Epson 4900 Review

Epson Stylus Pro 4900 review

Everyone’s been waiting for this one for a long time, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 which is the next generation of Epson’s 17″ roll printers. While the 4880 was essentially a re-tread of the 4800, which itself was a re-tread of the 4000, the Epson 4900 has been redesigned and engineered from the ground up as a completely new printer. Like it’s bigger brothers (the Epson 7900 and 9900), the 17 inch 4900 utilizes Epson’s most advanced and latest ink-set, Ultrachrome HDR. This ink-set adds orange and green to cyan, vivid magenta, yellow, black, light cyan, vivid light magenta, light black, and light light black. While it contains 11 “colors” of ink, we call it a 10 plus 1 printer because it will automatically choose to use either photo black or matte black as your primary black ink depending on the type of paper you print on (matte or gloss).

Ordering and Receiving
When you place your order for the Epson 4900, make sure you speak with your sales-person about whether you need, or don’t need a liftgate on the delivery truck. These printers are big and heavy and ship on a wooden palette. While they can be lifted by 2-3 able-bodied adults, if you will not have any help receiving the printer you will need a liftgate to get it off the truck. The box that holds the printer measures 36x40x24 inches and sits on the wooden palette which is slightly wider and deeper than the printer, and about 4 inches high.

Assembly, Installation, and Setup
Unpacking and setting up the 4900 printer is relatively easy and fairly similar to unpacking any desktop printer; its just much bigger than most desktops. First we recommend cutting off the UPC code from the outside of the printer box and keeping it with your warranty paperwork (you may need this for various reasons). Then just remove the 4 plastic “handles” from both ends of the box and lift the entire cardboard cover up, over, and off the printer box. Once its off, the top of the printer is exposed showing the ink tanks, spindle and borderless spindle accessory packed on top of styrofoam. You then lift off the styrofoam protecting the top of the printer, remove the protective plastic around the printer, and then lift the it out of the box onto your desk or table.  At this point you will proceed to remove the countless pieces of tape that keep sensitive parts of the printer from moving during shipment. I know Epson is being cautious on shipping the printer, but I lost count after about 20 pieces of tape.

After the printer was un-boxed and all of the tape was removed, we plugged the printer into AC power, turned it on, and installed the ink cartridges. Upon initially powering up the printer without inks installed, the printer prompts you to install the inks. As with any Epson pro printer, make sure you gently shake the ink cartridges before installing them. All you have to do open the ink covers by pushing on them, insert the cartridges and close the doors; the printer automatically charges the ink system which takes about 10 minutes. There are no requirements to lock and unlock ink levers as with the previous 4880 series printers. The charging process on our machine appeared to use approximately ¼ to 1/3 of the total ink in the original cartridges (80ml) so you will have enough ink left to run several prints. However, this is where I feel Epson is being a little stingy. Why not ship the printer with the standard size 200ml ink cartridges (especially for a printer that retails for $2495)? They have always shipped new printers with “starter” ink cartridges at low capacity; cheap in my opinion.

After the ink finished charging, we then proceeded to load sheet paper. Though the tray looks and feels different from the 4880, its still essentially the same type of design, collapsing and expanding depending on the size of the sheet that you load. Once the paper was loaded we ran a nozzle check to verify all of the jets were firing properly. Everything checked out ok and we proceeded to run a head alignment. We ran the head alignment from the front panel of the printer. We loaded the tray with letter size enhanced matte paper so that we could do the head alignment procedure. Though you can do this from the utility software, it is better (more accurate) to run it from the front panel of the printer menu. Epson has always included either sheet or roll paper with all of their pro graphics printers but for some reason they do not include any paper with the 4900. Make sure you have some kind of decent quality inkjet paper (roll or sheet). There are two alignments that you want to run: “Uni-D  All” and “Bi-D All”. You run the Uni-D first and the printer self adjusts; then you run the Bi-D and the printer self adjusts again. Once you’ve run both of those alignments you are finished with the basic hardware setup of the printer.

Once we completed the hardware setup we then installed the software drivers, on both Windows and Macintosh computers. Installing the software is very straight forward and there are no surprises here.

The Epson 4900 ships with a 10/100 ethernet port built-in, and we chose to connect it through the ethernet port. It also has a USB 2.0 port if you want to connect the printer directly to your computer. You can assign the IP address for the Ethernet port through the front panel of the printer menu or using the network utility that installs with the software drivers.

