Long before Best Buy became a favorite national consumer-electronics superstore, the New England area was the home of Lechmere, a Sears-like department store that favored home computers, stereo equipment, and music over clothing and lawn equipment. For a budding geek growing up in the go-go 1980s, Lechmere was the place to be, and the store was responsible for a number of my first tech-related toys. It was at Lechmere that I experienced the first video disks, for example, as well as big-screen projection TVs, certain Atari computer systems, and component stereos. It was also the first place I experienced personal photo printing. In fact, I still have the photo I printed that day, using Sony's first photo printer. Here it is.

The photo wasn't particularly exciting, at least from the perspective of subject matter and framing. But for a photo enthusiast such as myself, the printer was a revelation. I'd been taking photos for almost all of my life, and I received my first SLR camera for Christmas in 1984 as a high-school senior. Photo processing was—and still can be—quite expensive, and because I never wanted to waste pictures on a roll of film, I often wouldn't develop pictures for weeks at a time while I gradually filled my current roll. Then it was off to the photo drop-off, and back the next day to pick them up. The idea that you could print your own pictures was a dream—a capability that would change everything.

It would take almost a decade for photo printing to become a mainstream activity. Several factors contributed to this wait. First, a large number of people would need to adopt digital cameras and abandon film-based devices. Second, those digital cameras would need to offer resolutions and quality that rivaled the SLR and point-and-click cameras that consumers bought in record numbers in the early 1990s. Third, personal printers would need to match the print quality of commercial photo-printing services, offering life-like photos on actual photo paper. And because photo printers would be, by nature, dedicated devices, many buyers would use them as a second printer for photos only, so they would need to be reasonably priced and easy to set up and operate.

Today, you can find excellent photo-quality printers at virtually any price point, and if you haven't yet seen such a device in action, you'll be shocked when you see the quality of the prints you can make. In fact, you might wonder why anyone would bother to use a photo-printing service at all. But before we get into the specifics of today's photo-quality printers, let's take a step back and consider the circumstances in which such a device doesn't make much sense.

Is Photo Printing For You?
If you've made the switch to digital photography but, for some reason, still prefer to purchase 4"x6" prints of all your photos, a photo-quality printer isn't a great choice. Although you can buy such a device for just a couple hundred dollars, the real cost of a photo-quality printer isn't in the initial purchase—it's in the perishables, primarily photo paper and ink, and in the time it takes to print high-quality photos. Frankly, I think digital photography, home computing, and broadband networking open up new and more exciting methods of sharing memories than subjecting house guests to an hour of flipping through your photo albums. But if you're stuck in that traditionalist rut or simply need to share pictures with relatives and friends who haven't jumped on the technology bandwagon, you might find yourself needing a lot of physical photo prints. If that's the case, you're better off with a photo-printing service, such as Ofoto, which I use and recommend.

Of course, nothing in life is absolute. Although I can use a Media Center PC to display animated photo slide shows on my large-screen TV and share photos online through my family's Web site and through email, I do still occasionally need to share photos the old-fashioned way. We have 8"x10" framed photos of the family in the living room, for example, and occasionally we like to send standard photo prints to Internet-deprived relatives. We also need to regularly print wallet-sized photos to keep up with our quickly growing children. This means that my family—like yours, perhaps—can benefit from a multipronged approach to digital photography and photo printing. In most cases, we simply enjoy our photos digitally. When we need to print a large number of photos, or we need a specialty print job such as a set of holiday photo cards or a photo calendar, we turn to Ofoto. But when we need to refresh the 8"x10" photos in our living room or the wallet-sized shots of our kids, my wife and I turn to a photo-quality printer.

Like most photo-printer users, we have a separate, more frequently used printer for standard text printing, a semi-ancient HP LaserJet printer that refuses to die—in fact, it's never been out of commission, rarely jams, and magically almost never needs new toner despite constant use, but that's the subject of another article. But when the need arises, we can turn on the photo printer. It's the best of both worlds.

What Are You Getting Into?
If you decide to purchase a photo printer, you need to understand a few basics, some of which I've already touched on. Don't use a photo printer for other tasks, unless you only infrequently need to print text. Photo printers, predictably, are optimized for photo printing, not for printing text, Microsoft Excel charts, and other types of print jobs. That doesn't mean you can't use a photo printer for such a task, of course. But you'll quickly discover that you're burning through expensive ink and potentially ruining or at least gunking up your printer's print mechanism if you're using normal (i.e., cheap) paper. Photo printers are for printing photos.

Second, remember the perishables. Most of today's photo printers include four or more ink-cartridge wells—including a dedicated black cartridge for deeper blacks (older printers mixed colors to get black)—to reach the high quality you expect for photo prints. But ink costs money, often $1 to $2 per full printed page. Good photo-printer software will tell you how full the ink cartridges are, so you'll know when to head out to the store (or to Amazon.com or similar e-tailer) to purchase replacements. But having replacement black and color ink cartridges on hand at all times, as well as enough photo printer paper, is wise.

And consider the paper. If you're familiar with photo prints, you won't be surprised to discover that various manufacturers make 3"x5", 4"x6", and 5"x7" paper sizes available. However, no 8"x10" paper choices are available at all—paper makers instead offer 8.5"x11" photo-printer paper. I've never heard a good explanation for this anomoly, beyond the vague notion that many printers can't handle edge-to-edge printing on paper that large, but the reality is that if you want to print 8"x10" prints (or larger), you'll also need to purchase some kind of straight-edged paper cutter—or trust your shaky hands with a pair of scissors, which I don't recommend.

