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Epson Stylus Pro 3880 review
Using the SP 3880 A2 (17") Printer
We've recently had an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer on loan from Epson UK for a few weeks.
Keith reviewed the original 3800 a while ago and we were keen to see what Epson had changed, from what was a very nice printer.
The printer was tested on our Apple Mac network, printing from Photoshop (CS3) - features are virtually the same if using Windows PCs.
Keith has restricted this particular review to Epson media and inks.
There is a wider discussion of using the printer in the conclusion section, and links to further information at the end of the article.
Epson SP 3880
The printer is aimed at higher print volumes (and maximum pages sizes) compared to the A3+ SP R2880 that we looked at a few months ago. The 'next size up' would be the A2 SP4880, and above that, the 24" SP7880.
I've looked at this test of the SP3880 from the point of view of someone wanting to produce large high quality prints for sale and exhibition (which is part of my work at Northlight).
The picture to the right shows the print head assembly for the 3880 - this is not something you'd ever expect to see, since Epson print heads are not a user replaceable part (they should last the life of the printer).
The 3880 is an A2+ (17 inch max. width) printer for the desktop.
If you want more technical specifications and Epson information, I've included it at the end of this article.
The key specs (from Epson) are
It's positioned between the 2880 and 4880 in Epson's range, but unlike those two printers, it addresses what some might consider to be Epson's 'Elephant in the room' problem - it has both photo and matte black inks and allows swapping between them relatively easily. I'll look at this in more detail, but if you are looking for just one printer for a variety of work, then it can be an important feature.
In the picture below, you can see that despite the print capacity, the 3880 does not take up too much desk space. However, roll your mouse over the image and you'll see how much the print tray pulls out at the front to hold A2 size prints.
The feeder at the back is the detachable rear manual feed one - normal sheet feed is via the pop up load tray in front of it.
I'll show some more examples of this later, but remember that A2 sized sheets of paper need to go into and come out of the printer.
USB 2 and 100/10 Ethernet connectivity are available.
The printer was tested with a direct USB connection to my old G4 PowerBook (OSX 10.5) and over the office Ethernet network from an OSX 10.6 Mac Pro.
The printer found itself an IP address from our DHCP server (your router may well sort this out if you don't have any such servers), but there are network admin. tools supplied via the printer's software CD (Windows and Mac).
Although supplied on the CD, I downloaded the latest drivers from the Epson (UK) web site for each of the two computers. I do this for all our reviews, so as to make sure I'm testing current software (April 2010 for this review).
The 3880 is very similar to the 3800 in many ways. This is no criticism since I found that printer produced excellent results.
Unlike smaller printers, the cartridges are located away from the print head and accessed from the printer control panel.
The 80ml cartridges are the same size as with the 3800.
It will take some 10-15 minutes to set up the printer out of the box, since the printer goes through quite a lot of activity when first loading ink from the cartridges.
One major change is a reformulation of some of the inks. In particular, the magenta and light magenta inks are now described as 'vivid'.
In practice, this slightly increases the range of colours that the printer can produce.
I should add though, that if you took an average landscape print made with the 3800 and 3880, the differences would be difficult to spot (I'm minded to think that in a blind test, very few people could spot the difference from colour gamut alone).
The default display shows small bars for each cart (you can see them above)
The printer's LCD display can also give a detailed display of cartridge ink levels (right). I like this level of detail, since it gives a good feel for how ink usage is going.
The display is easy to read in normal working conditions, and I found no difficulty in navigating my way round the hierarchical menu structure.
Then again, I've used a number of similar printers over the years (we have a 7880 in the print room) so it might be worth giving the manuals a read, if you are new to this sort of printer (software manuals, not printed).
If you've not used the printer for a while, or just changed the black ink type, then I'd definitely suggest printing a nozzle check print.
You don't have to include the auto cleaning, but I find that such quick checks can save producing a messed up print.
Perhaps not so important to remember for smaller printers, but once you buy an A2 sized box of top quality paper, the cost of 'scrap' goes up quite a bit.
