Compact photo printers: buying advice

The vast majority of us do very little with the photos captured by our digital cameras – except downloading them to our desktop and leaving them languishing on our hard drive. They have to be pretty special for us to go to the bother of creating a print.

But the process doesn’t need to be painful or time-consuming. A handful of camera and electronics manufacturers continue to produce compact and user-friendly home photo printers that can be used independently of a PC.

Featuring slots for common media cards, the ability to wirelessly transmit images via Bluetooth and USB connectivity, they’ll churn out sparkling snaps without you switching on your PC. Instead of your monitor, you view the pics on the printer’s built-in LCD screen or that of your camera.

Standalone printers have been available for five years. The original models – at least those that could accurately be described as portable – were all dye-sublimation models. But things have got more complicated…

Dye-sub or inkjet?

Dye-subs remain the most common type of compact printer, using a heat process to transfer dye from an acetate sheet on to glossy photo paper. Traditionally, dye-subs take up less desk space than general-purpose inkjets and, although they rarely print photos larger than postcards, that’s easily big enough for most of us.

But lately, the likes of Epson and HP have shoehorned their pioneering inkjet technology into ever more portable devices that give dye-subs a run for their money as regards size, design and quality of output.

Inkjets fire microscopic spots of ink through a nozzle to construct an image from a series of dots; dye-sub models gradually build the image via three coloured layers (yellow, magenta and cyan, followed by a fourth protective coating). Inkjet images are generally sharper: the more dots per inch (dpi), the finer the detail.

Epson and HP’s compact inkjets offer higher resolutions than the standard 300dpi offered by dye-subs, but a 300dpi resolution is sufficient to deliver what we’d consider to be photo-quality prints.

Home or high street?

If you’re printing a batch of pics, doing the job yourself will work out as a costlier process. While most high-street labs offer a discount when you buy prints in bulk – gradually dropping down to less than 10p per copy – the price per print stays the same when you’re using a portable device.

For occasional output, however, compact devices regain the lead in economic terms – a typical cost per print for the models we’ve tested is 20p to 30p, compared with around 50p for a one-off 6x4in print at a lab.

If you’re going to be processing more than 50 images at a time, taking your camera card or CD of images to the high-street photo lab will be more cost- and time-effective. But for small batches or the occasional print, dedicated home photo printers offer real benefits.