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What works in aqueous-based wide-format printing: a report on the latest generation of Canon and HP printers, plus choosing the right type of printer for graphics printing as opposed to fine-art and photographic printing.
When solvent printing first came to the market, there was a general murmur in the industry that this was the first signal that aqueous-based printing was on its way out and headed the way of T-Rex. Still, aqueous printers held their own, due in large part to their price, reliability, and more-durable pigmented ink sets. With pigmented inks, unless it’s for a specialty application like a tabletop graphic, or it has to sit in the sun for a couple of years, you shouldn’t need to laminate.
Then, when UV-curable printing arrived, allowing direct inkjet printing to uncoated boards, another premature obituary was written for aqueous printing. But the simple fact is that it’s hard to beat the quality, reliability, and ease of use of aqueous-based printers, and they’re an excellent complement to more industrial methods of printing, such as UV-curable.
Canon, HP or Epson?
Over the past few years, a couple of important developments have taken place that have bolstered HP’s place in the market and, at the same time, challenged HP’s dominance. The first development was the emergence of Canon as a legitimate competitor in HP’s wide-format printer markets. The second was HP’s introduction of the replacement for the 5000/5500 series, the Z6100.
Both developments are perfectly timed, at least for print shops whose current technology is reaching the end-of-life phase and who are looking for faster, more economical, and more efficient printers than they currently run.
Canon’s iPF8000S and iPF9000S sign production printers are based on the company’s line of photographic-quality printers, which range from the 17-in. iPF5100 to the 60-in. iPF9100.
The two types of printers (x100 and x000S) are identical, excepting the ink set and the speed. Canon’s photographic-quality wide-format printers include red, green, blue, and photo gray inks, which sacrifices speed for the ultra-high quality photography and fine-art reproduction demands.
HP and Epson also manufacture printers for the photography and fine-art markets. Epson has traditionally dominated this market, but HP and Canon are making serious inroads.
If part of your market is fine-art or photographic reproduction, it’s recommended that you narrow your choice to one of the printer lines from Epson, Canon, or HP specifically designed for those markets, rather than try to re-purpose a graphics production printer, since fine-art and photo clients tend to be extremely picky about color transitions and overall fidelity.
Fine-art reproduction and photography demands printers designed to produce photo-quality, archival images with larger color gamuts that produce extremely fine definition and attention to subtle transitions. Canon, Epson, and HP all manufacture printers geared toward this demanding and discerning market. Images by Brian Hampton.
Though it may seem somewhat subjective, there is a noticeable difference between photos printed on a Canon iPF8100 and those printed on a Canon iPF8000S, for instance. For more information and recommendations on the fine-art and photographic printing process, click here to read Re-Defining Your Fine Art Workflow.
Meanwhile, Epson’s play in the production graphics market is with its new low-solvent printer, the GS6000. But in the aqueous, high-production, sign-printing graphics realm, Epson does not have a printer that’s comparable to HP’s Z6100 or Canon’s iPF8000S/9000S.
Narrowing the Field: Canon v. HP
Based on real-world experiences from LexJet customers in the field and some initial testing by LexJet’s technical support team, the latest production printers from HP and Canon are meeting and exceeding the needs of print shops that want to increase production and quality while decreasing media and ink waste.
Epson's entry into the solvent market, the Stylus Pro GS6000.
The Z6100 comes in 42-in. and 60 in. versions, while Canon’s iPF production series is available in 44-in. (the iPF8000S) and 60 in. (iPF9000S) versions. The Z6100 is available in PostScript and non-PostScript versions. Canon printers do not come with PostScript, which is only an issue for print shops who print through the driver using a software program like CorelDRAW or Photoshop. RIP programs from Onyx, Wasatch, and SAi (FlexiSIGN) all have PostScript capabilities, so having a PostScript printer is not necessary when printing through these programs.
LexJet’s technical director, Tom Hauenstein, has worked extensively with the various printer models for photographic/fine-art and production printing from Canon, HP, and Epson. During that time Tom has seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (cue music), as each manufacturer has developed their basic print engines and then improved on that foundation.
“This is an excellent time to upgrade, because not only has the technology improved tremendously, but competition has made it extremely affordable to basically double your current output,” says Hauenstein. “Both HP and Canon have made incredible strides over just the last year or two and it shows in the quality and speed I’ve seen in my initial testing.”
Tom’s typical day at LexJet is anything but typical. One minute he’s troubleshooting an extremely subtle flesh tone transition with a photographer, the next he’s delving into the mechanical issues a customer’s having with their printer that’s causing banding, or he’s conducting an impromptu training session with LexJet account specialists on an important detail he found in a RIP program.
Tom recently conducted an initial test on the 42-in. version of the HP Z6100 and Canon’s 44-in. iPF8000S. He printed on a polyester display film because it’s a common material for trade show and point-of-purchase graphics, and it has an extremely large color gamut. That way, any observable gamut restrictions would be a function of the printer, rather than the material. Tom concentrated on three criteria to make his comparison: print quality, print speed, and ease of use.
Test prints from the Canon 8000S (left) and the HP Z6100 (right).
After profiling the Z6100 and the iPF8000S, the first thing Tom noticed was that both printers showed very little grain.
Sometimes, thermal printers with a larger dot size that don’t have a light-black ink channel (which is more common with photographic printers) will have a grainy appearance, which is most apparent in flesh tones. Neither printer has this issue.
“I found that both printers have a similar and quite large color gamut, so either printer should not have a problem reproducing spot colors for company logos, or the transitions necessary for photographic, continuous tone images,” Tom says.
As far as print speed, Tom printed the images at 1200x1200 and timed a 36 in. x 12 in. image at 1:57:03 for the Canon and 1:58.67 for the HP. This is certainly not a monumental difference, but it helps illustrate that both printers are capable of comparably high production speeds, Tom says.
“Measuring speed can be a bit tricky, since one printer might be faster than the other in a different mode. Our experience so far, based on the test I ran and feedback from customers who run both printers, is that the HP and Canon printers are generally in the same ballpark, speed-wise,” Tom says. “If you’re in the market for a new printer and you’re considering both printers, I would contact your LexJet account specialist as we continue to test the printers and build up independent data. We need that data because the numbers quoted in the specification sheets from HP and Canon, while accurate, appear to be based on different criteria, and we need to establish consistent, independent benchmarks for a more precise comparison.”
In the “ease of use” category, Tom says that Canon has a slight advantage due primarily to its printhead technology. Canon’s printheads are expected to last substantially longer than the HP printheads in a normal to high-production environment. With this increased durability comes a higher price as Canon’s printheads are about five times more expensive to replace ($640 vs. $125).
“Cost-wise, it’s probably a wash since HP users will replace their printheads more often, and have four to replace, as opposed to Canon’s two printheads,” Tom says. “However, I think Canon has an advantage in this area because fewer printhead replacements translate to fewer interruptions in production.”
Canon and HP Printers at a Glance:
Z6100, 60-in. (non-PostScript): $15,995
iPF9000S: 60 in.
iPF8000S: 44 in.
Sheets and rolls with a min. roll width of 10 in.
Rolls only with a min. roll width of 24 in.