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Epson Stylus Pro 3800 review
Using the SP 3800 A2 Printer
We've been using an Epson Stylus Pro 3800 for a few weeks now - the machine was kindly lent by Epson UK, along with a range of Epson Media.
Keith has restricted this review to Epson media and inks.
There is a wider discussion of using the printer in the conclusion section, and links to further information and additional paper reviews at the end of the article.
Epson SP 3800
May 2008 I've heard of numerous problems downloading the plugin mentioned below. These two links seem to work at the moment: Mac version ftp://18.104.22.168/pub/download/3210/epson321060eu.dmg | win version ftp://22.214.171.124/pub/download/3210/epson321059eu.ZIP
Epson have launched a new Photoshop Plugin, this is available as a free download and will support a limited number of previous Epson printers (Epson Stylus Photo 1400, R1800, R1900, R2400, R2880 and Stylus Pro 3800). The new Epson Print Plug-In will be available as a free download from Epson Europe. It supports Mac OS 10.4.3 – 10.4.10 (Tiger), Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) and Windows XP SP2 and Vista.
The 3800 is an A2+ (17 inch) printer for the desktop.
Mind you, that's quite a bit of desktop space you will need.
It comes in a box that unlike Epson's larger printers, shouldn't automatically require an assistant to bring it into your office (OK, it does weigh just over 40 lbs)
First impressions are that it's a nice looking, solid feeling printer.
Unlike the larger 4800 A2 printer, I wont need an extra sturdy desk installed.
If you want more technical specifications and Epson information, I've included it at the end of this article.
One of the first things you'll notice in the box is the large collection of ink cartridges.
There are nine in all, in particular there are two black inks - Matte Black and Photo Black. Each cart contains 80ml of ink, so you shouldn't be changing them nearly as much as with smaller printers.
It takes some 10-15 minutes for the initial setup of the printer, for it to prime the ink lines and all the other whirring noises it wants to make upon start up.
The inks are Epson UltraChrome K3 pigment inks, which in general give longer lasting prints than currently available with dye based inks.
Two versions of black allow you to switch between the two (for printing on different types of paper).
On my Epson 9600, changing black inks by swapping cartridges is a somewhat wasteful procedure, explaining why some people have 2 printers, loaded with different black inks...
According to Epson, the changes from:
The cartridges hide out of the way, behind a flap that is opened from the main control panel/menu (so the printer has to be powered 'on' to open the flap)
You get a choice of USB2 or ethernet to link your printer up to a computer. I used USB for connecting the 3800 to my Mac, since it's easy to share printers over my network that way.
Setting up Ethernet network connectivity (for both PCs and Macs) is also pretty straightforward using the supplied utilities, if you want to have the printer available to others without the need to have the USB connected computer switched on.
The 3800 has three ways of getting paper into it. The top sheet feed takes normal lighter media (such as photo paper - 10 sheets max), whilst a second feed at the back is meant for heavy art papers (single sheet at a time).
There is also a front loading slot for straight through feeding of media up to 1.5mm thick
The front panel shows ink levels and allows for a number of maintenance options and settings adjustments
In the image above, the printer is in 'Photo Black' mode so the level of Matte black ink (1) is shown greyed out. You can also see at the right hand side, the larger bar showing how much capacity is left in the maintenance (waste ink) tank.
When full this is replaced (it is behind a panel at the bottom right hand side of the printer)
I've used a large format Epson 9600 for a while for my large prints, and was keen to see what's been improved in the several years between their introduction.
The A2 sheet size (~23"x16") is slightly smaller than I often print my landscape works (~26"x17") but sufficiently close that many of my print ready files just needed their resolution bumping up to fit the smaller paper (if you just increase resolution slightly, without resampling, your prints come out smaller.
I started out with black and white, since this is what I mostly use my 9600 for.
I've used the Epson ABW black and white printing mode before when I looked at an R2400 with some alternative inks in it. I picked my B/W printer test image to start with (available for download on this site)
The test image is deliberately designed to be a very harsh test of black and white printing capabilities. The bulls-eye target in the top centre, gives a quick indication of overall linearity, while the Mesa Verde image to the right has a lot of dark shadow detail.
Using Epson Enhanced Matte and Epson Velvet fine Art (both with matte black ink) I got good neutral black and white images which showed very little indication of a colour cast under different lighting conditions. Both were a little compressed in the shadow areas, losing some detail.
Since it's very quick to do, I made a couple of linearising icc profiles. to apply when printing from within Photoshop. The results moved the prints from quite good, to good enough that I'd be happy to put my name to them and sell them.
You can tint and tone images in the ABW section of the print driver, but I have a personal dislike of seeing my B/W images toned so although I can say it works fine, I couldn't say how well you'd like the results. If I want a warmer looking print I'll use a warmer paper, that's about the most colour I want to see in one of my B/W images :-)
I switched to photo black ink and tried some black and white on Premium Glossy photo paper and Premium semi-gloss photo paper.
Well I say 'I switched' - it actually happened quite automatically when I selected the paper type in the print settings.
