Epson SureColor P800 printer user experience report

I have always been a proponent of printing one's photographic work. In my mind, it is only in printed form that an image comes to this world as a final statement and where all its aspects can be ultimately assessed and fully appreciated.

Printing may have another, more selfish, motive for photographers. If my memory serves me well, it was Brooks Jenses who mentioned in one of his brilliant podcasts that the best way for your photographic work to stay in the world as long as possible is to propagate as many prints as you can. I have been largely following this advice, selling prints below cost and generously giving them away to friends and relatives. Between the walls of other people's homes, shoeboxes under beds, and just piles of various stuff, your prints may very well outlive you. Just do not forget to sign them.

And then there is the learning aspect: printing can teach you so many things that are difficult, or even impossible, to master otherwise, both technically and aesthetically. How much sensor resolution do you need to produce prints of your favourite size? What are the visual differences between printing at 240dpi, 300dpi and 360dpi? How much sharpening to apply? What about perception of texture in prints produced from film scans and RAW files? Tonal gradations? Colour gamut? Appearance of shadows? Highlights? The list is very long.

But of course, modern world prefers digital distribution and immediate gratification. Unfortunately, though, your image is bound to look drastically differently on an older smartphone, various named and unnamed tablets, a latest calibrated 5K display, and numerous uncalibrated monitors of poor quality. Unless you show it to your girlfriend while having the last beer of the night on a poorly lit curb, there is a high chance that, on the average, a print is going to look truer to your artistic intentions.

A couple of years back I gave a few dozen prints to, let's say for the sake of convenience, distant relatives. I have not visited them until very recently, and nor have I seen the prints, most of which I no longer have. After all this time I totally forgot about them and, even if reminded of their existence, what they looked like in person. Looking at them again after all this time, with a fresh eye and mind, I was unexpectedly impressed—to the point I wished I made them—only of course I did make them. No matter how you look at it printing is definitely worthwhile, I thought to myself.

As longtime readers of this site may recall, I have been using—quite happily, I may add, despite a few drawbacks that I have learned to live with—an Epson 4880 printer. It had been working without a hiccup, but, when Epson announced the SureColor P800, which essentially replaces the venerable Epson 3880 model, my photographic hands became itchy. In particular, I was intrigued by the new generation of inks with a higher DMax (read blacker blacks) and wider colour gamut; unlike its predecessor, the printer could handle roll paper; smaller (80ml) cartridges seemed perfect for my needs (even though more economical, 220ml cartridges of the 4880 are too big for me in practice); finally, replacing the monster of the 4880 with something smaller could give me extra space in my crammed study room.

  Epson P800 printer  

Epson SureColor P800 printer (image courtesy of Epson)

I daydreamed about the P800 for a while but gave up on the idea recognising that replacing the 4880 was not entirely rational. A short while later, however, a fortunate stroke of serendipity occurred: a friend of mine who was unhappy with his newly bought P800 was looking to buy a 4880; long story short, we ended up merrily exchanging the printers. In case you wonder why my friend wanted to get the 4880, the simple answer is paper handling and built quality—but more on that below.

Epson SureColor P800 and 4880

Size comparison: Epson 4880 (left) and P800 (right)

I took the snapshot above when we were exchanging the printers. As you can see, the P800 is notably smaller than the 4880: essentially, it is half the volume and half the weight. The 4880 is so large and heavy that you need two adults to handle it; although the P800 is still far from small, at least you can move it by yourself (but be careful with your back).

Of and by itself, the P800 seems adequately built. It extensively uses plastics of varying quality: while printer top and front cover are thicker and sturdier, paper support, for example, is decidedly flimsy. Whereas this is unlikely to be problematic in daily use, the P800 is nowhere nearly as heavy–duty as the 4880, which was clearly designed for more frequent, demanding use.


Epson P800: installation in OS X El Capitan

Installation of the printer on my Mac Pro was simple and straightforward, but with one caveat: if you simply click on the "Epson SC–P800 Series" in the dialogue above, the printer by default will be installed as "AirPrint" kind (roll the mouse over the image)—and you will lose various driver settings when printing from Photoshop. You need to click on "Add Printer or Scanner..." and install it as a different kind (I installed mine as a "USB" printer).

