Lately, I’ve been in a quandary regarding digital photography. I’m an amateur photographer from way back, still enjoying a decade-long love affair with my old trusty Canon SLR. I’m not a point-and-shoot kind of guy. I enjoy the freedom of traditional photography, the ability to swap out lenses, adjust f-stops, choose aperture settings, and perform other such pre-pic manipulations. I love filters, and I love how my camera takes a picture instantly, as opposed to most digital cameras’ tendency to make you wait a half-second for the aperture to open.

I also haven’t been too thrilled with the quality of most digital photos I’ve seen, particularly from cameras that have a resolution of less than, say, 4 megapixels. My friends sometimes share their digital pics with me, marveling over their quality, and all I can see is shallow depth of field, pixelation, blockiness, and digital softness. It doesn't matter to me that my buddies are happy with low-quality pictures, but digital photography would take much more to seduce me.

Rise of the Machines
More and more, the quality of photographs coming out of cameras that offer a resolution of 4 megapixels or higher is impressing me. The first real samples of such photography I saw occurred at my sister’s wedding in Vegas earlier this year. Sent to me over email—an admittedly cool byproduct of digital photography—the pics boasted an uncommon level of detail, and when I received the lab-processed versions, I was quite impressed by the quality.

And now that we’re seeing SLR-functional digital cameras such as the 6.3-megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel and the 8-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot Digital Camera, we’re finally on the verge of non-point-and-shoot functionality—including that longed-for instant aperture access—that will make traditionalist photographers like myself happy.

Processing
But what of processing? Many digital photographers prefer to keep their photos in the digital realm, as evidenced by our Quick Poll on the main page. Still others create slide shows that they can play on their HDTV monitors, complete with custom soundtracks. Sure, that’s cool, and it has its place in the connected home, but again, I’m a traditionalist, and I like to preserve photographs in photo albums (well, I should say, I like that my wife enjoys doing it). To me, the end result of photography, digital or otherwise, is the print—for framing, for the wallet, for the scrapbook.

Perhaps you’re a casual point-and-shoot cameraman, and you don’t mind photos printed out on nice paper in your multipurpose printer. Perhaps you farm out your digital photos to an online photo lab (such as Ofoto, Shutterfly, or FotoInside) or a local store, for processing. Those are smart choices. But increasingly popular is the sole-purpose photo printer, evidenced by such offerings as the Epson Stylus Photo R800, the HP Photosmart 7960, and—perhaps the most impressive yet—the Canon i9900 Photo Printer. I recently had a chance to set up the Canon i9900 in the Connected Home Media lab and see how it performed with digital photos created with both 2-megapixel and 4-megapixel digital photos.

Detailed Tech Specs
Printing Speeds: 4"x6" Color Borderless Photo: 38 seconds
8"x10" Color Borderless Photo: 50 seconds
13"x19" Color Borderless Photo: 3 minutes
Number of Nozzles: 6144 nozzles (768 x 8 colors - C, M, Y, Bk, PC, PM, R, G)
Print Resolution: 4800x2400dpi in color
OS Compatibility: Windows XP/Me/2000/98, Mac OS X version 10.2.1 to 10.3.x, and Mac OS 8.6 to 9.x
Ink Compatibility: BCI-6Bk Black ink tank, BCI-6C Cyan ink tank, BCI-6M Magenta ink tank, BCI-6Y Yellow ink tank, BCI-6PC Photo Cyan ink tank, BCI-6PM Photo Magenta ink tank, BCI-6R Red ink rank, BCI-6G Green ink tank
Standard Interfaces: USB 1.1, USB High-Speed 2.0, FireWire, Direct Print Port (cables not included), computerless PictBridge and Bubble Jet Direct USB printing
Buffer/RAM: 80KB
Paper Sizes: Letter, Legal, 4"x6", 5"x7", 11"x17", 13"x19", U.S. #10 envelopes
Paper Compatibility: Plain paper, envelopes, Canon specialty papers—High Resolution Paper, Matte Photo Paper, Photo Paper Plus Glossy, Photo Paper Pro, Transparencies
Noise Level (Approx.): 37 dB(A) in quiet mode
Setup and Configuration
The Canon i9900 is a gorgeously black-and-silver beast, a Darth Vaderish behemoth that will consume about half your desk. It measures 23” wide, 34” deep, and 13” tall, when fully unfolded for printing. After unpacking all the assorted components, I dove into the task of setting it up—a very straightforward process that’s outlined on the included poster.

