- Review Price: £123.00
One of the things I love most about technology is the Do-It-Yourself element that it brings to our lives, and the mass adoption of digital photography is one of my favourite developments in the last few years. Sales of digital cameras have skyrocketed and the demand for a convenient, high quality print solution for all these snaps is high. So, to cater for this demand, Epson has released its simple and portable PictureMate.
Measuring just 256 x 154 x 163mm (WxDxH) and weighing 2.7kg, the Breadbin-esque PictureMate is an unashamed attempt by Epson to replace the traditional photo lab. It prints solely to 10 x 15cm sheets, can work independently of a PC thanks to its built in memory card reader and features some of the most straightforward controls seen this side of a photo kiosk.
Of course, Epson is not alone in taking this specialised approach to printing. HP, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Kodak have all begun to market similar 10 x 15cm devices, so it seems merely a matter of when rather than if the current photo labs find themselves sidelined by technological advancement.
As an aside, the printer industry’s chosen 10 x 15cm format does seem a rather odd decision as it varies slightly from the usual digital camera picture ratios leading to minor cropping, but it appears everyone is in the same boat here.
So, what does the PictureMate bring to the table? Well, at first glance I have to admit I find the design of Epson’s baby rather appealing, despite my feelings that it could still produce a nice granary loaf. It has an innocence about it, which borders on cute. The controls are cartoonish with big coloured buttons, it’s equipped with a huge single ink cartridge which pushes into a lower rear back panel, and given the single size sheets the software is so simple that only the very severest of technophobes will need to sully the manual. Build quality is good too, the hinges on the flaps may feel a little lightweight, but overall it has a sturdy feel that goes hand in hand with its chunky appearance.
Internally, however, everything gets a little more advanced. Epson is pushing the print technology within the PictureMate hard as it features the same 6 colour Micro Piezo InkJet system used in the high quality, if slow RX600 photo printer we reviewed back in May. It also makes bold claims quoting data from the Wilhelm Research Laboratory stating that prints from the PictureMate will resist fading between two to four times longer than high street photo lab prints and four to 20 times longer than rival 10 x 15cm printers. Of course, this sort of boast is impossible to test accurately in the short time we had the PictureMate – after all, Epson claims a fade resistant photo life of 100 years when kept in a glass frame.
Bold claims aside, I can confirm that I was highly impressed by the durability of the prints. The surfaces seem almost immune from fingerprints, which are only noticeable when the darkest parts of the photo are gripped unusually hard, and spotting the prints with water then wiping them off with a towel does not smudge or degrade the image in any way. Sacrificing a recent lab print I had in the name of science to the same tests proved exactly that, a sacrifice. Despite the matt finish of the prints (by a large outlet that shall remain anonymous) fingerprints showed up much more readily and water spots absorbed into the paper, producing dark circular patches that were there to stay. Phase one and I’m impressed.
But photo printing is not just about durability, it is about quality and here I have a couple of qualified reservations. Putting it in very basic terms, the PictureMate’s prints are not quite as good as a lab print. True, for the average user they are perfectly functional, the colours are bright and sharp – even right to the edge on borderless prints – but for the purists among us, you will notice up close a slight degradation in quality. To be honest, I feel like I’m being a little harsh here because a device like the PictureMate is hardly designed for the dedicated photographic aficionado, but it needs to be said.
My other reservation is the speed of the device, although whether this is an issue depends entirely upon your demands for the PictureMate. Like the RX600 the PictureMate is no greyhound, but unlike the RX600, it doesn’t claim to be. Prints will take roughly two minutes each; I timed mine at an average of 116 seconds against Epson’s published time of 114 seconds and unlike traditional printers, it makes no difference whether this is the first print out of the machine, or the second. Epson acknowledges this in the comparison charts it provided us with for the review, with its rivals purporting times of roughly between 80 and 90 seconds. Whether this is a problem to the average PictureMate customer is again open to debate, it all comes down to your individual needs.
These reservations aside, I am highly impressed with the connectivity options offered by the PictureMate. Flip down the panel to the right of the print tray and you will be presented with a memory card reader with a dizzying array of supported formats. SD/MMC, MemoryStick, CompactFlash Type I and II, SmartMedia, and xD are supported natively and Bluetooth is an optional extra should you require it. There is also an additional USB port in the back of the PictureMate which allows you to backup photos directly from a memory card to an externally connected CD/DVD writer or Zip drive. Given that you can print from all these formats without having to switch on a PC, it would have been nice to have a colour LCD on the PictureMate for previewing photos, but this would have driven the cost up considerably. That said, there is the option to print out an index sheet with up to 20 photos per page should you wish to print selectively.
Whether you need to print selectively on the other hand is open to debate because the PictureMate has very reasonable running costs. Epson offers a combination package of its six colour cartridge and 100 10 x 15cm sheets called PicturePack for an RRP of £28.99, but it can be found from online retailers for as little as £22.99. That works out at a very reasonable 23p per picture, which is competitive with high street lab prices. Funnily enough, most manufacturers offer their printers at very low costs then kill the consumer on refills. By contrast, Epson seems to have gone the other way with the PictureMate, as at £123 the printer is not cheap, but you can offset the initial purchase with the low running costs.
One final thought. It has been put to me a number of times that it would be easier to simply purchase a cheap dedicated photo printer for less money and get three photos per page on A4. That suggestion has some logic to it, but I think for the market Epson is aiming the PictureMate at, it misses the point. First, the portable size and ability to run independently of a PC separates it from the majority of cheap photo printers. Second, you would lose out on the fingerprint and water resistant durability of the prints; and finally, the PictureMate really is all about convenience. There is no need to rotate, crop and cut out your photos, just push in a memory card press Print and leave it to it. In a world of multitasking, highly flexible technology the PictureMate and 10 x 15cm printers in general are a rare breed as they are designed to do just one job. But even though the PictureMate is not a jack of all trades, it’s definitely a master of one.
I have no doubt that the 10 x 15cm printer market is going to become incredibly competitive over the next 12 months. That should work out nicely for the consumer, but right now, the Epson PictureMate is already a very accomplished product that let’s you make the most of your digital camera.
Score in detail
Print Speed 7
Print Quality 8