This Christmas, my wife sent me on a scavenger hunt. As I followed the clues, I finally ended up in her closet and found a big, beautiful box hidden beneath some clothes. Inside was the color printer I'd been telling her about for the last six months, the Epson Color Stylus. I hurried to open the box and start playing with my new toy.
What You Get -- Inside the box I found the printer, two ink cartridges, manuals, and samples of Epson's special coated papers. I also found a disk with a Windows 3.1 printer driver. I found no cables, and no Macintosh printer drivers. (The Macintosh drivers should be shipping in the box by now, but it wouldn't hurt to double-check before purchasing. You can also download the drivers from CompuServe.)
The printer has both a parallel port for use with IBM-compatible machines and a serial port for use with Macintoshes. The serial port uses the mini-DIN 8 connector common on the Macintosh instead of the 9-pin or 25-pin serial ports standard on most PC-based printers. I took this as a good sign; I figured it meant the machine was designed with the Mac in mind. It also has an expansion slot designed for alternative interface cards. The main one that might interest Macintosh users is the LocalTalk board that lets you use the printer on an AppleTalk network. Unfortunately, the board costs $240, nearly half the printer's price.
Setup -- Setting up the printer was straightforward. Following the instructions, I assembled the parts for the sheet feeder and installed the ink cartridges. This printer, like the HP DeskWriter 560c and Apple StyleWriter 2400, uses two separate cartridges: one for black and one for cyan, yellow, and magenta. This make simplifies setup but increases the cost of consumables; if a non-black color runs out, you have to throw away whatever is left of the other two. The Color Stylus uses the same serial cable as the ImageWriter II or the StyleWriter. I've been using the cable that came with my StyleWriter II and have had no problems; however a number of users on CompuServe have reported printing errors unless they used a certain serial cable from Belkin Components (see below for contact information). The next step involved installing the software. The installer gives you the option to install the drivers for a direct-connect printer, a network printer, or both. The final step is to run the calibration software, which aligns the color and black print heads.
Test Systems -- I tested the Epson Color Stylus with a variety of software and hardware. According to the documentation, the Stylus works with any Mac from the Plus on up with System 6.0.7 or later. When used with System 6.0.7 it requires a minimum of 4 MB of RAM; when used with System 7 and up it requires a minimum of 5 MB. I used a Mac LC with 10 MB of RAM and an Applied Engineering 40 MHz Transwarp accelerator (IIfx-class machine) and a PowerBook 160 with 10 MB of RAM and RAM Doubler installed. The software I tried printing from includes Word 5.1, ClarisWorks 2.1, Photoshop 2.5.1, PageMaker 5.0.1, Print Shop Deluxe 1.0, and a variety of smaller packages.
Printing Options -- Epson usually leaves writing Macintosh driver software up to third parties, but for the Color Stylus they wrote a driver. I've been using driver version 1.10e, which offers control over a variety of features: resolution (180, 360, or 720 dpi), ink saturation (from light to dark), paper type (plain, 360 coated, or 720 coated), paper size (letter, legal, envelope, or custom), print method (monochrome or color), print mode (microweave or high speed), and dither pattern (B&W, Pattern 1, Pattern 2, or Diffused). The defaults - 360 dpi, plain paper, letter, color, high speed, diffused. - work great for most general printing, although microweave mode delivers much better graphics quality.
Not Quite Ready for Prime Time -- The printer works well with most of the software I tested, but I did run into a few problems. First, the driver software is slow. It felt like working with the first driver for the original StyleWriter. The speed problem was especially pronounced when printing at 720 dpi. A single-page Photoshop graphic taking nearly an hour to print. General text, or mixed text and graphics documents printed faster, but the printer still sat for long periods waiting while the computer prepared the information. Having a Power Mac will not speed up printing because most print routines run in emulation.
I also ran into a problem with borders when printing from Print Shop Deluxe, although to be fair, this may be Print Shop's problem. Pages would print shifted to the bottom and to the left. In Epson's defense, this is nothing like the print problems Print Shop Deluxe had with the DeskWriter 5.0 drivers, but it is still annoying.
The final problem I encountered was that my Macintosh occasionally locked up when printing in 720 dpi mode from Photoshop. This problem only occurred on the LC, and I think it was a memory problem since the PowerBook (RAM Doubled to 20 MB) never had trouble.
New Year's Resolutions -- These problems aside, the Epson Color Stylus is worth a look. The output, although slow, is as good as or better than Apple's or HP's inkjet printers. The Color Stylus also boasts a feature no other printer in its class can match: true 720 x 720 dpi resolution! To understand the significance of this, think what an increase in resolution does for printout quality. Resolution tends to be a geometric factor - the density afforded by an increase in dots-per-inch is greater than the raw numbers would lead you to believe. For instance, the original LaserWriters printed at 300 x 300 dpi, which amounts to 90,000 dots in every square inch. NeXT's first laser printer printed at 400 x 400 dpi, which amounts to 160,000 dots in every square inch. That's nearly double the resolution of Apple's original LaserWriter, despite the apparent increase of only 100 dots-per-inch. Today's LaserWriters print at 600 x 600 dpi. That's 360,000 dots per square inch: four times the resolution of the original printers from Apple. In 720 dpi mode, the Color Stylus produces an image with 518,400 dots in every square inch, an amazing improvement in image quality. Text looks sharp, high-resolution bitmapped graphics look nearly photographic, and gradient blends (like those produced by Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia FreeHand) are smoother.
What's the Catch? The 720 dpi pages require a special coated paper from Epson, and the driver is QuickDraw-only, which limits the printer's utility for people who working with PostScript graphics. However, if you want this printer, the limitations may be surmountable.
I found that the printer produced very acceptable 720 dpi images on coated paper from Hewlett-Packard designed for DeskWriters. In fact, the HP glossy paper produced images that looked almost like photographs. Epson does not yet have a glossy paper for the Color Stylus.
PostScript output is available if the printer is used in conjunction with a PostScript software interpreter such as TScript from TeleTypesetting. (I assume Freedom of the Press from ColorAge would also work although I didn't test it.) The results are phenomenal. The Color Stylus, in conjunction with TScript, uses the driver's diffusion dither instead of the traditional PostScript halftone, which smooths the graphics even further. Printing through TScript's PostScript interpreter also seems to clear up the border problems with Print Shop Deluxe, providing a nice work-around. However, you do need to be patient when using a PostScript interpreter. Printing becomes a multi-step process because you must select the LaserWriter driver in the Chooser, save your document as a PostScript file, select the Color Stylus driver in the Chooser, launch TScript, and then print the PostScript file. The software can create a huge spool file while printing - one of my typical PageMaker files took an average of 25 MB of disk space per page when printing through TScript. The results were worth it, in my opinion.
The Last Word -- The Color Stylus is a good general purpose color printer. At 360 dpi, its print quality equals and often surpasses that of its nearest competition: the Apple StyleWriter 2400 and HP DeskWriter 560c. The grayscale output is better than what the StyleWriter II can do, and has none of the banding problems. At 720 dpi, the Color Stylus's print quality is unmatched by anything in its price class. An added bonus is the ability to use this printer with a Mac or Windows machine. The driver is slow and there are a few lingering problems, but hopefully Epson will correct them soon. If they do, the Color Stylus will move from being a good printer to a great one. The current street price is between $500 and $550. If you are currently in the market for a color inkjet, I recommend that you consider the Epson Color Stylus.
Epson -- 800/873-7766
Belkin Components -- 800/223-5546 -- 310/898-1100
TeleTypesetting -- 617/734-9700 -- 617/734-3974 (fax)