I was particularly taken with the depth of black on the semi-gloss paper. Once again both papers needed a linearising icc profile to get them up to my exacting standards (and I am picky about black and white! ;-) but both produced some stunning images.
For B/W I prefer the semi-gloss, since there is less obvious ink visible on the paper as a result of differing paper/ink glossiness. This is where if you look at a print from a shallow angle, you can see different levels of glossiness over the area of the print.
The printer produced excellent results printing either unidirectionally or bidirectionally. It's the first Epson printer I'd probably use in the faster bidirectional mode as a default.
Print detail was also noticeably better than older printers.
When printing printer profile targets, some of the coloured patches will show up dithering problems - although not entirely gone, the incidence of visible patterning was greatly reduced.
The example here (from Epson) gives an idea (even if slightly exaggerated for marketing purposes ;-)
On my 9600 you also get what is known as bronzing with some glossy papers, indeed it's one of the reasons that I don't do glossy B/W prints on the 9600 and that it is permanently loaded with Matte black ink. Only by looking -very- closely could I get even a slightest suggestion of bronzing on the semi-gloss paper. It fell into the not worth bothering about category. Do remember that this could still be a problem with some third party papers, so try them out first before buying large amounts...
One print I've often used to compare different papers is this one of water worn rocks in Canada
The crisp detail really popped out, when using Premium Semi Gloss Photo paper, while the excellent tonal gradations help make the light area in the middle of the shot look as if it is actual texture of the paper.
The picture below is one I've sold quite a few of - so I was pleased to get a very acceptable new version printed on Velvet Fine Art paper (100% cotton rag)
Hood Canal, Washington State.
One of the reasons it's in the B/W test image that I initially used, is the important darker details and texture around the picnic tables on the spit of land.
I first decided to have a go at printing the PDI test image (test images available for download)
When you install the printer drivers, a set of ICC profiles for Epson papers is also installed. I printed using these from within Photoshop, with 'no colour adjustment' so that it was just the profiles working.
Since I've got the kit around the place I also printed off some profiling targets and made some profiles for the papers I was testing, using a X-rite iSis and ProfileMaker 5
The received wisdom is that so called 'canned profiles' or ones that are supplied with papers and printers are inferior to 'custom' profiles. That used to be automatically true - certainly providers of custom profiles would like you to believe it.
I found that the Epson profiles for Premium Glossy and Premium Semi-gloss photo papers were as good as -quick- profiles made using some very expensive kit (several thousand pounds worth). I don't doubt that had I gone to some additional trouble in making my measurements and building profiles, then I could have bettered the Epson supplied ones for the paper I was using for this particular printer.
My point is that even with some very good equipment I'd have to put in some serious effort to make noticeably better profiles - if you are going to be using Epson media then do question whether your chosen custom profiling service will actually get you better results.
There is also the Epson ColorBase software that is available as a download, which allows you to create a calibration file to bring your particular printer back to factory aligned standard.
You need a spectrophotometer of a supported variety.
The real benefit comes for people with several identical printers where you need to minimise variation between individual printers.
This is probably not a great deal of use to people with just one printer, but I have heard it said that it can make a (just) perceptible improvement in the quality of prints.
Once I'd decided that the profiles looked pretty good I ran off quite a lot of A3 and A2 prints, some from my recent trip to the US, but others like the beer glass, to see how some very strong deep colours were handled
This image is from a series of sunset photos at Cape Kiwanda in Oregon.
I wanted to see if the print could capture the vibrancy of the colours, and the dark detail in the waves and beach (it did).
Printed on Epson Premium Semi Gloss
Northern California Coast. Printed on Epson Premium Glossy Photo
The mixture of dark browns and greens can very easily turn to a sludgy mess in a print - they didn't
Surf at Bandon, Oregon - Printed on Epson Premium Semi Gloss
I kept this image in colour to preserve some of the cold feel of the stormy day. The steel grey and slight colour in the wave were just what I wanted in the print.
Flowers - Printed on Epson Premium Semi Gloss and Epson Enhanced Matte
Very small flowers on a plant in my conservatory, only a few mm long they needed several extension tubes on my Canon 90mm tilt/shift lens.
Quite impressive on the semi-gloss paper, and giving very good results with matte black ink on the Enhanced Matte, where the background is full of very deep colour.
It's very easy for hue shifts to creep in around deep blues like this reflection of the late evening sky. The Epson 'canned profiles' produced very acceptable results (glossy, semi-gloss and enhanced matte)
The photo was taken while I was testing my old Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.2 lens on my Canon 1Ds.
At f/1.2 there is very little depth of field.
I'll be looking more at using old lenses on new cameras later this year, but suffice to say that once you get used to manual focusing (again), the Zuiko 50/1.2 is still the superb lens I purchased back in 1984.
Most papers are fed in via the top sheet feeder, with only the thicker art papers using the rear feed unit.
When using larger paper sizes (such as A2), do be careful that you have raised the rear paper supports fully and set the side feed guides to the right width. They should not make the paper a tight fit.