If you read the forums then you'll find regular discussions about head clogs and the like, however just remember that such discussions are inherently self selecting for stories of problems - when did you last post about doing a whole day's printing with no problems?
As far as I can see, such issues are strongly related to average humidity. If you live in a dry climate, then it may be worth looking into ways of altering it (I heard of someone in New Mexico who kept their printer in a huge plastic bag when not in use - with a cup of water). Suffice to say, I'm in the UK and humidity levels are rarely very low ;-)
The 3880 has improved head coatings, which are supposed to reduce clogging and need for cleaning (with associated ink use). During my time of using the printer it didn't fail a head check once - not a rigorous test, but a good sign.
A big feature of the 3880 is the ability to swap black ink types, between photo black and matt black.
Why the swap? Well, different papers respond best to different types of black ink.
I like printing some of my black and white work on heavy cotton rag papers. These require matte black ink.
For a lot of colour, and some monochrome prints, I like to use fibre type papers. These, with their surface coatings tend to work best with photo black ink.
The driver software will also instigate an ink swap depending on the media type selected when printing.
I rarely change inks on our 7880, since it wastes rather too much ink. It's usually set to use photo black, whilst my older 9600 has matte black.
On the 3880, the change is carried out from the front panel
The process takes a few minutes of assorted whirring noises from the printer.
After a while, it is complete and you can print using the new ink.
It would appear from the specifications that the 3880 takes a bit longer to swap, but uses similar amounts of ink.
When cartridges are low, a warning is displayed on the printer, and via the print monitoring software during printing.
You can carry on printing, but eventually the printer will stop (running on empty is not good for the print heads and ink supply system).
In the picture below, the printer is needing a new photo black cartridge (at position #2).
A while later I happened to be printing some sample prints from my own recent wedding, and the light black ink has run out (position #3).
Since these are test sheets to send round to the assorted relatives and friends who came along, I decided to see how many A2 prints the printer would manage after flashing up a warning.
The printer has just ground to a halt part way through the 5th A2 print.
If you look very carefully, and get the light reflecting at a particular angle, you can see the place the ink ran out.
This is on Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper.
This suggests that with black and perhaps magenta/cyan it's worth changing before the ink runs out mid print.
Since a bit of ink is used on start-up, levels will drop over time anyway.
One other part of the ink system will need replacing after a while, this is the maintenance tank.
It's accessed behind a cover at the right front of the printer.
Move your mouse over the image to see.
The tank collects waste ink used in cleaning and during cartridge changing.
It takes a while to fill, and the replacement warning will give plenty of time to get a spare.
The printer is shown below with the main sheet feed loader flipped up. The manual feed guide behind it, is detachable and used for single sheet feeding of thicker papers.
The loading slot you can see above is not for heavy matte papers.
There is a warning sign to remind you, although it's worth pointing out that the printer driver settings will enforce certain page size restrictions for different media types.
It's worth remembering that you have to get this right when setting the print size in, for example, the Photoshop print dialogue.
I'll show some more details of this stage later, but you should remember that this is not the sort of printer that you just load a pack of paper into and then forget.
OK, it can take 140 sheets of plain copier paper, but I'd not normally think of using the 3880 as my office printer...
The quantity of paper of any type that you can stack, is limited by both the size and type of paper.
For photo paper (PGPP), the limit is 20 sheets at A4, 10 sheets at A3 and only one sheet at A2.
As an experiment, I loaded 15 sheets of A2 Premium Glossy Photo Paper (for those wedding pictures).
All fed through perfectly well - I'd not recommend this, but it helped confirm my impression that the sheet feeding of this printer has been improved from the 3800.
For single sheet feeding of heavier papers you have to use the rear slot.
When you insert a sheet of paper, it is detected and loaded into the printer.
I found that it needed a slight pressure to reliably load every time.
After loading a few sheets of paper I'd got the knack of getting it right, and had no loading problems with sheets of Velvet Fine Art paper, and some miscellaneous third party papers I tested.
I didn't print enough 'fine art' sheets with this printer to get a truly meaningful measure of whether it had improved from the 3800, but I did make sure that sheets were not showing excessive curl before loading.
