|Epson Stylus Pro 4900 review|
In the fall of 2010 Epson introduced the highly anticipated replacement of their very successful 17-inch model Stylus Pro printers. Going back to 2003 Epson began offering a 17-inch companion to their wide format 24 and 44 inch professional inkjet photo printers. Their first model in the 17-inch size was the 4000. Epson shocked the printing community with this release because for the first time you could make a print on fine art matte paper and immediately load resin coated photo paper and make another print without skipping a beat. The 4000 had both matte black and photo black ink cartridges installed in the printer simultaneously. All you had to do was select the correct media type setting for your particular paper and the printer would intelligently select the correct black ink. Since each black cartridge had its own slot and ink line you didn’t even have to wait for the printer to flush the ink line and load it with the other black ink. Fantastic!
This was my first professional Epson printer and it sparked a passion that I carry with me even today. The 4000 had it all – a high capacity paper cassette, roll paper compatibility, automatic paper cutter, front and rear paper loading capability, Epson’s latest print technology and the venerable Ultrachrome ink. It was truly state-of-the-art at the time. Then a few years later the world seemed to come crashing down on me. With the announcement of the update for the 4000, the 4800, Epson had by then moved on to a new inkset called Ultrachrome K3. This set of ink now had the addition of a second light black called light, light black. This was a huge boon to photographers, the quality of prints improved greatly and the black and white image crowd was especially happy due to the increased tonality. But this improvement to print quality came at a huge sacrifice – at least to me, and based on the internet buzz at the time, to a LOT of other 4000 owners as well. There was no other way to put it - Epson was taking leap back into the Stone Age. In order for Epson to accommodate the new light, light black ink cartridge they had to revert to the old process of having to swap matte and photo black inks in order to configure the printer for the respective papers you wanted to use. Want to print a portrait on Premium Luster? Fine, if you happened to have the photo black installed at the time. But what if you forgot to print that last landscape on Velvet Fine Art for tomorrow’s exhibit? Rats, time to switch cartridges to matte black at a cost of about $50 / €35 worth of ink, perfectly good ink that simply ended up in the maintenance tank.
This ink swapping continued with the release of the model 4880, essentially the 4800 with the addition of the Ultrachrome K3 with Vivid Magenta inks. These gradual updates gave us incremental improvements in image quality but the printer for the most part was still the same mechanically as the initial 4000 model. Soon after the 4880 was made available to the public Epson introduced two new printers in their wide format line in 24 and 44 inches that came with a truly new set of inks and technological improvements both in the algorithms used to lay down the ink dots and generate smoother tones but also in the automation of operation. The new 7900 and 9900 were a significant move forward and what made everyone smile was that these two printers now had all inks installed simultaneously thus eliminating the need for swapping out the black inks. Following the design of their 3800 Epson incorporated a system where the photo black and matte black cartridges each have their own slot but they share ink lines running to the print head. Although switching from a photo paper to a matte paper requires the flushing of the ink line it uses only a fraction of the amount of ink compared to the older process.
|Epson Stylus Pro 4900|
Epson Stylus Pro 4900
Well, with enough background out of the way let’s introduce the Epson Stylus Photo 4900. This new printer while incorporating a lot of the features of the larger 7900/9900 is a brand new design. It hardly resembles the 4000/4800/4880 models. If it weren’t for the paper cassette there would be no resemblance at all. Beginning with the physical appearance of the printer Epson has come up with a sleek new color scheme using black and a putty gray color. The paper cassette is now recessed into the body of the printer making it look a little more compact although in reality this printer is slightly bigger and significantly heavier. The design is much more elegant than the older models in the 17-inch series. At the time of this writing Epson had not released an optional stand so you’ll need a good size tabletop. The good news is that Epson has informed me that a stand will be available June 1, 2011 in Europe and hopefully soon afterwards in other markets. You’ll need enough space to accommodate its slightly larger footprint taking up most of the space of an average sized desk. Make sure it is a sturdy desk too since this printer weighs in at 115 lbs / 52kg. compared to 89 lbs / 40kg. for the 4880. Dimensions are 34"(W) x 16"(H) x 30"(D). You don’t need much clearance in the rear since all paper feeding is done from the front of the printer.