DTG has produced a set up video for the 4900 so if you would like to review it prior to doing your own installation please contact us or visit our web site, www.dtgweb.com.

Printer Operation
If you are used to using an Epson 4000, 4800, or 4880, then the operation of the 4900 will feel very similar but at the same time add some really nice features that you may have been wanting. The new 4900 is faster, more intuitive, and adds features that are truly unique for any roll/sheet desktop printer.

As we mentioned earlier, the printer ships with 80ml ink cartridges but has only one size that you can purchase, 200ml. It uses a total of 11 “colors” (10 colors per print job depending on matte black or photo black) including Cyan, Vivid Magenta, Yellow, Photo Black, Light Cyan, Vivid Light Magenta, Light Black, Light Light Black, Orange, Green, and Matte Black. The main enhancement here compared to the previous generation is the addition of the orange and green inks as well as the matte black/photo black auto switching. We will discuss the benefits of the additional colors later on.

As stated earlier, ink loading is very straight forward and there are no levers to lock and unlock as in previous generations of printers. The ink cartridges are located on the left and right sides of the printer with 6 on the left side and 5 on the right side. To change or install an ink cartridge just simply press the ink covers and they will pop open. Pull out the old cartridge and insert the new one. Inside the right ink cartridge section, you will find the primary maintenance tank. The maintenance tank traps the wasted ink that is used during the initial ink charging, or day to day print head cleaning. There is also another maintenance tank, the “borderless” maintenance tank. This tank collects ink that “overflows” the edges of the paper when printing edge to edge, borderless prints. It is located under/on the back side of the output tray. To access it, simply remove the black output tray, slide the blue lock to the “unlock” position, and pull out the tray. If you don’t do borderless printing, you will never need to replace this item.

There are four different ways to “feed” paper  on the 4900, the roll feeder, tray feeder, front manual feed slot, and rear manual sheet feeder. Let’s start with the paper tray. The paper tray is extremely flexible in terms of size allowing you to load 8×10 inch size paper up to 17 inch by 24 inch paper. It simply expands and contracts based on your paper size needs. You load the paper print side down and in differing sheet quantities depending on the thickness of the paper/media. The tray does not handle heavier papers very well, especially fine art papers. We tried to stack several different types of heavier, textured papers and the tray had difficulty in consistently feeding anything over 250gsm. Photo papers over that paper weight seemed to feed very well however. With the combination of the texture and the weight, heavy fine art papers like Epson’s hot press & cold press, Hahnemuhle’s rag papers, and Crane papers just don’t feed that well through the tray. You will have to use the other option in loading sheet media, the manual feed loader as it can easily handle your 300 plus GSM fine art paper and canvas sheets. The front manual feed slot is for very thick media like the Epson Enhanced Matte PosterBoard or the Epson Carolina & Tango board material. The roll media feed features a motorized loading and unloading mechanism. You still put the roll of paper on a spindle but the spindle then sits in a roll mechanism that can automatically feed the media. This ability lends itself to one of the most impressive features of the 4900, the auto switching capability between the sheet tray and the roll feed. In other words if you have both sheet paper loaded in the tray and roll paper loaded in the roll feed, without touching the printer you can from your computer have the printer pick from the sheet feed or the roll feed and continually go back and forth between them. I tried this several times and it worked great. Being somewhat lazy at times, I love this feature!

As with other printers, most of the hands on operation of these printers consists of ink and paper handling. There are however, some other features of printer operations that I do want to point out on the Epson 4900. The front panel menu display is large, bright, and in full color now (like its big brothers, the 7900 and 9900). It is very nice to work with and navigate through. There is also a button for switching between the photo black ink mode and the matte black ink mode. When you switch between the two, the printer does use a very small amount of ink. This works very similarly to the way the Epson 3800 works as it purges only the black ink that is contained in the head, not the whole ink line. When you switch from photo black to matte black it uses about 1.2ml of ink and it uses 3.4ml of ink when you switch the other way. The bottom line here is that based on the discounted price DTG charges for inks, it costs you anywhere from around 52 cents to $1.46 to switch black modes depending on which black you are switching to. Also, there are two methods you can use to switch black ink modes. You can set the printer to automatically switch based on whatever media type you choose when you print from the software driver. Or you can set the printer up to only switch black ink if you actually tell it to from the black ink switch “button” on the front of the printer. This method would insure that the printer doesn’t accidentally change inks if you choose the incorrect media setting when you go to print.