I remember from testing the 3800 that I had a few minor issues with paper curl, but it's difficult to compare the precise behaviour of two review machines (which get shipped about a lot) over two years apart.
The A2 box of Epson PGPP paper I'd been sent from Epson, had been dropped at some time, resulting in a slight bending at one corner.
As I said, the wedding prints were just for sending around as samples, so I wasn't too bothered about the crumpled corners.
However, this is what can happen with non flat paper. The print head has hit the paper surface.
You really do need to make sure that paper is flat.
Paper can also be directly at the front of the printer. This is primarily intended for extra thick media (up to 1.5mm).
You should note though, that using such a feed path requires plenty of space at the back of the printer with large media.
There is no roll paper support with the 3880, with media lengths being limited to 37" (just under a metre), so for big panoramic prints you may want to look at another solution.
The 3880 has a huge collection of available print sizes, particularly once you include borderless print options.
Here are just a few for A2 size paper.
In the example below, I've selected a printer profile in the Photoshop print dialogue (back window) and the correct paper type (Premium Luster) in the driver setup.
I've picked 'No Color Adjustment' in the colour management settings, since I'm printing with an ICC profile.
I'll return to colour management issues later, but suffice to say, I found the supplied Epson profiles produced very good results.
For larger prints I often prefer a lustre finish paper, which here, matches the printed area very well, with no undue gloss differential.
Apart from liking this particular photograph (Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon), I know that it shows up printer deficiencies quite readily.
If you are looking at a new printer, I'd always suggest a test print or two with known good test images, as well as your own work.
For looking at colour and black and white performance I've initially used the Datacolor test image for colour, and my own black and white printer test image.
The images (and many others) are available for free download on this site.
You'll notice that the driver offers '16 bit' printing - it's greyed out for ABW mode.
Of course, the original image has to be in 16 bit mode, and I still have to admit that I've not come across an image of mine that -clearly- showed the difference.
However, I take the general attitude that any small step that improves quality is potentially worth taking
I still see debates about whether to work in 16 bit after converting raw files. I've seen banding appear in 8 bit B/W files after applying extreme curve adjustments to parts of images. This didn't happen at 16 bit, so I take 16 bit working as one of those minor steps (often not readily visible) that contribute in a positive way to total print quality. Others may think differently, but I believe they help...
One option that I did decide was -not- worth the extra print time was printing at 2880dpi rather than 1440dpi. With a few quick tests I couldn't see any visible difference, however like with most alternatives, I'd seriously suggest you do your own testing.
It's very difficult and as I mentioned, getting more so, to be able to say that printer model X produces better looking prints than printer model Y, particularly when looking at an evolutionary step, such as the 3800 to 3880 change.
It's even more difficult to show differences here in an article on the web.
I'll limit this discussion to a more qualitative one, since I'm firmly of the belief that people who just look at numbers for describing print quality, run the serious risk of missing the whole point of why you choose to print an image in a particular way and on a particular media.
I've now printed many dozens of prints with the 3880, both colour and black and white.
They have all looked just fine.
I use a 7880 for much of my commercial work, so I know the sorts of images that suit different types of paper.
The picture of Southwold beach to the right looks great printed on Premium Lustre, where it's captured the feel of a brisk March day on the Suffolk coast.
The photo of the beach huts below, comes from my ambivalent view of the traditional English seaside holiday.
You have to have a degree of optimism to spend time on the North Sea coast, and it's no surprise that amongst the key items you'll find in one of the beach huts, will be the stove, the kettle and the teapot.
Although, since it's Southwold, I should probably include an espresso maker...
"Look, it's brightening up a bit..."
Printed on Velvet Fine Art paper.
I tried profiling a number of different papers, to see how the printer performed with other 'art papers'.
The prints below are profiling test targets, printed from my G4 laptop (OSX 10.5) and using Photoshop CS3
Just as with the 3800, I found that it was important to get the correct media settings before profiling.
I'll not go into detail of my testing, other than to say that results confirmed how you really do need to experiment with media setting before profiling, and that the suggestions for settings from the paper suppliers should be treated as suggestions...
