Technology

Dell's Dull Photo 964, Round 2


Dellphoto964_110x100
Editor's Rating: star rating

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"). Earlier, we took a look at the Dell Photo AIO 964 (see BW Online, 5/5/06, "Dell's Dull Photo 964"). On the first pass, we used what are known as pre-production ink cartridges -- meaning that Dell's engineers hadn't finished making all the necessary tweaks to get the cartridges ready for store shelves.

So in fairness, I took a second look. This time, I used ink that was ready for prime time. Below, I have made the necessary adjustments to my review.

First, here's a recap of my overall impressions. The AIO 964 looks like a slicker, miniature 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 much about the size of a machine that packs in a scanner, photocopier, printer, and fax. It retails for about $150 when purchased through the Dell (DELL) Web site.

SCAN WHIZ. The AIO 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 AIO 964 got its first paper jam.

Despite some stumbles out the gate, the Dell Photo AIO 964 did a reliable job with simple office operations, and it didn't jam again. 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 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 were a bit muddy in places. I would 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.

DIRTY THUMBNAILS. That brings us to photo printing -- a big reason you would consider this printer in the first place. And it's here that the Dell Photo AIO 964 disappoints the most. It took forever to print, the quality of prints is spotty (whichever ink I used), 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.

Now that I have tested the printer with both pre-production ink and updated ink supplied by Dell, I can say that the ink supplies in the final production models appear to last a lot longer. However, overall photo quality isn't much better.

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-in. by 2-in. screen on the front. Trouble is, the images on the screen were so blurry and low-resolution 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.

PAPER CHASE. 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 areas of the photo with low light levels looked pixilated and grainy. While well-lit pictures looked acceptable from a few feet away, on closer inspection I could easily see banding where the printer jets had been. Tweaking the settings helped -- but the photos were still not acceptable.

Dell recommends using its own paper, which is designed to work especially well with its printers. So I tested the machine with the full-sized, 8.5-in. by 11-in. Dell Premium Photo Paper that came in the box (there were 30 sheets in all). Photos on this paper had bright color contrast, and featured deep, rich blacks. Still, people's faces were washed out, and like on the Kodak paper, I could see banding when I looked closely at the prints.

POOR ALL-ROUNDER. I did get good results on photos (and no banding) when I cranked up the settings to the max -- 4800 dots per inch (dpi). On the automatic settings, though, photos weren't up to snuff. 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 AIO 964 made for a decent home-office printer. But it failed utterly to fit its all-in-one billing. With the final production ink Dell sent, the levels in the cartridge still seem to be high, so that's a marked improvement over the way it guzzled the other ink I'd tried. Still, I wouldn't recommend buying this printer. Sure, it will do just about anything you want, but it will do a pretty sub-par job at all those things, too.


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