February 15, 2007

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Prints in your pocket
Cheap photos without ink
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Used to be you had to wait ages to look at the photos you took.

Take the film to the corner drug store, wait a couple weeks while the magic chemicals were mixed and eventually you’d have a book of mostly blurry prints with the tip of one finger over half the frame. One-hour photo developing was the next innovation, followed by inkjet printers that could produce high-quality photos right in your own home.

Well, that just isn’t good enough for the 21st century. We are mobile, we want it now, and by golly, one company is stepping up to the plate. That company is called ZINK, which is short for “zero ink.” They’re set to release tiny portable photo printers by the end of this year.

The limiting factor in miniaturizing printers so far has been the ink cartridges. As you should be guessing by now, ZINK printers don’t use ink cartridges. Instead, they require special paper that’s infused with dye crystals. The printer heats the paper to activate the dye crystals, which turn cyan, magenta or yellow, combining to create the millions of colors we’ve come to know and love.

Initially, the printers will only produce 2” x 3” photos, that’s only because the printers themselves will only be slightly larger than that. You hook up your computer or camera via USB or Bluetooth, paper is passed through the printer, the photo is shown on a little screen and boom, a minute later there’s a full-color print.

The best thing is the promised price: only $99 for the pocket-sized printer and $199 for a camera/printer combo unit. Paper is expected to cost $19.95 for 100 sheets.

The core concept, of course, is nothing new. Polaroid went bankrupt making gigantic cameras that spit out photos that were ready for viewing in just a few minutes, using specialized photo paper. ZINK is actually a spin-off of Polaroid, using technology originally developed by the instant photo company and further refining it.

If you can’t wait, there are (slightly bigger) options now for making 4” x 6” prints. HP has several models from $100 to $200, some of which include a separate camera. Even the most basic has a 1.5” LCD screen for previewing your photos and can accept an optional Bluetooth adapter for wireless printing. The vital element they all lack is a battery, so they’re not truly portable like ZINK’s upcoming model.

Canon and Lexmark also have lines of “portable” photo printers, but like HP’s offerings, they’re more just “small.” Like HP’s printers, they accept various memory cards from digital cameras and show you previews on a small LCD screen; Canon’s printers either have or can be upgraded to Bluetooth capability, depending on the model.

Epson’s Picturemate series, on the other hand, does have a battery option. It also has a handle, which is good, because the printers are more old-lady-purse-sized than pocket-sized. The most blinged-out one, though, can burn a photo CD as well as print 4” x 6” pictures. That one’s $300, but the basic model is $100.

Whether you wait for ZINK or go with an inkjet today, actual prints are coming back in vogue after a brief hiatus for digital excitement. Your grandparents never liked looking at your vacation photos on that tiny screen anyway.



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