The sample to the right shows over-inking in a target I printed with the Velvet Fine Art media setting, as opposed to the Water Color Radiant White that I found the best.
If you are profiling papers, I'd still suggest a look at one of the articles on media settings selection I wrote when looking at the 3800.
I tried the printer with quite a range of Epson media, and found the supplied ICC profiles pretty much spot on in terms of print quality, although some seemed a little optimistic when used for soft proofing (then again, this is always an area that you need experience to get the hang of).
The glossy wedding pictures passed the test of being handed around where, as you'd expect, the only problems noticed were related to subject matter, not print quality...
For black and white printing on matte, I let the printer driver initiate the ink swap, but in normal use I'd do this manually, so as to be able to do a quick nozzle check print on plain paper, before losing a sheet of expensive paper.
The image to the right is the part ruined, part rebuilt Covehithe church, just up the coast from Southwold.
As with colour printing I like to try a print or two of my own specialist Black and White Test Print.
Both Premium Luster and Velvet Fine Art produced pretty accurate results.
During profiling I noticed that the ABW mode produced slightly darker black on any particular paper - not much, but worth checking when deciding on how to print an image.
With other papers it's sometimes worth producing QTR correction profiles to better linearise the results.
I'll skip the details here, but I've covered this aspect of 'fine tuning' B/W printing in several other printer reviews and articles, including:
The ABW mode also allows toning, although as in printing toned (RGB) images, I'd always suggest that erring on the side of too little 'added colour' is usually better than too much.
Although I invariably print individual images directly from Photoshop, via its print dialogue, it's worth noting that Epson supply a print plugin that works via the File>Automate menu.
It's a complete application that opens up in its own right, and allows various print functions for open images.
You can process one or more images that you are working on.
Whoops, despite my spending some time on creating this black and white image, it doesn't count...
Fortunately a mode change to sRGB allows it to be recognised.
sRGB is fine for handling a greyscale image (which was 16 bit and in Gamma 2.2)
A window opens up - I can see my image in the corner and a hint in the layout preview that I should drag images to the preview.
There are vast numbers of options here.
Buttons, icons, tabs, radio buttons, checkboxes, drop down menus - I can't see a basic interface element that has been left behind.
There are all kinds of print templates available, such as the 'Fun Cork Board' below...
There is genuinely a lot of functionality here, but I'd suspect that the initial complexity will put off a lot of potential users.
One particularly unwelcome feature was discovered when I pressed the small print button in the top right hand corner of the screen shot below.
I'd left my speakers turned up - about half a second after pressing the button, there was a loud 'whoosh' sound and the panel expanded. Defaulting sounds like this to 'on', is a no-no, but it takes a master designer to delay them by half a second, so as ensure maximum surprise value. Fortunately I was not holding a cup of tea at the time...
Fighting my urge to close the window immediately, but making a point of turning down my speakers, I looked at some of the functionality.
There are some very handy layout options that might be of use for working photographers.
The ability to automatically lay out multiple copies of an image on a sheet could certainly speed up some jobs and save the need to create complex Photoshop layouts and actions.
You'll need to persevere to find out what's in the package, but there are a lot of options.
I even found the right one for printing a single image on a single sheet of paper (A2 with 5mm margins in this case.
As in the normal printer setup, there are more standard paper sizes than you ever thought possible.
All too soon it was all over...
The plugin died several times on my Mac (10.6.3 and Photoshop CS3). I believe this may be a known issue with OSX 10.6
OK, I've a particularly low threshold for usability related issues, so take my comments in context.
If you can make use of such print functionality, then I'd suggest making the effort to fight through the interface design.
BTW if anyone regularly uses this plugin as part of their business, then please do let me know.
Buying the Epson 3880
We make a specific point of not selling hardware, but if you found the review of help, please consider buying the 3880, or any other items at all, via our links with Amazon or B&H
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OK, apart from the plugin above, what was the 3880 printer like?
In terms of ease of use and print quality I found the results excellent, and well up to the standard that I'd be happy to use for my professional work.