|Epson 200 ml Ink Cartridge – Epson 4900|
The Ultrachrome HDR inks are already well documented since the release of the 7900/9900 so I won’t go into much detail other than to say these inks feature the inclusion of orange and green. The 4900 is a 10 +1 ink printer with the +1 being the photo or matte inks which are not used simultaneously. Currently the 4900 uses 200 ml size ink cartridges as far as I know there are no plans to offer other sizes. Epson continues to improve their printing technology and the 4900 has the latest and most advanced screening algorithms in the industry. The AccuPhoto HDR screening technology working together with the latest MicroPiezo TFP printhead and Ultrachrome HDR inks produces incredibly lifelike color and smoothness at print speeds twice that of the previous models.There is also a second model of the 4900 called the Designer Edition. This model comes with a highly accurate in-line spectrophotometer developed in partnership with X-Rite. For those who require a complete color management process with a high level of automation this is the perfect solution. When driven with the latest RIPs you have just what is needed for the most demanding proofing applications.
Finally, Epson in its ongoing commitment to providing the imaging industry with the utmost in quality, reliability, and consistency has steadily introduced a line of extraordinary papers to compliment their printers. The Signature Worthy line of papers is now in full fruition with the addition of their Hot and Cold Press papers. Epson has combined their old standby Premium Luster Photo, Velvet Fine Art Matte, and Traditional Photo Paper (Exhibition Fiber called in the US) with these new Hot and Cold Press papers to put together a truly fine collection of gallery quality print stock.
The 4900 arrived by carrier to my home as scheduled. Having previous received my 4000 by truck I knew what to expect. The driver unloaded the carton containing the printer which was shrink wrapped and strapped down to a wooden shipping palette. After signing the bill of lading and taking a deep breath I began to unpack the 4900. Epson designed the packaging to make this task as easy as possible. First you should crack open the small compartment on the top of the carton which is clearly marked. In this space you’ll find the manual and power cord. It is a good idea to put these in a safe place before you begin opening the rest of the carton. Unpacking was easy since Epson has designed the carton to open easily using some pop out plastic keepers on either side of the box. Once the top is slid off the printer is exposed cradled in Styrofoam and plastic sheeting. At this point you definitely will need an extra pair of hands to get the printer out of the box and onto the table. In my case I had to haul the printer up a flight of stairs to my digital darkroom on the second floor of my home.
|Installing the Ink Cartridge|
Setting up the Stylus Pro 4900 for the first time is a breeze. Simply connect the power cord to the printer, plug it into the wall socket (using a good quality surge protector of course), and turn it on using the power switch on the front panel control. After a short initialization you will get a read out on the LCD panel saying there are no inks installed. Take the included starter ink cartridges (80 ml capacity) and install them one at a time in their respective slots giving them a mild shake to mix the ink solution before they go into the printer. Once all the inks are installed it is a good idea to print a nozzle test before proceeding to the head alignment. This can all be done via the front panel control and with the new 2.5-inch color LCD screen all you have to do is follow the prompts. Once you get a nozzle check with all inks registering you can go ahead and do a print head alignment. This is a two step process where you first run the UNI-D (uni-directional) alignment process. When complete run the BI-D ALL alignment. With the alignment finished you are ready to install the software and connect the printer to your PC.
Any time I am going to install a new piece of hardware to my computer system I make it standard practice to check for the latest hardware drivers on the manufacturer’s website. You never know how old the drivers on the install CD are. Sure enough the Epson site had a new driver available for download as well as a firmware update. While I was there I also downloaded the latest version of a nice utility provided for their Pro line of printers the Epson Remote Panel.
Updating the firmware was a simple process using the Remote Panel utility and then I was ready to install the driver package. Again, not much to report here since all went smoothly. Start the installation, follow the prompts, and connect the printer via USB when instructed to do so. Within a matter of minutes the 4900 was operating and I was ready to test.
NEW COLOR LCD SCREEN
One of the major improvements of the 4900 over the 4880 and previous models is the new color LCD screen on the printer control panel. Not only is it bright and vivid, it actually is very helpful and sends coherent information to the operator. I think you’ll find that this is a welcome change and makes operating the 4900 a breeze. You may even prefer, after familiarizing yourself with the menu, to operate the printer primarily from this control panel - at least this was the case with me.
|4900 Printer Control Panel and LCD Screen|
Along with this new LCD screen you’ll find controls for setting the paper cutter on or off, switching between sheet and roll feed, initiating the self-feeding of roll paper, feeding or discharging the paper electronically, and switching between photo and matte black inks. Gone are the days of having to manually feed paper and set the paper alignment. With the 4900 you simply insert the paper (whether roll or heavy cut sheet stock in the rear feed slot) and press a button. The printer does the rest. No longer do you have to release a paper lever that was on the top right of the old models. When using the paper cassette all you have to do is make sure you load the paper with the print side face down and adjust the two edge guides inside the cassette.