You'll also need to think a bit about paper types. Most photo prints sold today are glossy, which features a shiny surface. But some people prefer matte photo printing, which offers a flatter, non-glossy surface. And you need to consider paper size. Some photo printers are designed for only 4"x6" prints, whereas others offer 8"x10" and below, or 11"x15" and below. Generally speaking, a photo printer can print any sized print at or below its maximum size. That is, an 8"x10" photo printer can print wallet-sized prints, 3"x5" prints, 4"x6" prints, and 5"x7" prints, as well as 8"x10" prints, and it will work with any paper size 8.5"x11" or below. Just remember that paper cutter for certain print jobs.

One paper-related concern you won't need to worry about is longevity. Although printouts from early inkjet printers often yellowed prematurely, today's photo-quality printers are of much higher quality and produce photos that will probably last longer than you and me. But what's the difference? Thanks to the wonders of digital photography, you'll be able to make an exact duplicate of any photo, at any time, in the comfort of your own home. So the argument is moot, even if the technology hadn't improved so quickly.

On a related note, many photo printers, inexplicably, don't include the USB cable you'll need to connect the device to your PC. Make sure you're getting a cable with the printer, or you'll find yourself running back to the store in a foul mood after you've tried to set it up. Fortunately, USB cables are relatively cheap and are readily available from the same stores that sell photo printers.

Special Features
Because photo printing has exploded, manufacturers have been quick to satisfy demand with unique solutions that target specific scenarios. For example, you can now purchase travel-friendly photo printers, about twice the size of a typical digital camera, that can print 4"x6" photos on the fly, making them perfect companions on a business trip or vacation. Many printers now support digital-camera media cards such as Memory Stick, Secure Digital (SD), and CompactFlash (CF) directly, negating the need for a personal computer. Such printers often include an LCD display that lets you view pictures before printing and even perform simple editing, such as cropping.

Choosing a Printer
Of course, the dark side of choice is confusion. What features are truly important? That depends on your needs, of course, so you'll want to spend a lot of time researching these printers to discover which features are necessary and which are nice but not required. Although we can't possibly address all your personal needs, we can offer a starting point. When evaluating printers, you can organize your options in a variety of ways, including feature set, print size, software bundle, and so forth. All of these methods have their benefits. However, most people tend to weigh cost versus feature set when shopping for this type of device. So for the purposes of this overview, let's examine a few of the best-selling photo-quality printers in certain important categories. Finally, I'll talk about the photo printer I recently purchased and explain why I bought what I did. As is often the case, manufacturers are updating their photo printers regularly, so check with specific hardware makers' Web sites to find the latest models.

HP Photosmart 245 Compact Photo Printer
If you're looking for a great way to print 4"x6" photos on the go without any computer required, consider HP's Photosmart 245 Compact Photo Printer, which is almost small enough to bring along on vacation. The HP unit features slots for popular media cards (CF, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, SD/Multimedia Card, and even the newer xD), and a tiny 2" LCD display so that you can choose which photos you'd like to print. You can even perform simple editing tasks on the pictures before printing, or print a montage print of all the pictures on the card, which can be handy. Print quality is impressive, and for black-and-white photo fans, the unit features an optional gray ink cartridge that's optimized for black-and-white prints. The HP unit isn't the smallest portable printer, but it's one of the most full-featured. It's available now from various retailers and e-tailers for about $200.

Epson PictureMate
Epson's PictureMate is another intriguing portable printer that's truly aimed at non-techie consumers. Complete with a carrying handle and large, easy-to-use buttons, the PictureMate supports all the most popular memory card formats and most of the features on the HP. But it's a bit more portable, offers superior print resolutions, and includes backup options for USB-based storage devices. It also works fine with PCs and Macintoshes, of course, and is optimized for printing bulk quantities of pictures—perfect for users who want physical photo prints of all of their pictures. Like the HP, Epson's PictureMate retails for about $200.

Epson Stylus Photo 925
For a great, general-purpose photo printer capable of prints as large as 8.5"x11", consider the Epson Stylus Photo 925. This versatile, high-quality wonder can print directly from popular memory card formats (and you can add support for other formats by purchasing a separate USB-based card reader), and includes direct-connect compatibility with specific camera models from Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony. The printer also supports paper rolls in addition to the more common paper sheets, using a bundled hardware add-on. But the Epson takes versatility to new heights with compatibility with several paper types, photo sticker and photo CD label printing, and support for standard six-color ink cartridges for the highest possible color quality. The Epson costs just $150 and is therefore a bargain, considering its high quality.

Canon i9900/i9100
Need something a bit bigger? You might consider the Canon i9900, which is a high-end, large-format photo printer that prints photos as large as 13"x19"—perfect for posters. The Canon goes the distance in other ways as well, with an eight-color ink system and decent resolution. Available in May, the Canon is the one device in this roundup that I haven't seen personally, and it will retail for about $500. However, its predecessor, the i9100, is available now for the same price. This device offers the same printing size and resolution but features six discrete ink wells.

My Pick
So, which printer did I choose? I bought an Epson Stylus Photo 900 last fall, which is the predecessor of the Epson Stylus Photo 925 above. As you might expect, we don't have much of a need for 4"x6" shots, but we do print a number of 8"x10" and 5"x7" shots for use in frames around our home, and we've recently begun printing sheets of wallet-sized photos as well; augmented by a $20 paper cutter we purchased at Office Depot. Again, your needs will vary, but we've been astonished by the quality of the Epson, especially after optimizing its software drivers for the highest-quality output and our preferred paper type. Fortunately, photo-quality printers are cheaper than ever and of consistently high quality, so you almost can't go wrong as long as the device you choose matches the features you need. Happy hunting!