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With the power and ease of digital photography winning over even the most ardent film fans, it’s more important than ever that the rest of the process – printing the images you want – produces results as good as the darkroom. Since our last round-up of photo-inkjet printers at the end of 2003, we’ve seen the launch of Epson’s excellent but slow Stylus Photo R800 – and now we have Canon’s reply, the Bubble Jet i990.

We tested the Bubble Jet i990 with Canon’s WP-20 Wireless Print Server. This allows anyone on your network to print to the i990 and supports both wireless (802.11b/Airport) and wired (ethernet) networks.

The Bubble Jet i990 is based around an ink system with seven colours, adding red to the six-colour system (cyan, photo cyan, magenta, photo magenta, yellow and black) used by its predecessor, the i965. Having a separate red tank is meant to offer better gradation within skin tones, and our tests certainly back this up when the output is compared the i965’s – though the extent of the improvement depends on the colour and shade of the subject’s skin.

The R800 features eight ink cartridges. Rather than splitting certain colours into standard and photo variants, the cyan, magenta and yellow are complemented by red and blue – plus both matte and photo blacks. The blue cartridge provides finer shading of seas and skies, while the two blacks makes emulation of matte and gloss prints more accurate. The final cartridge is a gloss optimizer, which again boosts gloss print emulation.

In terms of colour, the R800 had the edge on the i990. As you’d expect, blues were more finely gradated and the finish was more flexible. Both printers provided equally detailed output. The i990 offers 4,800-x-2,400dpi – the same as the i965 – to the R800’s 5,760-x-1,400dpi. However, quoted levels of dpi bear little resemblance to output quality, and seem to be calculated by multiplying the number of inks with a random week’s winning lottery numbers. We couldn’t tell the difference in detail between either printer’s output, though the R800 was slightly better at noise reduction. Both printers are well ahead of competitive products from HP.

Overall, the difference between the output qualities is negligible to all but the most pedantic. The same is not true, though, for output speeds. We’ve upgraded our test Mac to a dual 2GHz PowerMac G5 running Mac OS X 10.3 since we looked at the R800, but it’s still obvious that the i990 is much faster. Connected conventionally over USB 2.0, the i990 took just over three minutes to print a top quality photo – that’s under half the time that the R800 took just to put ink on the page.

The Bubble Jet i990 also boasts complete borderless printing – the R800 is still incapable of this under Mac OS X ?– and features an easily replaceable print head, which is a money-saver in the long run. The i990 can print onto CD labels via a supplied tray, but lacks the R800’s roll feed and cutter. As always, consumable pricing is impossible to compare precisely, but the i990 and R800 are approximately balanced in this, with neither ink nor paper being something you want to waste.