The i9900 offers eight individual ink tanks. Canon's ChromaPLUS 8-color ink system adds individual red and green ink tanks to the cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, and photo magenta inks that you’ll commonly find in six-color printers, such as those above. The newly added red tank offers a 60 percent increase in the orange/red gamut and brings out more vivid oranges and reds. The new green tank offers about a 30 percent increase in the green gamut and creates deeper greens. This ink system adds a noticeable degree of brilliance and depth to printed photographs. Installing the eight ink tanks (individually wrapped) took some time and care, and installing the driver software took a while. I got through the whole process in about a half hour. After connecting the printer to my computer via the USB 2.0 port, I was ready to print.

The Canon i9900 is compatible with Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98, Mac OSX 10.2.1 and later, and Mac OS 8.6 and later. The Canon i9900 offers several input ports, including USB 2.0, USB 1.1, and IEEE1394 FireWire for the Macintosh. On the front, you’ll find the printer’s PictBridge USB port for direct printing from PictBridge-enabled digital cameras. (PictBridge is an industry standard for digital printers, cameras, and camcorders that lets you directly print images taken with PictBridge-compatible equipment, regardless of brand or manufacturer, without the need of a computer.) After you connect the camera, you use its LCD to navigate images and begin the printing process.

Think Ink
One of the coolest features of the Canon i9900 is its ink-management system, called the Think Tank System. When an ink tank is on the verge of emptiness, Canon's optical low-ink-detection system notifies you through your computer’s Printer Status Monitor. A light beam shines through a prism at the bottom of each ink tank. If the tank contains sufficient ink, a sensor detects the light. If a tank is only about 20 percent full, the light beam is refracted and triggers the sensor, which tells the printer driver to send a pop-up notification for that tank. So when a color runs out, you replace only the empty tank.

The Canon i9900 features an amazing 6144 ink-jet nozzles, capable of blasting 122 million droplets per second. The print head uses Canon’s two-picoliter MicroFine Droplet Technology, which paves the way for 4800x2400dpi resolution. The result is an eye-popping vibrancy amidst stable color and superfine detail. The 4-megapixel photographs that I printed out on Canon’s 8”x10” Photo Paper Pro showed an astonishing level of detail and crispness. Even close scrutiny betrayed only the barest hint of digital jags and softness. But the rich colors were what really impressed me. Canon uses dye inks, and in conjunction with its proprietary paper, these inks provide a level of glossiness that seems impossible with an ink-jet printer. You also get more vivid colors, less grain, and better contrast than what you see with traditional pigment-based inks.

Preparing to Print
The Canon i9900 has one vast paper sheet loader. Although you can use any photo paper you choose, Canon heartily recommends its proprietary photo paper, which currently comes in three varieties: Photo Paper Pro, Photo Paper Plus, and Matte, in descending order of quality. You'll get varying results with different brands of paper. Epson paper tends to work well, but Kodak doesn't. I tested Canon’s paper as well as some HP glossy stock I had lying around, and I researched the Epson results, and I can tell you that the Canon paper is probably all you’ll want to use on this machine. Proprietary products tend to annoy me, but I can’t deny the brilliance of the results. These are the best digital-photo printouts I’ve ever seen.