Another upgraded feature on the 4900 is the new cutting system. They use a new high performance rotary cutting blade (like on the 7900/9900) and this thing does not play around. It cuts all kinds of photo paper, canvas, and fine art paper extremely fast and very well. If it behaves like the cutter on the 7900/9900 this blade will last a very long time, even when cutting fine art papers.

In summary, printer operation of the new 4900 printer is familiar, but there are some significant upgrades and changes over previous generations. My favorite feature by far is the automatic switching from the paper tray or the roll feed.

Software Drivers
The software drivers shipping with the stylus 4900 include support for Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions, as well as Macintosh OS 10.58 and OS 10.6x.

The installation CD will install the drivers for the printer, ICC profiles for a variety of different Epson medias, the Remote Panel Utility (update firmware, configure custom papers, etc.) the Epson Network configuration tool to configure network settings for the printer, and all associated user manuals and guides. Installation of the software is straight forward and runs smoothly.

While the driver CD installs several ICC profiles for the more popular Epson media types, it is also missing several profiles. This is where your dealer should be able to provide you with help. For instance, DTG provides custom ICC profiles for a wide variety of third party medias as well as Epson papers. We use extremely high end equipment to generate our ICC profiles including the DTP70 spectrophotometer, Barbieri LFP and Monaco Profiler Platinum from X-Rite. We provide these ICC profiles to our customers free of charge. Using ICC profiles in your printing workflow is essential to getting the most accurate possible colors and best quality out of your prints.

It is important to note that the Mac version of Epson’s drivers include 16 bit printing support on OS10.5 Leopard and OS10.6 Snow Leopard. This means that applications that support 16 bit printing including Photoshop CS4 & CS5, can output 16 bit files directly through the driver to the printer.

While the Epson printer drivers produce excellent quality from applications like Photoshop you may want to consider RIP software (or a Print Plug-In) down the road. RIP software can add postscript printing support, nesting, layout, packaging, and several more features including more control of ink limiting and color control. As of writing this review, only one third party printing application, Mirage, is fully compatible.

Performance
The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 features a whole new print engine and chassis which contributes to improved print speeds and greater flexibility in terms of optional accessories. We’ll discuss print speed performance and the optional accessories available which contribute to overall efficiency.

Because of the new print engine and larger print head the new printer offers faster print speeds when compared to the 4800 & 4880. We ran our own internal benchmarks and print speeds agreed in general with what Epson is publishing in their specs. We printed an 8×10 at 1440×720 DPI and measured the time from the printer receiving the job, grabbing the paper from the tray, and ejecting the finished print at 1 minute 52 seconds (print engine time was 1:28).  We then printed a 16×20 from the roll. We did this while the printer was in “sheet mode” so it had to auto switch to the roll. Total time from the switch to the cutting of the print was 4 minutes 55 seconds (print engine time was 4:12). While faster than the previous generation, it is a long stretch to say twice as fast as the Epson literature implies. However, these printers offer extremely high quality prints at exceptional speeds.

The Epson 4900 also offers an option to add an on-board spectrophotometer called the Epson SpectroProofer for automated calibration and profiling. It is very important to note that the SpectroProofer comes with basic software to linearize the printer, however it does NOT include software to build ICC profiles and relies on your third party RIP to generate ICC profiles. So if you have no plans to add a RIP down the road you may want to consider another profiling option like the X-Rite i1 Profiler or other profiling solutions. For those who want to have the absolute finest and most consistent prints, the spectroproofer is hard to beat as a calibration and profiling solution. It plugs into the front/top portion of the printer and completely automates the calibration and profiling process. Linearize medias by simply launching the spectroproofer utility software on your computer, pick a media type, and click “go”. The printer prints the target patches, automatically reads the patches with the spectro, and updates the linearization tables. We also tested ICC profiles built from the Spectroproofer. We used a newly available software plug-in called Mirage with its profile creation extension. The very affordable Mirage offers an incredibly versatile yet intuitive interface for nesting multiple images, building/cloning gallery wrap borders, stepping & repeating and more. We used the pro extension to build several ICC profiles for Epson and third party papers. It’s actually quite amazing. With a 4900, spectroproofer, and mirage I can simply push a button in the software and it automatically prints the target, reads the patches, generates the profile, and uploads it to my computer. It does not get any easier than that! If you have a 9900, 9880, or any Epson large format printer after the 9600 series, you can even use the 4900 with spectroproofer and mirage to create profiles for those other printers! Print the targets out on the other printer, then load that sheet into the 4900 and mirage will build the profile with the spectroproofer. The profile quality is on par with the profiles we generate with our X-Rite DTP70 and Monaco Profiler Platinum software. The spectroproofer can quickly and easily be moved from printer to printer if you have multiple 4900s.

