Like many of you, I enjoy the hobby of photography. I own a decent digital camera—the Canon Powershot S100 Digital Elph, a 2.1-Megapixel camera that's smaller than a pack of cigarettes—and a lot of analog 35mm camera equipment based around a pair of Pentax PZ-1P (autofocus) and a pair of Pentax LX (manual focus) camera bodies. The digital camera offers the convenience of availability (its small size lets me keep it in a jacket pocket all the time), and the 35mm equipment offers a level of flexibility (with prime and special purpose lenses and lots of other accessories), not easily found in the digital market yet.

Despite the analog nature of most of my photography, almost everything I shoot is handled digitally. I no longer print film as a matter of course. I develop the film and check the negatives on a light box. I use a scanner (the Microtek ArtixScan 1100) to scan selected negatives at the highest resolution possible. I save the scanned images to a network server so I can view and manipulate them on my desktop system using CorelDraw 10.

From that point, producing actual output has always been an issue. I have a hard disk full of high-resolution scanned images; some are posted on various Web sites I own, but most still sit on that hard disk. I've taken a fair number of negatives to the local photo shop to be printed, but that approach isn't particularly convenient. So I've been thinking about purchasing a dedicated photo printer.

Many of the high-resolution inkjets are capable of 1440-dpi x 720-dpi resolution and can print some really good images with the right paper and inks. The street prices are also persuasive—less than $500 for a top-of-the-line inkjet. I wasn't rushing to buy another inkjet printer, though. At the moment, my home network has three printers: an HP LaserJet 6p, an HP LaserJet 4L, and an older Lexmark color inkjet. It's taken me a while to convince my kids that, unless they absolutely needed to print something in color, to just send their documents to one of the LaserJet printers, rather than beating up on the inkjet. Although a newer inkjet would have better quality than my existing inkjet printer, the print time and expense of high-resolution color images made the acquisition of another inkjet printer less than compelling. If you're looking for a good general-purpose printer with the ability to do photo-realistic printing, you should definitely consider one of the high-end inkjets available, but as an additional printer, I wasn't able to justify it to myself.

So as a dedicated hobbyist and technology addict, I went out and found a solution that fits my needs, and perhaps some of yours: The Olympus P-400 High-Speed Photo-Quality Printer. The P-400 is a dye-sublimation printer, not an inkjet, which means it does continuous tone printing rather than printing a lot of little dots. Thus, dpi comparisons between a dye-sublimation printer and an inkjet are meaningless. The dye-sublimation process uses heat to transfer dyes from a printer ribbon to the paper. With the special paper the P-400 requires, the images last as long as a chemically processed photo and are less sensitive to fading than inkjet images. This printing solution is more expensive than an inkjet (though far less expensive than previous dye-sublimation printers) with a street price of about $850 for the printer and a consumables cost of just under $2.00 per printed page.

The P-400 has several neat features. Aside from supporting both parallel and USB connections to your computer, the P-400 also lets digital camera aficionados print directly from the media that their camera uses, with slots for SmartMedia and a PC Card. I used a PC Card Compact Flash Adapter to test this standalone printing feature. The feature works, but trying to edit an image using the printer's 1.5 x 1.5 LCD display is futile. This feature is useful for printing a contact sheet of all the images on your storage device (up to 260 thumbnails), but I recommend you use this standalone printing feature only as a last resort because of the high cost of the consumables.

I did the rest of my printing directly from my desktop computer using the printer's USB connection. Using Corel Photo-Paint, the printer's driver worked well. When I want to print an information sheet to go with an 8 x 10 (actually a 7.65 x 10, the maximum printable size of the P-400), the driver is smart enough to send the information printout to the LaserJet, which I selected as the default printer, while sending the image data to the P-400.

Let me say that in a juried selection test (actually a random collection of friends and family members), no one could positively distinguish between the P-400 output and images from the local photo shop. The images were virtually identical; the only visible difference being that the portrait from the photo shop was printed at 8 x 10, making it slightly larger than the P-400 image.

The 4-pass printing process (cyan-magenta-yellow-protective overcoat) takes about 90 seconds to print the image, and the clear protective overcoat means that you can immediately handle the prints without smudging them. The P-400 has multiple printing modes, including an album mode that prints multiple pictures in a photo album format; a post-card mode that uses special post-card paper and prints edge-to-edge; and a smaller format mode that makes 5 x 7 prints. The P-400 does require special paper designed for this printer; it won't print to regular paper stock. These special papers come in 25-sheet packages, which matches with the 50-sheet printing capacity of the dye-sublimation ribbon.

Whether printing from the 2-Megapixel images that my digital camera creates or the multi-Megapixel images I create from scanned film, the P-400 produces exceptional results for me. However, I can recommend this printer only to those of you who need or want a dedicated, high-quality photo printer. If you're a SOHO businessperson, this device is certainly a cost-effective solution, especially when compared to the $3000 to $10,000 dye-sublimation printers on the market. But for the average home or SOHO user, this printer is probably overkill unless you want the best quality for your printed photographs in the sub-$1000 price range.

Products mentioned in this review:

Canon Powershot S100 Digital Elph
Pentax PZ-1P
Pentax LX
Microtek ArtixScan 1100
CorelDraw 10
Olympus P-400