Working with Canon’s i550 Color Bubble Jet Printer

Canon USA’s top-of-the-line i850 is a terrific printer — a fast four-color model whose prints match six-color dedicated photo printers’, but with superior performance for everyday applications. But while its $200 price would have seemed a steal two years ago, it seems a hurdle today, with deluxe inkjets like Lexmark’s Z55se or HP’s Deskjet 5550 selling for $100 to $150.

What if you like Canon’s style — especially its thrifty use of separate rather than combined color ink cartridges, so you needn’t throw away ink when one color runs dry, as with most affordable printers — but you want to stay south of two C-notes? You do what we do here: check out Canon’s next best personal printer, the i550, priced at $150 (or $120 after a mail-in rebate through February, 2003).

Though Canon touts its “Advanced Microfine Droplet Technology,” the i550 doesn’t match the i850’s ultra-tiny, 2-picoliter ink droplets, so — as with other brands — its ability to aim color ink with 4,800 by 1,200 dpi resolution doesn’t guarantee better results than 2,400 dpi inkjets. (Indeed, the 5-picoliter Canon prints black ink at a perfectly adequate 600 by 600 dpi.)

But its 1,088-nozzle printhead does offer ample precision, with noticeably less banding in colored areas — even in its speedy draft and everyday modes — than rivals we’ve tested. And its support for borderless color printing makes it a tempting alternative to a dedicated photo printer; it lacks digital-camera memory-card slots, but comes with software that reads Exif image data from cameras’ JPEG files for optimized image output.

The USB- and parallel-interface-equipped i550 is no desk-space-saving compact; it measures a substantial 16.5 by 10.8 by 6.3 inches when closed, then becomes positively imposing when opened up, with front and top doors revealing multipart, nested pull-out paper trays. On the positive side, the power supply’s built in, so just a thin cord (without external power brick) goes to your AC adapter.

Top-mounted controls are limited to power and cancel/resume buttons flanking a not-terribly-useful status LED (you’ll need the manual handy to learn that three flashes mean a paper jam or four mean an empty ink tank).

The rear tray holds up to 150 sheets of paper, which slide through the printer in a nearly straight path and are easy to load — paper rests on a little ledge, then the carriage tilts to feed sheets through. The system was faultless in our testing, more skew-proof than other vertical-feed printers we’ve tried. On the minus side, while actual printing is pretty quiet — or almost silent if you activate an optional “quiet mode” — the paper-feeding mechanism makes the i550 more noisy than many competitors.

Leave It Set for Plain Paper
Setup is a half-hour job of installing first the printhead; then the black, cyan, magenta, and yellow ink cartridges; and then the driver software and bundled applications. The Canon lacks the automatic cartridge-aligning and paper-sensing abilities of some recent competitors, but the driver’s maintenance panel guides you through upkeep chores relatively painlessly.

Perhaps the i550’s biggest advantage over its rivals is economy: Not only do the separate color ink tanks reduce waste, but the tanks last longer and cost less than competitors’. We’re accustomed to seeing inkjet cartridges priced at $35 and pleasantly surprised to find one for $20, but Canon’s black cartridge — rated for about 500 pages — costs $14, with 300-page color cartridges $12 each (or $35 for a three-pack).

You can check ink levels via the software driver — which, in another change from HP and Lexmark practice, is one of the most modest we’ve seen, putting a printer-status icon in the Windows taskbar tray only during print jobs. (The manual actually tells you to set printer options via your application’s print properties dialog, with a couple of setup defaults via Control Panel’s Printers and Faxes, instead of offering a showy desktop icon or setup utility.)

The driver offers not only draft, normal, and high-quality modes and a media-type menu but a great variety of booklet, banner, poster, N-up handout, text or image watermark, and fit-to-page printing options.

One tab provides a selection of image-optimization choices for photo printing, ranging from sepia (or another color of your choice) tints to illustration-like effects and options to make colors more vivid, smooth blown-up images’ jagged lines, or reduce digital-camera noise artifacts from background areas such as the sky.

Surprising Speed, Impressive Quality
We’ve read an online review that complained the i550 delivers dreadful, fuzzy text on plain paper as opposed to coated inkjet paper. We’ve got to disagree, having fed it both cheap copier stock and letterhead bond: Canon’s ink does seem slightly heavier or wetter than some printers’ (printing on both sides of thin paper gets awfully soggy), and the i550 — like every inkjet — is unquestionably happier with coated stock. But black text looked tolerable even on the cheap stuff, while colorful charts and photos looked better than average.

We did encounter one plain-versus-fuzzy quirk: The driver’s media-type menu, like Epson’s and HP’s, offers a list of house-brand papers, transfers, and transparencies, but the manual hints that you might want to simply leave it on the “Plain Paper” setting even when using coated inkjet paper.

There is a menu choice for Canon’s coated High Resolution Paper, but it produced unacceptably dark, blotted text on the non-Canon inkjet papers we tried — both the semi-economical, sold-in-500-sheet-reams kind and the more costly, sold-in-100-sheet-boxes stock. Our advice: Unless you’re actually printing images on photo paper (or using exotic stuff like iron-on transfers, which obliges you to move a lever on the printhead), just leave the driver set for plain paper.

The i550 is rated at a swift 18 pages per minute for black and 11 ppm in color; like all inkjets, it fell short of advertised speeds in real-world tests, but is definitely faster than peers like the Deskjet 5550. Twenty pages of single-spaced text took 2 minutes and 6 seconds in a somewhat thin but legible draft mode, and just 2 minutes and 48 seconds in a perfectly crisp normal mode. Draft and normal times for a five-page text document were 37 and 68 seconds, respectively. But most small business operators should consider switching back to more efficient laser or black and white ink jet printers for routine print jobs, and save the i550 for special color print jobs, like company brochures, letterhead, envenlopes and such.

The Canon’s text rates as very good rather than excellent — its speed, to our minds, compensating for its being not quite the most laser-printer-like or magnifying-glass-proof we’ve seen. By contrast, the i550 is arguably the best inkjet we’ve tested for pages that mix text and graphics, with no banding in all but the fastest draft-mode PowerPoint charts and Adobe Acrobat documents — a three-page, two-column newsletter took 1 minute and 32 seconds and looked great in normal mode, and just under four minutes and looked gorgeous in best mode. Our six-page PDF file was rather pale in draft mode (1 minute 18 seconds), but excellent in normal (3 minutes) and best (6 minutes) modes.

Let’s Get Digital

And while purists will say it doesn’t quite match six-color photo printers, we enjoyed the best and fastest photo prints we’ve seen from a four-color inkjet: Using best mode on glossy paper, an 8 by 10-inch digital camera image looked great and took just 2 minutes and 19 seconds, while borderless 4 by 6-inch prints (Canon puts five sheets of its Photo Paper Plus in the box) took 70 seconds each and passed the pass-for-drugstore-prints test with flying colors.

We produced the latter with Canon’s bundled Easy-PhotoPrint, which guides you through selecting images, media type, and layout (everything from borderless singles to multi-image contact sheets), and also offers limited rotating, cropping, and date-stamping options. It’s the nicest of the nice utilities on the Canon CD, others being ZoomBrowser EX to view thumbnails of and import digital-camera images; PhotoRecord to create albums and contact sheets; and PhotoStitch to merge overlapping images into panoramic scenes.

Overall, the Canon i550 earns a four-star — and after a year of using and buying ink refills for it, we suspect it’d get one of our rare five-star — ratings. If you’ve got a $150 budget for a double duty home-office and photo printer, look no further.

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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