Print Quality
The 4900 features new technologies that Epson says contribute to improved print quality over the 4880. These include a new TFT 10 channel print head with meniscus control, new 10-Color AccuPhoto screening, and the addition of green & orange inks. DTG considers several things when we judge print quality including the smoothness of the dot pattern, dMax (blackest black), tonal gradations/neutrality, and overall color gamut. It is important to note that all of these tests and comparisons were performed using the standard drivers (not RIP) and using DTG’s custom ICC profiles on 3rd party papers (for fair comparisons across different printer manufacturers). The third party papers we tested include Ilford Pearl, Fredrix 777 canvas, Reflections Silver Metallic, Hahnemuhle Smooth Photo Rag 308, Moab Entrada and a few others.

When we talk about “smoothness of dot pattern” we are referring to the apparent “graininess” of the print. To judge print quality on inkjet printers you really need a high quality loop (magnifier). So does the 4900 featuring AccuPhoto screening look “smoother” the 4880? Not really. Though the prints look equally “smooth” on the new 4900 they don’t really look any noticeably smoother than say the 4880. When compared with the competition from HP & Canon, Epson still generates the smoothest, most continuous tone print in terms of dot pattern.

The next thing we evaluated was dMax, the printers’ ability to produce a nice, deep, rich black. We tested this on a variety of papers including photo, canvas (glossy and matte), and fine art papers. Using a high quality spectrophotometer to measure the L value, we see that there really has not been any noticeable (or measurable) difference over the 4880. In comparison to Canon and HP printers, all produced fairly comparable black points on photo papers (as low as a 3 L value). On canvas Epson has a very slight advantage over both Canon and HP. On fine art papers HP has a very slight advantage over Canon and Epson.  When we say very slight, your eye would not pick it up, it’s only measurable.

Smooth tonal gradations and neutrality are very important in producing great prints, especially in grayscale. This is where the new printer shows an improvement. Though the 4880 printers have always been very good, the 4900 is outstanding. Gradations from black to white are extremely smooth with very impressive shadow and highlight detail. The neutrality from black to white is phenomenal and I’m not sure if this is due to the additional orange and green inks or the new screening algorithm (or both). If you are doing black and white prints, the 4900 may be worth the investment just for its performance here.

Finally, with the addition of the orange and green inks you would expect that overall color gamut would increase and the 4900 clearly does not disappoint. We saw anywhere from a 9 to 21 percent increase (depending on paper/media type) in overall color gamut when compared with the 4880. This is a significant improvement and as you would expect, the biggest expansion is in greens and oranges. If you have questions on specific media types in color gamut comparisons please do not hesitate to contact DTG. We can provide you with gamut maps for a variety of printers and media types. This 4900 compares greatly to the 7900 and 9900 printers from Epson and in terms of other brands of 17 inch printers, the 4900 is a clear cut winner.

We also would like to report on some testing we’ve done in regards to what some users have experienced in terms of “pizza wheel” or “star wheel” marks on prints. Many inkjet printers have small “sprocket-like” wheels on their paper feed mechanisms to aid in feeding or ejecting the paper. In some cases, users have complained that these wheels leave “dotted-marks” on their prints, usually showing up on the thicker, glossier papers. We did several tests on luster, glossy, and fiber baryta papers and did not see any artifacts whatsoever. I cannot speak to testing multiple 4900s but I feel fairly confident that this will not be a problem on this printer.

Summary
The Epson Stylus Pro 4900 printer does not disappoint in terms of performance for photographers, pre-press professionals, fine art giclee professionals, and anyone doing tabloid size output. We would characterize it as the finest 17″ size desktop on the market by far. So that makes us ask the question, is it worth the list price of $2495? It depends. The price tag is the only real disappointment with this printer. While it obviously is the clear market leader in terms of build quality, print quality, and value, I believe that $2500 is too much to ask for a 17″ printer and it should be more in line with the 4880 price of $1995. That said, if you must have the best of something, it usually means you have to pay a little more.

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