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                      Review: Epson Colour Stylus 500
  Calum Tsang                                               tsangc@io.org
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[Note: Epson has recently introduced the Stylus Colour 400 and 800, capable
of 1440x720 output, but they are largely still based on the 500 series
printers.--Calum]

I remember quite well when my friend Olivier purchased his Epson Stylus
Colour a year and a bit ago: the near photo output was nothing short of
amazing.  Of course, the price tag for the unit was nothing short of
amazing too: around $700-800, Canadian.  At the time, I had just received a
free Canon Bubblejet BJ5-and was quite happy printing out with the basic
package Canon Europa had distributed from Wolf Faust.  If you notice that
the model numbers of the latest Canon printers are in the 4500's, you can
surmise how pathetic a BJ5 is.  Still, the Epson Stylus Colour, and the
later introduced Stylus Pro, required special drivers and the paper was
expensive...

Until recently, my BJ5, while slow and black ink only, met all my needs.
Proofing output for layouts, printing reports, making labels and inserts
for my tapes etc.  Unfortunately, it's always had trouble feeding paper:
the rollers are clogged and worn, and it's external ASF module is somewhat
crickety.  And right before exam season last year, it started causing a lot
of problems.  So off I went, looking for a new printer.

There were a few alternative choices, including some refurbished HP DeskJet
500's for only $175 at a local used computer store.  Packed in shrinkwrap,
there were at least twenty of them.  I like the HP's, but bad memories of
my ex girlfriend (whose workplace had HP Deskjet Colour printers) made me
stay away.  Used printers perhaps from school, like broken HP LaserJet
II's, could be a route as well.  Neither proved to be the right path,
though.

I could continue to use the school's resources: one of the labs had
recently installed a pair of LaserJet 5SiMX's, RISC RIPs with 17 ppm 600
dpi output.  But the process of file conversion, school equipment breaking
down and a constant lack of paper in the trays strayed me from that route.

Somehow, after breaking up with my ex, I had this intense desire to do
something other than school: to be creative.  So my thoughts turned to
colour printers.  The memories of Olivier's amazing Colour Stylus sprang to
mind, yet the fact I had about three dollars in my bank account also were a
bit more noticeable.  What to do?

Fortunately, I made enough of a fuss that my family said they'd pay for it.
Looking at all the different models, it occured to me that the printer
market is primarily inkjet these days for consumers.  The two major
manufacturers are Hewlett Packard and Canon.  Secondary brands included
Epson, and Lexmark (formerly a subsidiary of IBM), plus a multitude of
other weird one offs.  Name wise, I'd had good experiences with Canon
Bubblejets-my BJ5 was a real trooper to the end.  I had also used a Deskjet
500C, a CMY-K model which required a cart swap for colour.  The paper
handling seemed superb on the HP.  Epson is a relative newcomer to the
technology: but they've garnered a lot of respect in the last few years.

Going to buy a printer these days isn't the way it used to be: when I got
my A2000 in 1988, we spent literally weeks reviewing different printers.
When we finally chose a Star Micronics NX1000Rainbow, I had printed so many
of my own samples, most salespeople considered the printer sold.  Nowadays,
PC hardware is commodity driven: a printer is a printer is a printer.
Visits to Computer City Canada and Future Shop reinforced the new computer
retail paradigm of boxes, boxes, boxes.  You look at the boxes, you pick
the one you like, you take it home.  You don't bring in your own files.
Nor do you ask for practical print samples.  You just use your copy of
HomePC, ComputerLife or Martha Stewart Computer Living, those amusing
family PC magazines to select the right model, whip out your credit card
and bring home your new printer to plug into your Windows machine.

Some general notes about printers: all come with personal creative
software.  While I think this is really quite nice and is a great idea for
PC newcomers, the idea of paying extra for some Print Shop esque package is
somewhat revolting, seeing as I have a 10MB A3000.  Of course, you can't
quite say no.  They also all have Windows only drivers.  (I don't think
there's a printer in history that came with an Amiga specific driver,
except for the odd ones like the Primera and all.)

I guess I'm lacking in confidence overall lately.  But I don't want to make
the wrong decision on a new printer.  So I very carefully looked at all the
printers, so as not to jump into my new output hardware too quickly, the
way my failed relationship started.  (I intend to have this printer more
than two years, thank you)

HP's offerings, their 600 series models, have a U paper feed where you
place paper in the front, and it loops back out.  This is similar to the
older Stylus model.  I was not too impressed with their output, even though
their claimed resolution was 600x300 dpi.  The pricing on these printers
seemed about $100-150 more than anything else.  I had somewhat ruled out
the HP.

