Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Digitize Your Home Movies

Nowadays, working with video on a computer, in the form of digital video, is relatively simple. That may not be much of a comfort, however, if you're staring at several hours of Super 8 film and contemplating digitizing your home movies. Nevertheless, we decided to give this a try, converting the analog footage ourselves, using a prosumer and a consumer DV camera. We also had two service bureaus convert the footage. We discuss the results here.

Let's walk through the process of digitizing video shot on 8-mm and Super 8 film to DV format. During the transfer, you'll use a film projector to display the footage and a DV camera to videotape it. Since most DV cameras can also output DV while shooting, you can transfer the output simultaneously to your computer, eliminating capture as a separate step. You'll need plenty of disk space, as each 50-foot film roll contains 3 to 4 minutes of video and requires about 750MB of storage space (about 13GB per hour of film). If you want to archive the unedited film directly on DV tape, as we did, you'll also need plenty of DV tapes; count on storing about 13 to 15 film rolls per 60-minute tape.

Other requirements include a tripod, a FireWire cable, and a large white posterboard to use as a projection screen. Pick up a power strip if you don't have one handy and a small paintbrush to clean dust from the projector lens. Consider buying a new bulb for your projector as well.

You can speed up the process by consolidating your 50-foot films onto 7-inch reels ahead of time. Each reel holds about 400 feet. At the least, get the film in chronological order, which will simplify editing later. And play one or two films to gauge their condition. If stored properly, even 50-year-old films should be in good condition, but if there is dirt, mildew, or other damage, you'll want to clean that off beforehand.

With the projector off, clean all optical components with glass cleaner sprayed on a soft, clean cloth, or pick up a lens brush at your local camera shop or drugstore. If there is dust or grime in the picture frame, brush it out with the paintbrush, something you'll do frequently during production. If you have to handle the bulb, use cotton gloves or a towel; finger oil can cause the bulb to explode.

Your workroom should be windowless or have drapes that can block all light. Because placement of the projector and camera must be very precise, a concrete floor is preferable to a wooden floor, which can vibrate. You'll need a flat section of a wall for the posterboard, and enough space between your worktable and the wall (about 7-feet in our tests) for the projected image to be about 13 by 10 inches.

Set up the projector so it shoots directly onto the posterboard, and position the camera beneath the projector and as close to it as possible. (We set up the projector on the edge of the worktable and put the camera on a tripod just beneath the projector; see Figure 1 .) Try to set up the projector so you have easy access to the film-loading side, because otherwise you might pull out your back leaning over to thread the film 80 times in 6 hours. Place your computer on the same table, with your mouse near the projector controls.

There are fundamental differences between film and video. Generally, 8-mm film was shot at about 16 frames per second (fps) and Super 8 at about 18 fps. Most home projectors use a three-shutter system, which displays each frame three times. This means 48 on-screen images per second for 8 mm film or 54 for Super 8.

Your DV camera, by contrast, uses two interlaced fields per frame, one containing the odd scan lines and the other containing the even lines. It captures images at 60 fields per second (30 frames per second * 2 fields). Unless you synchronize the film projector and the camera, the resulting video is going to flicker, because some of the fields will catch one of the projector's shutters in operation, and those fields will be darker than the rest.

Even with the DV camera set at a slow shutter speed, you won't see the projector's shutter, because it's moving faster than the camera can capture it, just as you can't see the individual blades in a fast-moving fan. But it will darken the field just enough to produce the flickering effect.

Digitize Your Home Movies

To minimize flicker, set your shutter speed to 1/60 second, and adjust the projector speed to either 20 fps, which produces 60 images per second, or 10 fps, which produces 30 images per second. Most projectors have variable-speed adjusters without defined speeds ( Figure 2 ), so during conversion, you simply adjust the speed until the flicker disappears.

If you can't set the shutter speed of your camera manually, you may want to rent or borrow one with this capability. Otherwise, the conversion may not be worth doing, as the flicker will be too distracting.