The changes from the original 3800 are incremental in many ways, and if I had a 3800 in relatively light use, I'd probably not rush out and replace it.
If I'd had a 3800 for several years, used it heavily and was thinking of a replacement, I'd quickly look at getting a 3880 whilst my 3800 still had a reasonable resale value.
I'd been asked to look at paper handling when I mentioned getting the printer, and my feeling is that Epson have fine tuned some of the 3800 internals to improve reliability and consistency. That said, the real test only comes from continued regular usage.
For colour work I found the Epson supplied ICC profiles to be capable of giving very high quality results on Epson media.
The black and white ABW mode produced neutral and smoothly toned black and white images.
The printer driver software behaved just fine - I'll cover some Mac specific profiling issues in a bit, but no issues with printing or ink management to note.
The maximum print length (with Epson driver) of 37" might be a problem - the 4880 does offer roll media, but doesn't have the built in black swap.
The black ink swapping issues of some other Epson printers are absent, with a pretty small amount of ink lost in the process.
Since the improved inkset is widely mentioned in promotional literature, it's worth looking at any visible effects of this.
The diagram to the right is a typical one you'll see, whether discussing papers or advertising ink.
As with most such diagrams, it's essentially a pretty picture and doesn't tell you anything meaningful - this is one reason I generally avoid producing them for printer/paper reviews. If you see a review with lots of them, then be very wary unless there is a lot of additional materials explaining just what such data can and can't show.
I can tell from my own profiling work with the 7880 and 3880 that the gamut of the printer is indeed slightly better, but there is more to print quality than just ink gamut.
I still had one print left from when I looked at the 3800, and looking at a new version I have to say that I couldn't see any obvious differences in colour.
I do think that the fine detail looks slightly clearer and the image looks a bit 'cleaner'. However I should add that I took some photos of this and was unable to come up with a good example showing the difference. I'm also minded to think that the 3880 did look a tad better than similar ones from my 7880. Then again the 7880 prints 24" width on roll paper
I've heard it suggested that the new 'screening' algorithms (i.e. where ink dots get placed) can perceptibly improve results on Photo Black compatible papers, particularly in saturated yellow-green areas and red-magenta areas. Once again most visible in test images rather than the sorts of prints I make.
The most obvious difference I've been able to come up with is a slight reduction in colour gloss differential.
The prints (especially ABW ones) are effectively free of bronzing and a noticeable improvement on the original UltraChrome inks (which I still use in my 9600 with matte black ink for some B/W work on rag papers)
The picture below has been produced to amplify any uneven gloss effects on Epson Premium Luster paper.
It's a reflection of a halogen ceiling light and looks fine.
Even tricky deep sky blues below show a reduced purple sheen, compared with earlier inks.
This just isn't the sort of thing you'd notice at all in a framed print behind glass. A noticeable improvement (but only after some care in looking to to find it)
The same image on Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper shows up the purple a bit more, but again, do note that it's taken some effort to create a photo which shows it very much.
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What does this mean in practice?
Well, I take a bit more care in profiling and printing to make sure that skies don't shift slightly in hue to the magenta, since the slight sheen could make this a bit more visible.
I'm also more careful if printing an image that's in the large ProPhoto colour space, since the combination of Perceptual rendering intent and out of gamut colours might just show a hue shift.
Then again if you were not expecting such potential issues, what were you doing trying to print from such a huge colour space in the first place ;-)
A warning though - I'm really being quite picky here and you shouldn't think that these comments mean for one moment that I wouldn't be happy to use this printer to produce prints to sell.
An excellent, solidly performing printer for people wanting to produce relatively modest volumes of larger prints.
Excellent colour and B/W performance coupled with larger ink cartridges mean that I'd suggest people looking at a R2880 seriously consider the step up to the 3880 - particularly if you want to print on a wider range of papers.
The lack of a roll paper option and 37" maximum print length (with the Epson drivers) may be a problem for some.
The supplied print plugin for Photoshop has a rather complex interface, but could be of use for handling more complex print layouts.
Questions? Comments? Feel free to ask via this article's Comments page.
Epson supplies for the 3880
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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