Lexmark's round shaped printers looked like a extruded cross section of
those ham macaroni loaf things you see in the deli section but never buy. 
Unfortunately, with a limited market share, buying supplies would be
difficult.  No go for Lexmark, although they get bonus points for their
nifty Optra N workgroup lasers, which can belt out page after page of
TokenRing throttled 16 Mbps Novell NPRINT output.

Canon, had two model ranges, the CMY-K 200 series, and the CMYK 4000
series.  Early on, I'd decided I didn't want a CMY-K printer where you had
to put in all the colours with no black, or black only.  Not only a
nuisance, but the colour output is faded and not as vivid without true
black.  As a result, the 4000 models, 4100 and 4200, were taken into
consideration.  These models can do 600 dpi.

Finally, the Epson line, with the midrange Stylus 500 and the higher end
Stylus Pro and Stylus Pro XL, was studied.  All can do 720x720 dpi, and
apparently in plain paper too.  The concept of printing large format
posters on an XL intrigued me, but then my father saw the price tag and
thought about buying a new car instead of tabloid colour output.  I still
don't see his reasoning.  The Stylus Pro, around $550, seemed like an
excellent choice, with it's support for 11x17 output.  However, it's
unlikely I'll ever need to print anything that large.  It also had a U
shape paper path, which I wanted to avoid.  I wanted to be able to shove in
corrugated cardboard, if needed.

The Stylus 500, is actually quite similar to an interim model, the Stylus
II.  With two simultaneous cartridges, one CMY and the other K, the 500 had
a somewhat straight V shape paper path, with folding output tray.  However,
compared to the Deskjets and Canons, the 500 looked sparse and cost
reduced.  It's anemic control panel and flimsy plastic, while incorporating
improved Stylus Colour technology, seemed indicative of it's low, low,
price at $380.  Basically, it looked like a shoebox with a paper feed. 
It's sole purpose seems to be slamming colour images out at maximum quality
with a minimum of features for the cost conscious yet resolution demanding
family or home office.  While not some wussy oriented job like the Canon
BJC2xx models, nor a industrial monster like the BJC4550 or the ProXL, the
500 seems very much a middle of the road choice.

So, finally caught between the two, a Stylus 500 or a Canon BJC4000 model,
we bought the Epson, because of it's output quality.  While no retailer in
Toronto had the unit in stock, a trip to our favourite
high-volume-bulk-quantity-pigs-slurping-at-the-trough-but-we-love-it-anyway
s consumer retail outlet PriceCostco yielded an entire skid of the Epsons.
Plus for $390, we got an extra Black ink cart and a high quality shielded
printer cable.  At the checkout, the woman in front of us rang up her sole
purchase: "MILK 4L --$3.99".  Then, we rang up our purchase "EPSON STYLUS
PRINTER --$389.00".  Only in North America, kids.

The first few days were somewhat disappointing, due to a lack of quality
paper.  While my friend's Stylus Colour, obviously meant for professionals
and serious print mavens, came with a sampler full of special paper, all I
got was the Epson Kiddie Paint Bucket CDRom, a wonderful and unexecutable
set of Windows programs.  I'm sure it's great, apparently you can make
fridge magnets and greeting cards with it.  I don't know.  My nearest PC is
at work, and it's attached to a Canon CLC800 colour laser copier, and we're
not allowed to print fridge magnets on it.  Unless it's for business
reasons.

Of course, with the purchase of the Epson was the requisite requirement of
printer drivers.  And of course, a call to my Amiga using friend.  Turns
out Olivier has a package of the Endicor EnPrint Epson drivers he's not
using.  Well, I'm game.  I install the excellent EnPrint drivers and try
belting out some JPEGs that I had scanned from 35 mm photos on a Logitech
PageScan Colour at 100 dpi.  Hrm.  The output looks muddy.  Could it be
this the fact I'm using photocopier 20 lb bond Xerox 1524 plain paper?
Hey, wait, the box says you can print 720 dpi on plain paper!  What a lie!
Or does the printer just suck?  Oh no!  Have I made the wrong choice!?

...the fear of an important thing unwinding, unraveling is pretty scary.
You put so much effort and dedication into something, and it just falls
apart, your impression, your love of it, just-wait, sorry, this is a
printer review... 

