two feet shorter than the HP.

The Canon came with software that added six icons to my computer’s desktop during its installation, and though it includes facial fixers like digital face smoothing, face brightener, blemish remover and face sharpener, none of these features seemed to do as much as Kodak’s one-step Facial Retouch tool.

And while the Canon’s 4×6 photos churned out about 10 seconds faster than those on the Kodak and HP machines, they didn’t measure up in terms of quality.

If photos are important to you, I suggest the HP Photosmart C4280, which includes memory-card slots and a viewing screen for quick print-outs without the hassle of booting up a computer. If you don’t mind the Kodak ESP 3′s lack of viewing screen, the quality of its photos won’t disappoint, and its lower-priced ink might drive a hard bargain. The good news is no matter which one you buy, it’ll still be cheaper than paying $100 each for a scanner, copier and printer.

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