When a sheet is loaded, the top feed guides move apart slightly after making sure the paper is in the right place to be fed. Pay careful attention to making sure large sheets are sitting 'comfortably' in the top feeder, since my first few sheets ended up very slightly skewed. Not a problem if the prints were behind a matt board when framed, but not looking good if you rely on the borders being even.
The rear single sheet feeder is for more awkward heavy papers and is definitely only for single sheets. I had no problems getting paper to feed, but my local paper/ink supplier has said that a few customers have told him that the feed mechanism is susceptible to paper dust buildup. This has been a problem with some third party heavy rag papers, after a few boxes of paper have gone through the printer.
Another problem I've heard discussed on the net, is that you should be careful that the corners of your papers do not have excessive curl, since this has caused misfeeds and head strikes. I should say that I never experienced this with Epson media on the 3800, but have seen it on a 2400 (see examples in a paper review carried out on a 2400)
The pop out print shelf at the front, that your prints rest on, is ingeniously designed, but a little flimsy. The catch on my review machine didn't hold it in place, and I've heard this mentioned elsewhere, so I suspect it might be a generic problem. Not something that affects use of the printer in any way, but irksome.
Buying the Epson 3800
We make a specific point of not selling hardware, but if you found the review of help, please consider buying the 3800, or any other items at all, via our link with Amazon.
It won't cost any more (nor less we're afraid) but will contribute towards the running costs of our site.
Or the newest 3880 via B&H
I was very impressed with the quality of output from the 3800.
For colour work I found the Epson supplied ICC profiles to be capable of giving very high quality results on Epson media.
Comparing the print output with any older printers showed how far ink-jet printing has advanced in only a few years. In fact it was enough to make me go back to my 9600 and look at more ways of improving the quality of my printing...
Black and white print quality was particularly good, once I'd tweaked the output with a linearising profile. The printer driver has had a lot of work put into getting good B/W. It consistently beat anything my 9600 could manage in sheer depth of blackness on similar papers
The black swapping problems and expense of the other X800 series are gone. Well almost gone, in that it takes a few minutes and still uses some ink - not much, but I note other manufacturers don't seem to have this issue at all.
The 3800 with it's (included 9) 80ml ink cartridges makes the price you'll pay for a 2400 and its much smaller ink carts look quite high (I'm looking at a cost for a printer and a year's printing here, rather than just the sticker price)
A comparison of ink costs (based on manufacturers suggested prices)
As you can see, the big 220ml cartridges that I use in my 9600 work out considerably cheaper. If you are doing lots of prints (and I have to say my 9600 is relatively lightly used) then the savings mount up. Then again if you are doing a lot of printing there are various reasons you might go for one of the other X800 series.
One of these is the lack of a roll print option with the 3800. One way I make better use of my 9600 is by using a RIP to drive the printer, which provides more advanced layout options, so for example I could print out several prints at different sizes and tile them to maximise use of the paper. You could do this with the 3800, but you are limited to the sizes of paper available as sheets and a maximum print length of 37" if you are using the Epson driver.
Do think carefully as to how often you would -really- make use of such features? I've printed several panoramic images on 24" roll paper (~9 feet long) but you might decide this is not a an area you are going into... :-)
The printer keeps fairly detailed records of its usage, some of this can be obtained via status prints from the front panel, while more detailed info can be recorded using some of the supplied utility software.
The printer is supported by most commonly available RIPs and is currently (June '07) listed as being bundled with "Epson Imaging Workshop" software.
In the few months since I've been waiting to have a look at the 3800, I've been keeping an eye on discussion forums for issues and problems.
The only two topics of note both seem to involve heavier larger media.
1) The single sheet feeder at the back can get temperamental if there is much build-up of paper dust (noticeably not a problem I've heard of with Epson media)
2) Paper curl can be a problem. I've heard that increasing the platten gap to wide helps with this and does not affect print quality.
With the top loading paper feed and the additional feed at the back, then you will need quite a bit of space around the printer - don't think it'll just fit in a corner, up against the wall if you are using A2 paper.
I will seriously miss this printer when it goes back - I wouldn't buy one at the moment, since I've got an excellent 9600 that prints on 44" wide roll paper (43" by 98" is the largest I've printed to date).
Thanks to everyone who has ever purchased something via our links.
Bring out an update to the 9800 with quality like this and that gets round the ink swap issues and my 9600 will be up for sale...
July 2008 - see Keith's SP4880 review for the differences between this printer and the heftier 4880
A great printer for people wanting to produce relatively low volumes of larger prints.
Excellent colour and B/W performance coupled with larger ink cartridges mean that I'd suggest people looking at a R2400 seriously consider the step up to the 3800
Looking on-line today for some sample prices in the UK, I can get a 2400 for £456 a 3800 for £980 and a 4800 for £1755
Lack of roll paper option may be a problem for some.
Some care required when feeding large sheets of paper.
Comparison of printer features with other models (info from Epson)
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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