Subsequent trips to Business Depot and OfficePlace find a ream of
Hammermill JetPrint premium inkjet paper (highly recommended by all Epson
users, I've found) and 100 sheets of the Epson 720 dpi clay coated special
paper.  More print outs.  Amazing.  This thing can print!  Soon after, the
sound of the Epson whizzing along is interminable.  Layouts are crisp,
photo images rich and deep.  Flesh tones come out nicely in faces, while
basic colours are sharp and distinct.  The only problem seems to be ink
soaking, which is largely remedied with varying paper.

A problem arises.  Text out of a word processor, using scalable fonts,
takes ridiculous amounts of time to print.  That's okay, a quick search on
Aminet turns up several Epson LQ and ESC/P2 printer drivers for
Preferences.  They run extremely well for black and white output with word
processors and the like.  Perfect.

After a while, I start to notice some nice design features on the unit.
For example, the ample sheet feeder pops forward when loading a page, to
shuffle and align the rest of the stock.  Paper handling is a joy, the
Epson deals with pages with the skill of a Vegas cardshark.  Setting the
width of a stack of paper is similar to a departmental laser, a locking
latch that's easily set and left secured, unlike the finicky collapsing
mechanisms on others.  The front panel, which looked silly at first glance,
folds down and extends as a very useful paper tray, yet folds back up,
saving desk space.  In both positions, the printer looks normal.  The front
panel is also easy to use: head cleaning and form feed is surprisingly
easy, not requiring any complex button combinations.  It's also
surprisingly well built in the right places, although it's still not a
tank.  The inkwells are much larger than other models, and don't clog the
way some printers do.  There's the ever useful Macintosh 8 pin DIN serial
port along with the usual Centronics parallel I used with my GVP
ioExtender.

Weeks later, I find a BJC4200 at a client's.  The plastic is worse than the
Epson, and there's even fewer controls than the Stylus: a single button on
the top.  The ink cartridges are small, the mechanism frail.  Perhaps I did
buy the right one.

The Epson of course, handles raw text dumps fine too: configuration files,
shell scripts, source code printouts all spit out nicely.  It feeds the
cheap paper I use for these easily, and it's output speed is very fast.

One project that came up had me designing business cards for a school
organization.  While the final camera copy would be done on a 600 dpi
PostScript laser (namely a Lexmark Optra) for professional offset printing,
I decide to make a few with the Epson for fun and to fulfill a last minute
need for a seminar I'm attending.  I could have used the expensive route
and bought some inkjet perforated business card sheets from the local
stationary store.  But it's 2 am, and I need them tomorrow.  A quick look
around the room discovers some old file folders from 1991.  I cut a
rectangle out of them, toggle the Stylus to envelope/thick mode, and load
the sucker into my new printer.  The 500 easily prints out my cards onto
the file folder stock, and with a couple cuts of a razor, I have a small
stack of business cards.  Amazing.  The Stylus' near straight paper path
comes in handy.

Another project involved making a birthday card for a friend.  I took a
picture of her I already had on file, and composited it in 24 bit with an
existing background image of texture I had made for another layout.  I ran
the Stylus with some rough fibrous paper, and cut and glued it with other
images/papers I had gathered for variety. 

It seems that ever since I left school for my year of self-adjustment and
work, I've been designing more and printing more.  I also am running my
Amiga in dual monitor mode more too.  Every evening seems to have my
terminal session on the 13" and my page layouts on the 15", while the
sounds of Dave Matthews play out on the CDRom and the Yamaha speakers.
Since buying the printer, I've done several layouts for CSIE, the Canadian
Society for Industrial Engineering's U of T Chapter.  Business card proofs,
logo designs.  Some purely artistic, like a friend's odd birthday card.
Some purely commercial, like my own flyer/advertisement.  Some purely crazy
too, to satisfy this ridiculous obsession I've grown with paper output.
I've grown this somewhat disturbing fetish with printing, both design and
formatting.  Seeing an image, whether text or graphic, coming out of the
Epson, is a wonderful sight.

To conclude, I'm very very happy with the Epson Stylus Colour 500.  Every
Amiga user should consider buying it, along with the various driver
packages out there.

--Calum Tsang writes for the University of Toronto's Engineering Society
newspaper, the Cannon, and is the creative drive behind the U of T Chapter of 
the Canadian Society for Industrial Engineering, if not the academic or
leadership force.  He is currently working as a systems developer at a large 
company with lots of paper while out of school forcibly for a term.