The home screen of the LCD gives you all the critical information regarding printer condition in a graphical manner. Take a quick glance and you immediately know the configuration of the printer for paper and cutting, the remaining levels of ink, and the remaining capacity of the two ink maintenance tanks. The 4900 has two maintenance tanks – one is to store ink from the overspray when printing borderless prints. If you never print borderless prints you can expect to never have to replace this tank. The second one is for storing the usual waste ink used to clear clogged print nozzles. As you can see from the image above the printer is telling the user that it is set for sheet paper (when a roll is installed you’ll see a roll icon), the matte black ink is primed and ready, and all ink levels and tank capacities are at operational levels. There is also an icon indicator (scissors) when you turn on the built-in paper cutter.
Here is an example of the Paper Setup portion of the menu system accessed at the printer control panel. I think it is a good idea to always select the paper type (if listed) in the menu after it is loaded. Although you can also select this as the Media Type in the printer driver software I have had instances where the printer asks to confirm the paper selected in this menu before it begins to print. To avert this I always go through this short exercise after I load paper.
The Epson LFP Remote Panel 2 is a useful program that is available for download at the Epson website. Aside from being a one-stop-shop to help you manage your printer it offers what I think is a valuable Custom Paper Setup feature that works well with the printer’s control panel.
|Epson LFP Remote Panel – Custom Paper Setup Screen|
Here I set up the specific paper settings recommended by a third party paper manufacturer. It allows you to set the Media Type, Paper Thickness, Platen Gap Setting, and other adjustments. The beauty of this is that you can save these settings with a custom name and recall them whenever needed. All you have to do is select the correct Custom Name in the drop down list and click on Activate. The printer control panel then indicates on the LCD that this Custom Paper configuration is currently active. One word of caution – you must return to this screen when done printing on the media specific to this setup and re-activate the “Standard” or default settings to get the printer back to the previous settings. I really find all these improvements to be a welcomed change over the old 4XXX models and how they handled media settings and printer configuration.
I’ll start by saying that the ICC paper profiles one uses in a color managed print workflow must be of the highest quality to take full advantage of the wide gamut produced by the Ultrachrome HDR inks. Epson has at no other time been more consistent in providing excellent quality paper profiles for their printers and papers than today. During my testing I compared a variety of Epson papers using their installed profiles against custom profiles that I generated using the X-Rite i1Xtreme system using the i1Pro spectrophotometer and i1Match 3 profiling software. While this system produces excellent high quality profiles on any kind of media I could not get any better performance than when using the Epson provided profiles for the 4900 on Epson papers. I could probably fine tune the custom profiles to squeeze out that last drop of color accuracy and image detail but under the usual printing conditions and demands I am sure that 99% of the 4900 users out there will be totally satisfied with the performance of the Epson profiles.
|Mission San Francisco de la Espada – San Antonio, Texas|
Aside from the quality of the Epson paper profiles I would also like to point out that as I tested different subject matter on different Epson papers and some 3rd party stock it quickly became apparent that this printer is remarkably consistent in print tone, sharpness, and acuity. The Ultrachrome HDR inks are not all hype. The difference between the HDR inks and the Ultrachrome K3 inks in my 3880 is easily detectable in many images. There is an almost three dimensional characteristic in the better examples. Colors are more vibrant and there seems to be better separation between textures such as foliage and ground cover. This is mostly likely due to better shadow detail resolution which tends to give the illusion of pulling objects off the paper.
|Mission San Xavier del Bac – Tucson, Arizona|
Printing black and white images is simply a dream on the Epson 4900. The printer driver has the Advanced Black and White Photo Mode (ABW) technology like many of the other Epson models. As I pointed out in an earlier review of the 3880 it works as advertised giving you truly neutral prints or nice toned ones as well, yet it is not my preferred method for printing B&W prints. That leads me to once again report that when relying on the Epson provided ICC paper profiles they produce very neutral B&W prints and accurate toned ones as well. There was a time not too long ago when this was rare indeed. In this example of Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Arizona the print reproduced all the range of grays seen here. I used Epson Signature Worthy Exhibition Fiber paper and the range of contrast is amazing. The “White Dove of the Desert”, as the mission is known, jumps off the page with the highly detailed white tones. The cast iron lions guarding Grotto Hill east of the mission show a very fine variation in tone and shadow from decades of oxidation. All details are well resolved including the scrub growing in the foreground.
