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A Review Of Current Desktop Sublimation Printers

When we talk to people, whether at trade shows, on the phone, email, or Internet forums, the question most often asked is, “what sublimation printer is right for me?” That is a very good question, and it is one that can be answered differently for different people. You have to determine which products you want to do today, as well as the products that you may want to do in the future. You don’t want to make your choice, and invest money in a sublimation printer, and then be locked into something too small to accommodate the vast number of products that are available to today’s sublimator. Further, you want to determine what kind, and quality, of images you will sublimate most often. Will they be high-end photos, or spot-color vector graphics? We will review the current printers available in today’s market and share some of their strengths and weaknesses. Sublimation is a great market to get into, but you need the right equipment for the job. Hopefully, this can help you make a good business decision about which may be the best option for you. SOME DEFINITIONS First, let’s cover a couple of basic definitions that will help you understand some of the components that are involved with sublimation printers. Cartridge: A replaceable component of an inkjet printer that contains the ink that is spread on the paper during printing. It also has an electronic chip that communicates with the printer. Cartridges come in different sizes depending on the printer, and size can dramatically impact your cost per print. Bulk Ink System: Also known as CIS (continuous ink system). This is an aftermarket engineered system using an ink reservoir of either a bag or bottle. Ink is fed from the reservoir through tubing to damper cartridges that install on the printer instead of regular cartridges. The damper cartridges also have an electronic chip. The chip tells the printer that it has a regular cartridge in it, and as the printer thinks the cartridge is running out of ink, the chips are either automatically reset or manually reset. A bulk system is used instead of very small ink cartridges to make a sublimation printer more economical to use. EPSON WORKFORCE 30 This is the smallest and least expensive printer in the sublimation spectrum. It is a four-color printer that will handle either 8.5”x11” or 8.5”x14” paper. This printer can be run with either cartridges or a bulk ink system. Since the cartridges for this printer are very small, your cost per print can be much higher than with a bulk system. If you are evaluating whether sublimation is for you, then a cartridge system could be a less expensive way to get your feet in the door of the sublimation world. A printer and set of cartridges would cost approximately $400. You probably would not want to go this route long term, but you have the option to upgrade to a bulk ink system on your existing printer. This bulk system does not have auto reset chips, and needs to be manually reset when the printer thinks that a cartridge is empty. The printer will stop printing, and you would reset it with a button built onto the top of the damper cartridges. A complete Workforce 30 bulk system setup would cost approximately $800. This size printer from Epson is generally replaced with a new model every six months to a year. The four-color replacement ink bags have generally been migrate-able from one model to the next. However, the bulk system has not, due to changes in the cartridges. If this is the path you choose, be aware of when the models change, as you may want to invest in a backup printer or two. Remember, being a low-cost printer generally means they don’t last as long. Printers can generally be found long after a model change is rolled out, but you never know for how long. RICOH GX5050 This printer will also print 8.5”x11” or 8.5”x14”, and it is also a four-color printer. The base printer is a little more expensive but is a better built printer than the Workforce 30, so it should last longer. It uses large-capacity cartridges, so you don’t have to purchase a bulk system, and it gives the GX5050 a cost per print right in line with the Workforce 30 with a bulk ink system. This printer really prints fast, and a complete system will run you approximately $800. RICOH GX7000 Similar to the GX5050, this printer is also a speed demon of the sublimation world, as it prints faster than any desktop sublimation printer we have ever seen. Besides speed, there are many things to like about this printer platform. The base unit will print paper sizes from 8.5”x11” up to 11”x17”. It uses the same four high-capacity color cartridges as the GX5050, and a complete system will be approximately $1,100. Further, you can add on a By-pass Tray attachment for approximately $140. With this add-on, the printer will be able to handle up to 13”x19” paper, so it gives you the flexibility of upgrading down the road, without having to purchase a completely new system. Ricoh printers are absolutely new to the sublimation world, and although we have seen outstanding performance results which have been better than comparable Epson’s in the short term (the printer was released for sublimation sales October 2008), we don’t know how the printer will hold up over the long haul. If high-end photo sublimation is your niche, then you may want to look toward an Epson platform. This is not to say that the Ricohs have poor photo output, but just that the Epsons are better. Most people will look at the photo output and be completely happy. If this is something that concerns you, ask your reseller for photo samples from both printers. If your niche is spot-color vector graphics, then the output from the Ricohs will blow you away, and the black is absolutely the blackest black we have seen from an inkjet sublimation printer. EPSON 1400 This printer will print from 8.5”x11” up to 13”x19”, and it is a six-color printer. Along with the primary colors of black, cyan, magenta and yellow, it adds light cyan and light magenta. With the added colors, the two lighter colors of ink allow the printer to output crisper and clearer lighter-color shades, which may be important to you if you are sublimating higher-end photo products. This printer uses a bulk system with auto-reset chips. They will automatically reset periodically, so you should not have to worry about them. EPSON 1900 The 1900 will also print from 8.5”x11” up to 13”x19”, but it is a seven-color printer, with a little different seven-color configuration. This printer has cyan, magenta, yellow, matte black, red, orange, gloss optimizer and photo black. The addition of the red and orange expands the color gamut output of some of the older sublimation four- and six-color platforms, and it is also very good for high-end photo reproduction. The 1900 utilizes a bulk system with chips that need to be reset, as they run out similar to the Workforce 30. EPSON 4880 This is the newest printer in the very successful 4000 series of Professional/Commercial printers from Epson. Most of the internal mechanical components with this printer are the same as the older versions, so we know that this printer is a workhorse, and has been proven over time. With the 4880, you can use either 110 ml cartridges, or lower your ink costs significantly with 220 ml cartridges. You could also use a mixture of each. You will be able to print from 8.5”x11” up to 17”x22”. Further, you can also use roll paper in this printer, as it comes standard with a paper cutter. This has the effect of saving you paper, as you can gang items to print and cut at whatever length you wish. Roll paper is also easier to print unattended due to eliminating individual paper misfeeds. There is a down side with this printer that you should be aware of. With older versions of this printer, including the 4800, there was an ink level meter that informed you of the status of ink in each cartridge. With the 4880, you do not have that function available. It will, however, alert you when one of the cartridges is getting low, so if you are in a high-output environment, you will want to make sure you always have extra replacement cartridges on hand. A LOT TO CHOOSE FROM As you can see, there are a lot of systems to choose from, and each one has some strengths and limitations you need to be aware of. Take a close look, and ask plenty of questions. Sublimation is a great market to get into, and has lots of great products that can help your business be very profitable. You will be able to find the sublimation printer system that will help your business be successful.