We face a situation like that when buying inkjet printers, inks, and printing paper these days. Some combinations of ink and paper produce photos and documents that will last for more than 100 years with no perceptible fading, according to industry experts. Other, inferior materials will significantly fade in less than a single year.
Governmental bodies supervise mileage tests for cars and BTU ratings for appliances. The resulting figures may not be perfect, but they're far better than having nothing when making a major purchase.
The knowledge that your printouts won't fade to grey in a few months may be as important to you as selecting an energy-efficient machine. But how can businesses and consumers tell which printing supplies will last?
I wrote on Sept. 20 that brand-name inkjet ink can cost three times as much as "compatible" inks. And I described on Sept. 27 the findings by Wilhelm Imaging Research, a testing institute, that valuable photographs can be preserved for hundreds of years in sub-freezing storage.
But you don't have to deep-freeze your output just to keep your documents and photos from fading for a few decades. If you store your documents in dark places, such as filing cabinets or photo albums, your inkjet printouts can actually outlast professional photolab output.
Wilhelm recently posted ratings of brand-name printers that produce 4-by-6-inch photos. The institute's figures are based on exposing prints to weeks of intense light. The result is an estimate of how soon a print mounted under glass would show noticeable fading. According to Wilhelm, today's most-permanent small-format photo printers (and the inks and papers that produced the best results) are:
Epson PictureMate Personal Photo Lab -- 104 years
with Epson PictureMate Ink and Photo Paper
HP Photosmart 3nn and 4nn Compact Photo Printers -- 82 years
with HP Vivera Inks and Premium Plus and Premium Photo Paper
Canon Selphy DS700 Compact Photo Printer -- 41 years
with Canon BCI-16 Ink and Photo Paper Pro
Kodak EasyShare Plus, Series 3, and 6000 Printers -- 26 years
with Kodak Dye-Sublimation and Paper Pack
Dell Photo Printer 450 -- 26 years
with Dell Dye-Sublimation and Paper Pack
HP Photosmart 145 and 245 Compact Photo Printers
with HP No. 57 Ink and Premium Plus and Premium Photo Paper -- 18 years
with HP No. 57 Ink and Ultima Picture Paper, High Gloss -- 11 years
Lexmark SnapShot P315 Photo Jetprinter -- 16 years
with Lexmark 33 or 35 Ink and Premium Photo Paper
Epson uses pigment-based inks in its PictureMate printers, as opposed to the dye-based inks or dye-sublimation ribbons used by the other printers listed above. This is a factor in the greater permanence Wilhelm found for this brand of output device.
For comparison, Wilhelm's report also estimates the fade-free years you can expect from prints by photographic minilabs. These are the refrigerator-sized processors that you see being used in corner photo-processing shops. The best results were from the Fuji Frontier 370 Digital Minilab using Fuji chemicals and Crystal Archive Type One paper. The color-fastness of those prints is expected to be only 40 years.
Two of the inkjet printers shown above, the Epson and the HP, produce prints that double this expected lifespan. It looks like inkjet printing has truly come into its own for quality printing -- at least if you use brand-name inks and the maker's top-of-the line paper.
Rating Larger-Format Printers
Wilhelm posted its longevity report in the form of a 5-page PDF document on its Web site. Surprisingly, not a single Web page on the entire Internet has ever linked to this valuable document, according to the advanced search function of Google.com. I believe these findings deserve much wider coverage.
In addition to 4-by-6-inch color printers, Wilhelm has also posted longevity ratings for letter-size and large-format printers on its home page. Unfortunately, the institute's site uses a confusing 5-column layout with miniscule type and unreadable thumbnails of its reports. If you do visit, use this tip: Reports on letter-size printers are in column 4, while large-format printers (17 to 60 inches wide) are in column 5.
My executive summary of the institute's tests of business-sized inkjet printers is simple. If you use the manufacturer's ink and the best-quality paper the maker recommends, you can usually get a very good lifespan for your printed output. Results vary widely among different printers and papers, however, so you should read the reports for yourself.
Although more than 90 percent of inkjet printers worldwide are sold by four makers -- Epson, HP, Lexmark, and Canon -- Wilhelm's reports on large-format printers almost entirely concentrate on the first two manufacturers. Only one Lexmark test is shown, and none for Canon. This will hopefully change in the future. Wilhelm announced recently that Canon U.S.A. will formally participate in its testing program.
Rating Third-Party, Compatible Inks
It's pretty clear that brand-name inkjet inks and papers can provide excellent preservation for printed documents. But what about cheaper, third-party products?
It may be a long time before we see comprehensive, comparative ratings of third-party inks vis-a-vis the major brands. According to a marketing executive of one of the U.S.'s largest makers of compatible ink, Wilhelm charges $15,000 to publish a rating for one ink with one kind of paper. That price may discourage many smaller ink makers from submitting their products.
That doesn't mean third-party inks can't be tested or can't be as good as major brands. Next week, I'll describe how you can find bargains on ink you can trust.