The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing

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Digital Photo Tips

You can't put a price on memories, but printing cherished family photos on an ink jet will definitely cost you. What are your options?

Third-party services: For your highest-resolution, most precious photos, it's probably best to pay the high price for total control over the process from editing to printing. But for everyday shots, letting someone else print the photos (by either uploading your images to an online photo service or dropping off a CD or memory card at a store) is the easiest, and often cheapest, solution--especially for large quantities (see "Outsourcing Photo Printing").

Find flaws and fix 'em: Whether you've digitized a film photo or downloaded an image from your digital camera, checking for stray thumbs, red-eye, and other flaws before you print will keep you from wasting pricey photo paper. It also pays to preview photos before sending them to a print service; many major services also offer online editing tools. In "Photo Finishers," our recent roundup of low-cost image editors, Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8 (currently $82) earned our Best Buy, but we also liked Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9 ($85) and Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 ($90).

The best quality is worth the money: When we partnered with the archivability experts at Wilhelm Research to test and rate ink jet-printed photos for longevity in "The Fade Factor," we found that the manufacturer's inks and papers generally produce the best-looking, longest-lasting prints. If you want to preserve photos for posterity, you may have to resign yourself to spending a little extra.

Take good care: Who wants to spend money reprinting a photo that's faded or otherwise damaged? Make prints last by taking a few precautions. Henry Wilhelm of Wilhelm Research recommends framing displayed photos under glass and avoiding prolonged exposure to bright light sources. Even mild light exposure may eventually fade a print, however, so just to be safe, Wilhelm also recommends having a second copy in an album. Store redundant copies of your digital image files (in their highest resolution) somewhere safe, too. For more tips, see "How to Print Perfect Photographs."

Taking a Chance on Cheap

The sticker shock from replacing your first ink or toner cartridge naturally leads to a search for cheaper alternatives, such as third-party cartridges or refill kits. But proceed with caution.

When we tested several third-party inks last fall (see "Cheap Ink Probed"), we found that they varied widely in print quality and were uniformly poor in archivability. Ink refill kits can get messy, and in our tests the print quality was mediocre at best. Continuous-ink systems--intravenous hookups from a printer to big bottles of ink--save money, but they require a large initial investment and involve other drawbacks (see "Feed the Need, Cheaply").

However, Nabil Nasr, director of the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies at the Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology, says some third-party products are worthy of consideration. RIT, which ran yield tests for this story (see "Pay It Again, Sam: Ink Costs Can Dwarf Printer Prices"), works with printer manufacturers and third-party vendors to develop better ways to remanufacture, reuse, and recycle printer supplies. Nasr says some third-party inks have fared well in RIT's archivability tests; he recommends going with a known brand from a company that tests and guarantees its products. Staples, for example, backs its remanufactured ink and toner cartridges with a promise to pay for any damage caused by a defective cartridge.

Know More, Save More

Printer vendors and computer stores offer little guidance on penny-wise printing (see "Irate Over Ink." Educate yourself and experiment. Visit newsgroups--try comp.periphs.printer, comp.laser-printers, or comp.periphs.printers--but exercise caution in trying out home remedies. Regardless, if you stay aware of all of your printing options, your budget will thank you.

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