The P800 can be connected in three ways: via Hi–Speed USB 2.0, 100Base–T Ethernet or Wi–Fi. I will take the opportunity to get rid of a cable running across the room on any day, so I used wireless connection first. Wi–Fi connectivity seems to work, but only sort of. First several images printed well, but the next two got stuck in the middle: the printhead would briefly park, then print several lines, stall, park, print several lines, and finally cancel printing. Now, this may be a Wi–Fi network issue or some such unrelated to printer operation. Regardless, after wasting a couple of sheets of paper I connected the printer using a cable. Even with the cable, however, connectivity is not perfect: I have had a couple of instances when printing would stop in the middle. Again, I do not know what causes the problem and this will take some time to observe and, if the issue persists, resolve.

The P800 handles print media in three ways: via auto sheet feeder at the back of the printer, through front fine art media and poster board feeder, as well as with the use of optional roll paper holder. The first is meant for thinner (up to 0.3mm) and lighter papers only, so if you practice fine art photography chances are you will end up using the front feeder more often than not. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of feeding paper through it as the process is quite fiddly: you have to pop the manual feed tray out, insert and align paper, pop the tray in, press the "Load" button on the touch screen and wait until the sheet is put in place for printing. Although it works fine once you get used to it, I can certainly see why my friend was unhappy about media handling of the P800, or how it can quickly get tiresome and inefficient if you print a lot.

Epson SureColor P800 with roll paper holder

Epson P800 with roll paper holder

One of the reasons why I chose the 4880 over the 3880 years ago was that the latter did not allow using roll paper. Inclusion of this option with the P800 is very welcome. The holder is very easy to attach and remove, which I find perfect for space saving. Compared to the inbuilt holder of the 4880, however, it feels a lot less robust and steadfast. Further, it is not powered, so roll paper is at first slowly drawn in and you need to manually rewind the roll after printing. Finally, the P800 does not have an inbuilt paper cutter, so you have to cut paper manually; fortunately, though, there is an option to print a guiding line that helps to cut paper with a high degree of accuracy. Again, the 4880 is generally a lot better at media handling. I, nonetheless, can live with what the P800 offers as I am not a power user and my priorities lay elsewhere.

My friend was kind enough to give me two sample packs of Hahnemuhle paper, one glossy and one matte. As photo black (PK) ink was already in use, I started printing with the former. The first prints looked gorgeous, but I quickly encountered two problems. First, with thicker and less–than–perfectly flat papers I get smudging around paper corners. This has occurred with both glossy and matte papers—and more often than I wish it did. This may indicate the necessity to clean the printhead—although Epson Print Utility shows no cleaning is necessary—or be related to peculiarities of the paper transport mechanism. This will also take some time to observe and establish the cause.

The second problem was that I saw "pizza wheel" marks when printing on Hahnemuhle Baryta FB paper. This reminded me of another reason why I chose the 4880 in the past: it uses a vacuum mechanism for holding paper flat against the platen and thus is not prone to this problem by design (on the flip side, however, the vacuum mechanism is quite noisy, so the P800 is a lot quieter when printing). Epson would naturally claim that "pizza wheel" marks occur with third–party papers only, so it remains to be seen if Epson's own papers are not susceptible to this issue. On a positive note, I have not seen "pizza wheel" marks after switching to matte black (MK) ink and then printing on various Hahnemuhle matte papers.


Epson P800: the amount of ink wasted when switching from photo to matte black ink

Speaking of switching inks, the necessity to swap between MK and PK ink depending on print media regrettably is still with us. Luckily, though, it is now much more elegantly implemented: both PK and MK ink cartridge are simultaneously installed in the printer, the swap takes just around three minutes, and the amount of wasted ink is much more acceptable than with the 4880 (roll the mouse over the above screenshot to compare the amount of ink and maintenance tank capacity before and after switching from PK to MK ink). The P800 features the ability to automatically swap inks depending on the print medium chosen in the printer driver, but I immediately switched it off: mistakenly selecting the wrong paper type would be costly in terms of ink and time.

This is all I have to report for the time being. Other aspects of P800's performance—particularly printer head clogging and comparing print quality to the output of the 4880—will take longer to assess. I will report on them, together with any updates on the issues I mentioned above, in due course.