The driver installation places four Canon folders in your Program group—Canon i9900, Canon i9900 Manual, Canon Photo Record, and Canon Utilities. The first two are self-explanatory. The third, Canon Photo Record, helps you set up a printable photo album of your pics. The fourth, Canon Utilities, is probably where you’ll spend most of your time. Inside this folder, you’ll find such programs as Easy-PhotoPrint, Easy-PhotoPrint Plus, Photo Stitch (to create panoramic views), and ZoomBrowser EX (to create slide shows). I played around in the two printing utilities, printing an assortment of photos representative of differing color palettes, contrasts, and resolutions. Easy-PhotoPrint is just a basic printing mechanism that walks you through photo selection, image orientation, paper choice, and so on. Easy-PhotoPrint Plus adds a few advanced features, such as red-eye removal and digital face smoothing.

Over on the Canon i9900 Properties screen, you have a few more photo-manipulation options. On the Page Setup tab, you can configure your printing for true borderless prints, so you can create photos that look and feel just like what you’d get from a photo-processing lab, with no white borders on the edges. You can even set the amount of overscan. On the Effects tab, you’ll find ways to give your photos simulated effects, such as digital filters and monochrome effects. The Vivid Photo check box lets you enhance greens and blues, as well as contrast, but I couldn’t make this effect work. I would need to spend some more time with it. The Image Optimizer and Photo Optimizer PRO effects help digitally improve the resolution of lower-megapixel photos. The Photo Noise Reduction effect reduces noise and other problems.

Printing
The first thing that strikes you about printing on the Canon i9900 is its speed. I printed a gorgeous borderless 13”x19” poster of a Colorado mountain scene, using my USB 1.1 port, in just under 5 minutes. Using the high-speed USB 2.0 port, I managed a similar print of the same size in an incredible 3 minutes. I printed a borderless 8”x10” shot from my sister’s wedding in about a minute. I cranked out a borderless 4”x6” shot of my beautiful daughter in just over 30 seconds. I found myself searching for my very best digital photographs, wanting to print out more and more gorgeous reproductions. I ended up with a plethora of large photos that I’ll now have to buy a bunch of frames for.

I shared my many results with friends and family, who were suitably blown away. One couple looked at each other and said, “Our printer sucks,” speaking of a 1-year-old photo printer about which they’ve previously raved. The Canon i9900 is deserving of all kinds of praise, mostly for the new depths of color introduced by the red and green ink tanks, which add a very noticeable vividness and realism to any picture. Friends were particularly impressed with the reproduction of skin tones. Canon’s earlier photo printer in this class, the i9100, offered 4800x1200dpi resolution, and the newer 4800x2400dpi output is like a revelation.

I was able to compare the 4”x6” prints I printed on the Canon i9900 with several similar shots taken with my trusty SLR (printed at a top-notch local processing facility). Although the 2-megapixel digital shots showed a noticeable softness and digital jag, along with a simple flatness—all the result of the lower resolution—the 4-megapixel shots all gave the SLR shots a serious run for their money, looking just as detailed and even more vibrant and colorful.

The Canon i9900 is also an astoundingly quiet machine, clocking in at just 37 decibels in its quiet mode. Several times, I found myself glancing at the machine, wondering, Is it printing? And then I saw the paper quickly stuttering out the bottom of the unit.

Print that Baby!
If I had unlimited Canon Photo Paper Pro stashes, I’d be printing into the wee hours of the morning, every night. This is one impressive machine, and the only drawbacks I can think of are the near-necessity to use Canon’s expensive and proprietary paper, and the sheer amount of space this giant machine takes up in my workspace. (The solution is to wirelessly enable the Canon i9900 and place it in, perhaps, your dedicated photography room.) And you might balk at the Canon i9900's $499 price tag. Is this machine worth the price, considering your inevitable future investments in ink cartridges (which drain fairly quickly) and paper? It's a gamble.

Another question that will need to remain unanswered, for now, is the question of durability. We'll have to see whether these fabulous prints, which are essentially ink on paper, last as long as professionally processed prints. In the meantime, I'm awestruck by the immediate quality of this machine.

Connected Home Magazine Rating (10 possible)
Design Ease of Use Performance Overall
9 9 10 9