Technology

Dell's Dull Photo 964


Dellphoto964_110x100
Editor's Rating: star rating

Editors Note: The tests for the review of this printer were conducted with pre-production ink and toner cartridges, which skewed the results. This product will be reevaluated in the future with final production toner cartridges, which should reflect typical performance of this product.

It sends faxes, scans documents, prints photos -- it even makes a sandwich. For those of you looking for a printer that works as well for the family as it does the home office, we're doing a series of reviews of these "all-in-one" printers (see BW Online, 4/14/06, "A Lexmark Printer that Misses the Mark").

Today, I'm checking out the Dell Photo 964. It looks like a slicker, mini-version of the hulking photocopy machines found in offices. And while it's still a bit bulky for my taste, it's hard to complain too much about the size of a machine that packs in a scanner, photocopier, printer, and fax -- even if it doesn't really make a sandwich. It retails for about $150 when purchased through the Dell (DELL) Web site.

The Photo 964 and I got off to a rough start. As is the case with several printer models, there's no way to connect it to a computer right out of the box. You need to buy a separate USB cable or a wireless adapter from Dell for $99. There were other setup hassles: After I plugged in my USB cable, my own Dell computer didn't automatically recognize the printer, as it does with almost anything else I plug in via USB. So I had to use the installation CD. I then plugged in the printer, loaded a stack of paper, and popped in a black cartridge and a color one. Two seconds into the first print job, the Photo 964 got its first paper jam.

EASY SCAN. Thankfully, first impressions aren't everything. Despite some stumbles out the gate, the Dell Photo 964 did a reliable job with simple office operations, and it hasn't jammed since. I spent the day working from home and used it for various printing and photocopying tasks. As a printer, it does a speedy job with Microsoft (MSFT) Word files and PDFs, including color documents. As a photocopier, it's far slower. I tried to make four copies of a simple excel spreadsheet, and it churned out each copy like it was printing images of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For color copies, the colors come out a whole shade lighter than on the original.

The Photo 964 does its best job with scanning. The software that comes with the printer makes the process a breeze. I put some BusinessWeek covers under the hood, pressed the button, and had sharp pictures loaded on my laptop screen in no time. The images came out quite well on my monitor, though on close inspection, the color contrast and definition was a bit muddy in places. I'd recommend the scanning component for anyone looking to do occasional scanning in a home-office, though it's not quite up to snuff for professional work.

That brings us to photo printing -- a big reason you would might consder this printer in the first place. Sadly, the Dell Photo 964 comes up seriously short in this regard. Where to start? It takes forever to print, the quality of prints is spotty, and the printer controls are clumsy to use. While I managed to get a few attractive photos out of the machine, it was just too much of a hassle.

CLUMSY INTERFACE. To get started, I took my digital camera's memory card and put it into one of the several slots on the front of the printer. The photos were quickly loaded and displayed in a slideshow on the 2-inch by 2-inch screen on the front. Trouble is, the images on the screen were so blurry and lo-res that I could barely make them out, much less determine which were good enough to print.

There's also no way to pick out a subset of photos to print -- although you can print the whole bunch easily enough. But if you're going to pick and choose, you must print each shot one at a time, waiting for the printer to finish the slow and painstaking process before beginning the next one.

Also, there's no auto-detection for the paper size or borders, so you have to double-check that you've plugged in the right settings. It's a much smarter plan to use the photo software on your computer and just print from there.

After bushwhacking through the clumsy user interface, I found the photo quality to be mixed at best. For my first round of prints, I decided to use a pack of 4-in. by 6-in. Kodak (EK) Soft Gloss "Picture Paper." The machine did an abysmal job with these. Bold colors bled and lighter colors looked washed out and were uniformly grainy. Tweaking the settings helped, but the photos were never close to acceptable.

INK SINK. In general, the Dell printer did far better with the full-size, 8.5-in. by 11-in. Dell Premium Photo Paper (30 sheets come in the box). Photos on this paper had bright color contrast, and featured deep, rich blacks. Still, people's faces consistently looked grainy and pixellated. To anyone interested in using the printer primarily for family pics -- or using paper other than Dell's Premium stock -- I recommend you look elsewhere.

All-told, the Dell Photo 964 made for a decent home-office printer. But it failed utterly to fit its all-in-one billing. Even as I write this final paragraph, printing a few final shots, I'm getting a message that I'm running low on color ink. That's after printing under two dozen color photos, and using the printer for less than a week. The next cartridge, as any inkjet printer owner knows, ain't gonna be cheap. Will I be buying one for this Dell model? Not a chance.

Helm is marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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