It's no secret that many printers are sold as loss leaders. A manufacturer can give away great hardware if he can sell the ink at $35 a cartridge and paper for 25 cents a snapshot. That's where the profit is.
Given that business model, I've always been suspicious of printers equipped to print photos directly from a camera's memory card without going through a computer.
For me, editing photos is the whole point of digital photography. A perfect shot is rare. With a computer, you get a chance to adjust the exposure, crop the image, lighten the shadows, eliminate red-eye and smooth out the occasional wrinkle. All this happens before you commit to paper. So printing straight from a memory card always has seemed to be an invitation to waste money on bad shots.
But I've changed my mind after spending a week with the new Epson PictureMate Dash. The latest in Epson's line of small-format printers turns out spectacular 4-by 6-inch photos in 45 seconds - with or without a computer.
A caveat: This compact machine is strictly for snapshot-size prints. But at $99.99, it's small and inexpensive enough to keep next to your regular printer, especially if you're the family photographer and expect to churn out a lot of prints.
At 26 cents for paper and ink combined, PictureMate shots are slightly more expensive than online photo finishers but relatively cheap for at-home printing. For many photographers, instant gratification is well worth the extra pennies.
With a 6-by-8-inch footprint, the PictureMate Dash doesn't claim much desktop real estate. And setup was a snap: I inserted a print cartridge, flipped up the lid, pulled up the hinged LCD display window and loaded 4 x 6 photo paper from the top.
A handful of buttons on the top control the printer with the aid of on-screen menus; front-panel slots accommodate all popular memory cards. There are two USB ports, one for a PC and another for cameras that support direct printing. A wireless Bluetooth adapter is available for the cable-challenged, and a $50 battery pack will print 140 photos between charges if you're on the road.
Brushing skepticism aside, I began work without hooking the PictureMate to a PC. I popped a Secure Digital memory card loaded with vacation pictures into the slot, and a few seconds later, I was viewing the images on the surprisingly bright, 3.6-inch LCD screen. The buttons and menus made navigation easy - I could view one shot at time or peruse a lineup of thumbnail images (actually, in that small window, they're really "pinky-nail" images, but still viewable).
One irritant of digital photography is that cameras record images with a 4-to-3 aspect ratio - the same proportion as standard TV screens and PC monitors. Unfortunately, most commercial photo paper and picture frames are designed to accommodate 4-by 6- inch prints, with their elongated aspect ratio. That means you have to crop most images slightly to make them fit properly.
The PictureMate made this cropping chore surprisingly easy from the control panel. Same for adjusting basic exposure and color settings.
What amazed me was how little adjustment most decent exposures needed. With automatic enhancement turned on, the PictureMate churned out one gorgeous, well-balanced glossy photo after another. Each one took about 45 seconds, which is more than twice as fast as my general-purpose printer, an aging but reliable HP Photosmart 1100.
Also, to my surprise, the PictureMate accurately removed red-eye from several flash pictures and did its best to adjust for some badly exposed shots - although it couldn't perform miracles.
Among other bells and whistles, the PictureMate prints in black-and-white or sepia, and it offers multiple photo layouts. They include thumbnail images of all the photos on a card, dual wallet-size or four mini-wallet-size prints, double passport-size photos, 3- or 4-inch square images, and other entertaining if less-than-useful options.