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Print great pictures immediately with one of these lightweight, portable printers

By Content from Microsoft Magazine
By Peter K. Burian, 03/31/07

The vast majority of printers designed for making digital photo prints are desktop models, which are somewhat large and heavy. That's not a problem in most cases, but what if you want to make prints while away from home? After all, a five-kilogram machine is far too cumbersome for portability.

The good news is that several companies now make smaller and lighter photo printers designed specifically for greater mobility. One of these machines is great for making prints during a road trip, at a family gathering or even on a Caribbean cruise with a group of friends. Of course, it's just as useful at home as your standard photo printer. Plus, if you only have a black-and-white printer for your documents, the portable photo printer is an ideal model to have.

Let's say you're attending a niece's wedding and want to make some copies of your digital pics during the reception. Simply plug a mobile printer into a wall outlet and pop your digital camera's memory card into a slot, or hook up the camera to the printer as instructed. Load the paper and ink (there is usually a starter package provided in the kit). Press a button to produce a nice 4- x 6-inch photo automatically in two minutes or less. Thanks to sophisticated built-in software, the photos should be crowd pleasers: bright, sharp, clear and colorful. Some mobile printers also offer controls for image enhancement. Most mobile printers operate on AC power and some include a cigarette lighter adapter for printing in a vehicle.

Learn how mobile printers produce better-quality pictures

Some mobile photo printers employ dye transfer technology. In other words, they apply heat to a ribbon containing dye to transfer three ink colors to special, coated paper, whereas large printers use inkjet technology. This makes these small portable machines unique. The prints — ranging from credit-card size to 4 x 6 inches depending on the machine — resemble conventional photographs with high sharpness and vivid color saturation. Thanks to a laminate "overcoat," the photos are resistant to fading, fingerprints and water. Other models use the more familiar inkjet technology.

Nearly all mobile printers use dye transfer technology to make durable, long-lasting prints direct from a digital camera or a memory card.

Check the compatibility of your camera and printer

Not all mobile printers were designed for printing from all brands of digital cameras or support all of the many memory card formats. Before buying a mobile printer, make sure it's compatible with the digital camera or the type of memory card that you use. If you will also want to make prints from images on your computer, confirm that the printer will allow you to do so. Ask a retailer's sales staff about compatibility or check the printer manufacturer's Web site.

If you're looking for a printer with slots for printing direct from memory cards, select a model that's compatible with your digital camera or memory card format.

A recent development called PictBridge has expanded compatibility. PictBridge is the name for a new technology that allows for printing direct from any brand of digital camera, using any brand of printer. If your camera includes this new technology, you can connect it to any PictBridge-compatible mobile printer. Most, but not all, digital cameras and photo printers released since early 2004 are PictBridge-compliant. Look for the PictBridge logo on the box when shopping.

Other important considerations

Plan to visit a retail store that stocks several major brands of printers. Ask to see actual prints made by machines in your price range. You'll find that each produces photos with a different "look" in terms of sharpness and color rendition. Select the one that best meets your own preferences.

Be sure to buy an extra ink/paper kit, too, because you'll want to make lots of prints while traveling or during important family events. Your friends and family will certainly appreciate getting photo prints quickly without waiting for days or weeks to begin sharing memories.

When you buy a mobile printer, the kit will often include the machine, a power adapter, ink ribbon cartridge, paper and paper holder accessories.

Because everyone's needs and preferences differ, I cannot identify a single "best" mobile printer. When comparing the specifications of several models on the manufacturers' Web sites or while shopping, keep the following in mind.

Price: The mobile printers vary in "street" price from about $200 to $550, with $250 about average. Higher-priced machines may have extra image-enhancement features or compatibility with more cameras.

Speed: Some printers will make a 4 x 6-inch print in 45 seconds, while others will take over two minutes. If you're planning to make many prints, a fast machine will save a lot of time.

Print size: Most mobile photo printers accept 4 x 6-inch paper for making prints up to this size, often borderless. However, some machines were designed to make only prints as small as a credit card. Frankly, the 4 x 6 printers are far more versatile.

Cost of consumables: Expect to pay 65 to 80 cents per 4 x 6-inch photo for ink and paper with a dye transfer machine.

Size and weight: Some machines are small enough to fit into a large pocket, while others are larger. They can weigh as little as 260 grams and as much as 2 kilograms (without the battery or memory card). If maximum portability is important, you'll want one of the small, lightweight models.