Kodak ESP 7: Installation and first impressions

Cheap ink. Reliable printer? That's the reason I gave for bringing in Kodak's ESP 7 printer for testing. Kodak says its lower cost ink will save you a bundle in printing costs. These are tough times, and frankly, ink is expensive. It's not just ink-jet printers that are the problem. A replacement toner cartridge for my laser printer costs more than I paid for the printer itself. It hurts to spend $50, $75 or more for replacement ink cartridges.

Replacement cartridges for ink-jet printers don't go nearly as far as laser printer toner cartridges, so they can burn through your budget in no time — especially if you do any photo printing at home.

So does the ESP 7 deliver? Or do you get what you pay for?

This week I finally set up the Kodak ESP 7 multifunction ink-jet printer for some extended testing.

Setting the table

The ESP 7 is a multifunction consumer-grade printer with built-in printing, copying and scanning functions for a list price of $199.99 (street prices start at about $160). Kodak entered the consumer multifunction printer market in 2007, fairly late and against entrenched competition. To differentiate its ink-jet line from those of its competitors and to get a toehold in this competitive market, Kodak did two things differently with the ESP 7.

1. It improved print longevity. It uses a pigment-based ink that Kodak says creates photo prints that last a lifetime, without fading, while providing as good or better image quality than the more common dye-based inks. Competitors say dye-based inks produce more vibrant colors. My previous Kodak prints looked a bit washed out, while prints from an HP ink-jet were too vibrant (oversaturated). The right paper choice helped get a more realistic image in both cases.

2. It offered lower cost replacement ink cartridges. Lower consumables cost means substantially lower cost per print than competing printers -- a fact borne out by my testing of the ESP 7's predecessor, as well as in a recent PC World test of the ESP 7.

Kodak has taken a populist marketing approach, trying to play off what it sees as consumer frustrations at the high cost of replacement ink. It has implied that its competitors are ripping off the consumer -- a tactic that has irritated leading vendors including HP and Canon. Canon filed a complaint about Kodak's advertising claims with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (unsuccessful) last year; HP recently filed a similar complaint. Although Kodak still has a very small market share, competitors have taken it seriously, and for good reason:

The business model is built on selling highly profitable ink, not the printers. In a market where people are printing less, Kodak's strategy is to siphon off consumers who spend the most on ink: the most profitable customers.

My testing criteria

But none of that intrigue matters to consumers. The only question is: Is this printer a good value for the money? Here are some considerations:

Ink cost per page. Clearly, the Kodak ESP 7 is less expensive to operate in ink costs. Print cartridge prices haven't changed since my original review, and recent PC World tests bear this out as well.

Paper costs and image quality are also important. If special paper is required for good quality, that drives up the cost per page. PC World, in its review of the ESP 7, was unhappy with photo printing results on plain paper. I've also read complaints about the ESP 7's image quality (banding) using non-Kodak brands of printer paper. Others report that Kodak-brand plain paper works better -- but it's more expensive. On the other hand, if you have to go with Kodak paper, Kodak also sells "value packs." While a color cartridge sells for $14.99, the same cartridge sold with 180 sheets of everyday photo paper in a value pack sells for $17.95 at Amazon.com. That's a pretty good deal.

How does this all shake out? We'll see.

Speed. PC World's tests show the ESP 7 falling short of the manufacturer's specifications. It clocked the ESP 7 at 6.7 pages per minute for text and 2.3 ppm for graphics (Kodak specs are 32 ppm and 30 ppm, respectively). I've read other reviews that showed performance results well below the Kodak specs.

I take some of this with a grain of salt. On a home printer, speed is not a big issue, at least not in our household. And I tend to use photo-grade paper for photos, not the cheap copy paper I throw into the laser printer.

Noise. Other reviewers have complained that the ESP 7 is louder than some of its competitors.

Reliability. Quite a few readers have voiced concerns about the reliability of Kodak AIO series printers in comments to various posts, especially with regard to performance of the print head. I had no such problems with the EasyShare 5300, which I tested over an extended period. I am eager to see how this unit performs over time.

Testing: First impressions

Getting the ESP 7 up and running went without a hitch. The colorful "Start Here" setup guide sits right on top when you open the box. Kodak also added some troubleshooting instructions, those being a black-and-white four-page printout that tells users how to run a print head cleaning process if prints don't look right initially. Fortunately, my unit worked fine right out of the box.

Assembling the machine involves installing the print head, which can be a bit tricky. Fortunately it's not something you replace often. After some fiddling with the correct orientation, I positioned it, pressed gingerly and it snapped into place as described. The ink tanks snapped right in. The unit uses a single-color tank (no buying colors separately, as with some HP printers) and a separate black tank.

The ESP 7 has a couple of cool features, including the ability to access it over a wired Ethernet or wireless network, the ability to automatically choose the tray with the correct paper size, and a sensor that tells you if there's enough paper loaded to finish the current job. Let's look at some specific features.

Printing using Wi-Fi. I'm forever having problems getting Wi-Fi security to work with new devices, so I was pleasantly surprised when the printer connected immediately. The unit detected my access point, let me choose from a list that included my neighbors' unsecured units and then prompted me to enter the security key using a small LCD on the front of the printer.

If you set up security on your wireless network, you'll need to enter the pass phrase or key code using a small LCD panel on the front of the unit. The ESP 7 supports wireless networks that use WPA and WP2 encryption. The ESP 7 prompts you for the pass phrase, which you must enter using an alphanumeric grid of letters and numbers that appears on the unit's LCD. You use the arrow key buttons to navigate to the right character position and push the enter key to select it. If you have a long code, as I do, it's a bit cumbersome, but you shouldn't have to do it again. Unfortunately, I lost the connection to my flaky Linksys wireless access point several times in the first week of testing. Reentering the 26-character key code turned into a tedious chore.

Using the software. Kodak's software for the ESP 7, called Kodak Home Center Software, is much improved over the software that came with the EasyShare 5300 I tested last time. The program is designed to allow you to control the print, copy and scan functions, but I have other software that can do that. For daily use, I'd prefer to just use the device driver — but I didn't see an option to install only the printer driver.

The default software made quick scans and snapshot printing easy, but I had problems detecting and connecting to the printer using the wireless option. After some fiddling with the software, the printer suddenly appeared and I was able to print. But the next day I could not detect it, even after resetting the printer, wireless router and computer.

However, I have had trouble with the Wi-Fi router disappearing or failing to connect with all of the clients on the network. When Wi-Fi works, it's great — but it's not a very consumer-friendly technology: when something goes wrong, it can be a frustrating exercise to troubleshoot it, even for those who know what they're doing. I plan to bring in another wireless access point for further testing.

Noise. I have run quite a few pages through the unit using the Kodak paper samples that came with the unit, as well as other paper I've purchased to judge image quality. The unit is a bit noisy as it selects between the 8.5" x 11" and snapshot paper trays and as it shuttles the paper to the print head. The actual printing is considerably quieter. I didn't find the noise to be a significant concern in my office. It is nowhere near as noisy as a copy machine, for example.

Performance.The ESP 7 cranked out a single 4" x 6" color photograph in about 50 seconds. I measured the time starting when I pressed the 'OK' button on the front of the unit until the time when the final picture was ejected from the printer. I'd selected the test image from a USB disk I inserted into the printer and used the controls on the front of the unit to preview, select and print the image. I plan to do a bit more testing in this area.

Next I'll take a look at image quality on different types of paper. I'll have more to report soon.

Note: Here is my subsequent report after spending three months with a Kodak AIO printer.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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