Get Your Own Private Fotomat

SAN FRANCISCO (03/21/2000) - It's only logical: When you print digital photos, you want results that look, feel, and last as if they came from a photo lab.

Two new photo printers -- Epson America Inc.'s $299 Stylus Photo 870 and Sony Corp.'s $389 UP-DP10-come as close as any that I've seen to achieving this goal. I tested shipping units equipped with preproduction drivers.

At first glance, the Stylus Photo 870 behaves like a typical ink jet. It prints black text and color graphics on plain paper, and has both USB and parallel ports. But this device really struts its stuff when you print your photos on Epson's special paper. The resulting images are gorgeous, with accurate, subtle colors and a continuous-tone look belying their ink jet origins. And although most ink jet photos are notoriously prone to fading, Epson says prints on its new paper will last as long as traditional silver halide photos.

In my tests using a USB connection, the Stylus Photo 870 printed an 8-by-10-inch photo in about 4 minutes; 4-by-6-inch snapshots took around 90 seconds apiece. A 4-by-6-inch print costs about 50 cents for special paper and ink. My one big gripe: Epson's roll paper, which you can use to print edge-to-edge snapshots, is cumbersome to handle. You have to cut strips of photos apart manually. And as with previous Epson photo printers, black text prints on plain paper a tad fuzzily. Even so, this versatile printer is a find for serious digital shutterbugs. (A wide-format version, the $499 Stylus Photo 1270, prints at sizes up to 13 by 44 inches.)Sony's Skinny PrinterOne look tells you that Sony's UP-DP10 is a highly unusual photo printer: Its skinny, upright shape fits easily in tight quarters. The compact design is crucial, given that this unit won't be your only printer: It produces only photos, none larger than 4 by 6 inches. Each costs about 60 cents, comparable to what you would pay for film and prints at a midrange photo finisher. And each photo took about 90 seconds to print in my tests using a USB connection.

(Both printers offer parallel-port connections, too, but you'll get slower speeds if you use them.)The Sony creates prints that most folks will think you just received from the minilab--especially since you can mimic the look and feel of a glossy, matte, or textured finish. The printer uses dye sublimation, a process that many high-end color models use to avoid the ink jet's tendency to fade. The UP-DP10's image quality is better than fair but falls short of the Epson's.

Contrast was a little off--details such as wrinkles in dark clothing disappeared--and lower-resolution pictures occasionally showed jaggy edges.

If you're comfortable investing almost $400 in a printer that handles photos only, the Sony deserves consideration. It's especially worthwhile if you're satisfied with your conventional printer for documents but want better photos at little loss of desk space. But the Epson's fine print quality, greater versatility, and lower price give it broader appeal.

Stand-up Sony: The svelte UP-DP10 prints photos only.

Epson Stylus Photo 870

Pro Excellent photo quality; versatile device; produces fade-resistant prints.

Con: Printing edge-to-edge snapshots is a hassle; text quality could be crisper.

Value: Great choice for digital-photo fans.

Street price: $299

Epson America

800/463-7766

www.epson.com

Sony UP-DP10

Pro: Respectable print quality; matte, glossy, and textured options; convenient slim design.

Con: Steep price for a snapshot-only printer.

Value: Not bad, but the Epson edges it out.

List price: $389

Sony Electronics

800/686-7669

www.sony.com/digitalphotography

Product Info No. 715

The Stylus Photo 870 can print on photo or plain paper.

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