The 4900 has vastly improved paper loading features with the ability to use the paper cassette, roll paper spindle, front feed for thick stock, and a rear manual feed slot. The biggest improvement is the complete automation of paper feeding using any of these four methods. Loading paper using either the roll spindle or the rear manual feed slot with the older 17” models in the 4xxx series required some acquired skills gained through repetition of the process. The latter particularly was tricky since you had to hold the paper just right as it was grabbed by the rollers and fed into the printer. Now with the 4900 you push the paper down gently but firmly until you hit some resistance. Push it down just a little more and you will feel the paper wedge itself into the rollers and it will bounce back slightly. This is the tactile indication that the paper is properly seated. Now you simply press the down arrow button on the printer control panel and the paper is fed automatically. It works like a charm every time, and no bloody error message that the paper is not loaded straight. Loading roll paper is even more fun. Once you load the roll on the spindle you feed the paper into the rear path until the LCD panel tells you to hit the roll paper advance button. That’s it! The printer does all the rest of the work. You no longer have to align the paper with the alignment marks on the paper cassette cover and you don’t have to take up the slack in the roll when the paper is loaded by the printer. This is now all part of the automated process.
The print speed of the 4900 is significantly improved as well. I did not time how long it takes to make a print of a particular size and resolution but it is immediately obvious to someone who has used the older models that this printer is much faster. It is also much quieter. When idle it makes no noise whatsoever and when running it is very quiet. My old 4000 had a full repertoire of quirky noises; some of them so annoying I would cringe on occasion. The 4900 is much better behaved, auto-detection nozzle cleaning cycles are barely audible and while printing all you hear is the low suction of the paper feed mechanism.
When Epson sent me the Stylus Pro 4900 for testing they also included sample papers of their Signature Worthy line. These papers are so significant and produce such high quality print output I felt it important to include a short review of these papers as well. Although the 4900 is an achievement in itself without the Signature Worthy line of papers the printer would be like a world class Tenor without a famous venue.
|Epson Signature Worthy Papers|
The Signature Worthy line is made up of several types of paper; some old standard bearers, some totally new, and one paper of less recent introduction. The list consists of the following:
- Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster/Premium Luster Photo Paper
- Exhibition Fiber Paper
- Exhibition Canvas Matte
- Exhibition Canvas Satin
- (Available in Europe) Premium Canvas Satin
- (Available only in Europe) Water Resistant Canvas)
Fine Art Papers
- Velvet Fine Art
- Hot Press Bright
- Hot Press Natural
- Cold Press Bright
- Cold Press Natural
Of the nine papers I was not provided samples of Canvas Matte and Satin so these are not included in this review.
One thing that I have learned over the years is that inkjet papers can sometimes really perform well and sometimes they can really disappoint. What plays into this dichotomy is not so much the overall quality of the paper but which subject or image is chosen for the respective choice of medium. At this point in the development of inkjet printing technology most serious photo paper manufacturers are truly committed to quality, of that I am convinced. So it behooves us, as intrepid print makers, to understand that the overall success of the print depends, or more definitively, lives or dies, by our choice of medium. This is a skill that is developed over time and only through sampling, testing, and evaluating different papers. It also helps to visit galleries or anywhere you may get a chance to view well executed prints. Eventually, you gain a feel for not only which images will look best on which paper but how to control the nuances of post production in preparing the image file for a particular type of paper. I am puzzled by photographers who settle on one or two papers and proclaim that they print all their images exclusively on these (possibly arbitrary) selections. Sure, I fall in love with a certain paper every now and then and want to use it on everything. That infatuation quickly ends the first time I try to force a particular image onto it. It's not that I am revealing the papers warts it's just that I have stumbled onto the technical limitations or particular characteristics of the substrate and coating for that paper.
