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Canon i850

This is a printer that doesn't shout; its sleek cream and dark grey lines, with a brushed aluminium top cover, would fit equally well in an office or home environment. A pair of silver buttons control power and paper feed and the paper moves from a telescopic feed tray at the rear to an output tray at the front. You can also run the printer without the front paper tray, feeding to the desktop if you wish.

Canon's i850 takes paper up to A4, but like many of the printers in this group, can print right to the edge of the paper, to give borderless photo prints. A small strip of sponge is used to catch any ink which spills over the edges of the page. This is known as a diaper and is a technique used by most printer manufacturers for full-bleed printing and to catch ink ejected during cleaning cycles.

The i850 uses four separate ink tanks in cyan, magenta, yellow and black, each of which clips into a separate place in the carriage. This arrangement should mean that if your printing involves use of one colour more than the others, you can save money by replacing just the ink tanks that run out.

A socket at the back of the printer takes a standard two-pin mains lead and, like the Epson Stylus Photo 900, you can connect the printer via either a USB or parallel cable. This extra flexibility may be useful to you if you're connecting the printer to an older PC, or one with fully committed USB ports.

All the accompanying software is included on a single CD and most of it comes from Canon. As with the i450, it includes the Easy-Photo Print and Easy-Web Print utilities. Easy-Photo Print makes printing photographs in a number of different sizes and layouts very straightforward and Easy-Web Print installs itself in your Web browser to make printing Web pages more convenient.

The printer installs very easily and once the two-page head alignment print has completed and you've entered in the numbers, you can start printing straight away –shame the setup isn't automatic. The i850’s print driver includes facilities for stamps and watermarks and for some special effects.

You can print photographs as if they were hand-drawn illustrations, though the result is fairly approximate. You can also produce black and white and sepia tinted prints from colour photos, without recourse to special effects in photo editing packages.

This printer did well under test. Speed results were particularly impressive, with the five-page text print completing in under a minute, the mixed text and graphics sheet taking just 20 seconds and even the test photo printing in best quality in 46 seconds.

With all this speed, you might think print quality would suffer. In fact though, print quality is above average throughout. Black text, while being a little over-dense, is clean and suffers minimal spread into the nap of the paper.

Blocks of colour suffer from a heavy-handed dither pattern, which produces visible dots in several of the hues in the test piece. This is a shame, as in other respects colour output is close to the original shades and quick to produce.

Photo output is another thing altogether. Although a four-colour print, foreground detail is high, with the trees well-defined but lacking any black embossing, a feature of some of the cheaper printers. Shadow detail is not as good, losing some definition and not living up to the reproduction quality of the six-colour printers.

Gradation in the sky is a highpoint, with a smooth transition from blue to white and no obvious banding. The dither patterns here cause no problems and you need a magnifying glass to see the fine dots used.

The i850 can print borderless prints right up to the edges of an A4 sheet and we printed four images on a single A4 sheet to test this. The printer reproduced each image well, with clean transitions from one to the other and no marks where the machine gripped the paper.

Overall, this Canon is well capable of anything a home enthusiast might want and is even good for proofing photo images at a semi-professional level. Block graphics reproduction is not so good, because of the noticeable dither patterns.

Because of high-capacity separate ink tanks, the i850 can go a long while between changes. We produced 300 pages of black text and 424 colour pages, the highest colour output from any printer in the group.

Canon prices in its ink tanks competitively, so with this high yield the i850 is very economical to run, with a per page cost for black pages of just 2.9p. Even when printing colour on Canon's own glossy paper, the cost rises to just 38.4p, making this the cheapest printer to keep running.

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