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Originally published December 7, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Page modified December 7, 2012 at 5:35 PM

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New photo printers do a lot more for less money

A review of printers

Special to The Seattle Times

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It’s been several years since I reviewed printers. At first I thought I was going to look at printers designed specifically for photo printing. Not so long ago, that used to be a specialized thing that only printers costing at least $500 could deliver with any quality.

Much has changed. The three printers I’m reviewing here do a great job printing photos. The surprise is how much more they do. Each also offers a built-in scanner and document feeder. And each includes wireless networking, so it’s a snap to connect to the printer from other computers or even from your smartphone.

Better yet, each carries a price tag of under $200. At that price, they can be put under many a Christmas tree and used to print the photos of the kids opening the other presents.

Be aware, though, that the real cost of most inkjet printers is hidden. You’ll quickly spend more on ink than the original cost of the printer. While I don’t usually get into questioning manufacturer’s pricing strategies, it’s curious that ink prices tend to be higher for relatively inexpensive printers.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should buy a more expensive printer. If you don’t print a lot and especially if you don’t print a lot of color photographs, a printer with a price tag under $200 probably makes a lot of sense.

HP PhotoSmart 7520: This $149.99 printer has quite a number of appealing features, but at the top is its user-friendliness.

As soon as you plug in the power cord, the PhotoSmart’s 4.33-inch LCD touch-screen panel springs to life. The panel offers access to the printer’s functions through an easy-to-navigate interface. Using the touch-screen, you can quickly configure the printer to connect to your Wi-Fi network. You can also quickly access scanning, copying or fax capabilities via the touch-screen. Web services offered access to dozens of downloadable applications, including comic strips, puzzles or business advice automatically delivered to the printer.

What’s more, you can access, configure and control your printer from a locally connected computer or through a Web interface. As a result, even if you’re not near the printer it’s a snap to send a fax, or print a document.

Second on the list of best features is the PhotoSmart 7520’s connectivity. In addition to 802.11n Wi-Fi, the PhotoSmart 7520, offers a USB 2.0 port and ports for SD and Memory Stick Duo storage cards. Also, users can print to a PhotoSmart from any computer or smartphone simply by sending an email with an attachment. Printable attachments include jpg, tif, pdf and Microsoft documents.

As its name implies, the PhotoSmart’s focus is on printing photos, and in my testing I found its photo printing to be slightly truer than what I found in the competition, which surprised me, given Epson’s and Canon’s well-earned reputations in high-end photo printers.

Document printers, however, will find that while the PhotoSmart supports duplex printing and scanning, the unit is slightly stingy when it comes to paper management. The printer delivered black and white pages at 9 pages per minute. While HP claims the printer can be working 15 seconds after waking, I counted 19 seconds before it began to print.

The main paper tray can handle 125 sheets, and there is a separate photo tray that can hold 20 sheets of 5 x 7-inch or smaller photo paper. Larger sheets of photo paper can be loaded in the main paper tray. The automatic document feeder for the scanner is limited to 25 pages.

Based on my testing, the PhotoSmart prints pages of black text at 4.6 cents per page, which is not bad for an under-$200 printer.

The only significant drawbacks I experienced with the Photosmart 7520 were an occasional and unexplained tendency to kick offline and hangups when accessing Web resources from the touch-screen.

Canon Pixma MX892: The first thing I noticed in unpacking the Canon Pixma MX892 was its weight. The $199.99 unit tips the scales at more than 25 pounds, and that’s a reflection of the MX892’s solid construction.

Connecting the MX892 is straightforward and simple, though installing the software is more complicated than it should be. Besides having to log on as an administrator, the installation procedure has long pauses and requires you to make some unintuitive choices.

Once installed, the MX892’s software showed off an interface that was much easier to navigate than its 3-inch LCD panel. Unfortunately, you need to use the latter to configure the printer if you’re connecting via Wi-Fi. But once you’re done with that, the tasks that you might perform using the LCD are relatively easy to accomplish.

Like the HP PhotoSmart, the PIXMA MX892 delivers excellent photo printing — up to 8.5 x 11 inches — with Canon’s characteristic richness, which tends to run to the darker tones.

But where the MX892 really separates itself from the competition is in its paper handling.

In addition to a 150-sheet main tray that loads in the front of the unit, the MX892 also offers a rear vertical feed that can hold 150 more. The unit’s automatic document feeder for the scanner is also surprisingly accommodating, allowing you to load up to 35 pages at a time. Even better, the ADF can be set to scan both sides of sheets without your having to feed the sheet twice.

The MX892’s print speed is adequate, at about eight pages per minute for my test monochrome document. And it was able to wake up from sleep mode and begin printing in a relatively sprightly 12 seconds.

The MX892, like the other printers in this roundup, offers USB and 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. Unlike the others, however the Canon device also offers the option of connecting via an Ethernet port.

The MX892 also offers support for a broad array of storage devices, including Memory Sticks, SD and Compact Flash cards.

Finally, I found the MX892 to be relatively efficient with ink, printing black text pages for 4.5 cents a page. Unfortunately, the most significant drawback is that it doesn’t offer high-capacity ink cartridges as an option to reduce costs.

Epson XP-400: Epson still produces some of the best high-end photo printers. But that was not the company’s focus in marketing the XP-400.

Don’t get me wrong. The photos printed by the XP-400 are surprisingly good for the money. They’re not quite as rich in tone as those of the other two printers.

With the XP-400, Epson was clearly intent on fitting as many features into as small a footprint as possible. Without its trays extended, the XP-400 measures only 15.4 x 11.8 x 5.7 inches and weighs only 9 pounds.

The main things you give up for that small footprint — and the XP-400’s remarkably low price tag of $99.99 — are a document feeder for the scanner and fax capabilities.

The XP-400 offers a 2.5-inch LCD panel with an intuitive interface and logical, easy-to-employ controls. You can also flip it up or down against the front of the printer, depending upon how tight your available space is. Like the other units I tested, the XP-400 offers both USB 2.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. It also offers printing via e-mail using either Epson’s Connect Email Print, Apple Airprint or Google Cloud Print.

Not surprisingly, given the XP-400’s footprint, the paper handling options are limited. Specifically, the slot in the rear of the printer can hold up to 100 sheets of paper. There are no additional trays and, as noted, there is no feeder for the scanner. On the plus side, the scanner lid telescopes slightly to allow scanning of magazines and other thin source material.

Compared with the other units I looked at, the XP-400 is a tad on the slow side. It printed my test monochrome pages at 6.5 pages per minute and the unit took a full 24 seconds to wake from sleep mode and print. The quality of documents pages was very good, and it did a good job of printing photographs, though I found the colors to be a bit less vivid than with the other printers.

The XP-400 is also a bit more expensive when it comes to inks. A standard black cartridge, gets just under 6 cents per page.

For the price, however, the XP-400 offers a lot of features and solid printing quality.

Patrick Marshall writes the weekly Q&A column in Personal Technology.

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