So from this perspective I was intrigued with the decision by Epson to produce, rebrand, and market several media into a top quality line of papers, Signature Worthy papers. We have the old familiar Premium Luster and Velvet Fine Art mixed in with an outstanding Baryta style photo paper along with some canvas, and a new line of natural fiber cotton rag papers, the Hot and Cold Press offerings with or without artificial brighteners. I made many, many, prints with all of these except the canvas. On occasion I may have not picked the right paper for the task but overall I was very pleased and excited with the results. Right off the bat I was amazed at how well the old trusty Premium Luster paper in both roll and sheet form performed. It is as if the HDR ink technology has given new life to this old standby. I saw increased vividness, contrast, and again an almost 3D quality. Welcome back old friend. The same was the case with Velvet Fine Art. I have had a long time love affair with this paper ever since I was first able to unlock its secrets. Now with improved paper profiles and state-of-the-art inks and screening technology it is hard to make a bad print with this paper. For some the somewhat heavy texture of the surface of this paper will not appeal to them, but I’m unapologetic, I love it. To me it still has that perfect balance of weight, texture, and luxurious hand that makes it a joy to handle. And when put behind glass the vibrancy just explodes.
If you are dealing with images where you want to accentuate the contrast then Exhibition Fiber is probably your best choice. Whether in color or black and white this paper has the distinct characteristic of being very contrasty and able to resolve a lot of fine detail. When I first looked at this paper I was a little put off by the fine but noticeable stipple pattern on the surface. The only Baryta paper that I am aware of that does not have this pronounced surface is Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk. I was not sure I would like this paper until I made a few prints. The stipple seems to go away for the most part once the ink invades the surface; although it is still there, it is hardly noticeable. What will impress you is how wide a range of contrast it displays. This paper has a D-Max that is off the charts.
Finally, the new press papers are the latest addition to the Signature Worthy line. Epson must have a lot of confidence in these papers; why else would they go to the trouble of not only offering two surface types but both natural fiber versions and optically brightened versions. I know, using papers treated with optical brightening agents (OBA's) is heresy to some. I refuse to get into this debate in this review. I want to focus on the printer and its papers. Besides, modern OBA formulas are less likely to produce yellowing over time or so the latest testing suggests. In my opinion if you need a bright white paper I say use it. As long as you are careful to use high quality papers from manufacturers with excellent reputations and archival inks I think you are doing the due diligence necessary to protect your customers. Full disclosure is also recommended as well. Simply tell them when you are using a paper with optical brighteners and the possible consequences. Okay, let's move on.
I found the Hot Press papers to be very close to Epson's Ultrasmooth Fine Art paper that was released a few years ago. While I used that paper for some time I found it difficult to get the fine detail I wanted out of my images. The Hot Press twins seem to do this in spades. This is probably my least favorite of the Signature Worthy line, and not because it lacks quality it is just that I'm not that crazy about smooth fine art papers. Undoubtedly the performance is outstanding, much better than Ultrasmooth Fine Art, but it is less satisfying in the hand because of the lack of even a slight amount of texture. I did make a wonderful print of China's Forbidden City on this paper that I immediately had framed I loved it so much.
The Cold Press papers are very close to Velvet Fine Art in many respects. Maybe just slightly more refined than my old favorite. I look at this paper as a complimentary paper to VFA and not a competitor. There are differences but they don't compete against each other. If you had to press me to be more specific I would say that while VFA has that great combination I mentioned above the Cold Press papers also display this winning combination but in a subtle way. It is a slightly more delicate paper in your hands while at the same time it doesn't feel less substantial. It just is light on its feet. It's sort of VFA after charm school. Still the same personality but a little more refined. Some might say this is an obvious shortcoming, I see it as taking the edge off of a bold performer.
Regardless of which Signature Worthy papers you decide to try I believe you will be very pleased. Are we close to truly having a line of all the papers we will ever need? Maybe, you could get by for a long time with Premium Luster, Exhibition Fiber, and either one of the Press papers or Velvet Fine Art and a Canvas if you are into canvas prints. I think I'll keep my options open but I will always want to have some of these papers handy. They exhibit a consistency across paper types, they perform exceedingly well with the Ultrachrome HDR inks and load flawlessly with the 4900. I think we have come close to a point where you can process an image and print it on any of these papers and get a great print. Not too far in the past this was hardly possible.
Whether you are looking to upgrade your old and tired 17" pro printer or this is your first venture into the world of wide format printing the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 is an excellent choice to consider. Simply put, I tested this printer extensively and was prepared to find some small issues as no product is perfect. I could not find anything wrong in this printer that I felt worth writing about. I am not an engineer and I tend to adapt to the shortcomings of product designs. Maybe I may not be the best judge of the mechanical and technical capabilities of this printer. I do know a lot about printing photo images and can judge when prints are of the highest quality and when they are not. The 4900 is an outstanding product and when coupled with the Epson Signature Worthy papers it is nearly an unbeatable combination. Highly recommended.
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