Setting white balance is critical. Different light sources have distinct color temperatures, which highlight certain colors when illuminating a scene. White-balance procedures vary from camera to camera but typically involve zooming in to a white object until it fills the screen and then pressing the appropriate control. This tells the camera that the object is white, allowing the camera to correct for the lighting.

If your camera has manual white-balance controls, set the white balance with the lights off and the projector running with no film, simply projecting a white image against the posterboard. If it doesn't, set the white balance to indoors or incandescent, even if the film you'll be converting was shot outdoors; even though the landscape in the film may have been sunlit, the predominant light in the image you're actually recording is produced by the tungsten incandescent bulb in the projector.

Exposure settings regulate the amount of light that enters the lens. Most camcorders have both manual and automatic controls. We tested manual mode but found it difficult to make the frequently required adjustments without shaking the camera, so we used automatic exposure for all conversions and got good results.

Digitize Your Home Movies

We used manual focus, since autofocus would have attempted to adjust for fuzzy images on-screen. To get set up for the best focus, we hung an image with text on the posterboard before shooting, then zoomed in tightly and focused on the text ( Figure 3 ). Luckily, on most video cameras, zoom doesn't affect focus, so zooming out later to fit the projected image in the camera frame won't make it go out of focus.

Unless you move your camera or projector, the camcorder shouldn't lose focus. If the video you're capturing appears out of focus, adjust the projector, not the camcorder. Once the projector is in focus, changes in the film won't affect focus unless machine vibration somehow shakes the lens out of place.

These tips are easy to forget when you start capturing fuzzy images and grab every focus adjustment within reach to attempt to correct the problem. Remember that older film cameras didn't have autofocus capabilities, and often the film itself was simply out of focus.

To frame the video, shut the lights off and start the projector with no film, displaying a white box on the posterboard. Adjust your camera on the tripod until the white box is centered in the LCD panel, and then zoom in until the projected image fills the LCD.

Digitize Your Home Movies

Start your capture software and watch for black bands around the video, as in Figure 4 . Note that while the television screen is completely full, the same video in Adobe Premiere's capture screen shows a black band on all four sides. These result from fundamental differences between how televisions and computers display video. When framing the video, if you zoom your camcorder in so the video just fills the LCD panel (which generally has some overscan), you'll leave the black band around the video.

This is fine if you're creating a DVD to display on a television set, since the black band won't be visible. If, however, you'll be watching the videos from your computer, the band will show. The only way to monitor the overscan is to capture the image to a computer while you're filming. Otherwise, you simply won't see the overscan.

Once the camera and projector are set up, it's time to run through the process and work out the kinks. Start with a small (50-foot) roll, because you'll likely have to run it several times to get everything right. Thread the film, but before turning on the projector, find the focus and speed adjustments. Then start the projector and focus the video image. Once the image is sharp, watch the camcorder's LCD panel or the computer capture screen for flicker.

Be careful when handling the camera and projector as you start and stop playback and rewinding. Even modest jolts to either device can destroy your careful framing. Also watch for dust in the lens, and brush it out between reels when it starts to accumulate. Once you get through your first four or five rolls, you'll settle into a pleasantly efficient routine that will quickly carry you through to the end of the project. Grab some popcorn and a soda, and enjoy the show.

Online extraOnline Extra

We tested with two Sony DV cameras: the DCR-VX2000, a three-CCD prosumer model, and the one-CCD, consumer-oriented DCR-HC40. After capture, we color-corrected the footage using Pinnacle Studio's automatic color-correction filter.

Video Quality 2

We also sent the same film to two high-end service bureaus, Cinepost and Movi-eStuff. Cinepost uses a Rank Turbo conversion system with a "WetSystem" telecine process that places fluid on the film during conversion to fill scratches and other irregularities, and then dries the film before winding it back to tape. After conversion, Cinepost adjusts color with a DaVinci color-correction system. MovieStuff is both a conversion house and a manufacturer of film-to-DV conversion systems. MovieStuff used their own DV8 Sniper unit to convert our footage, then color-corrected the footage on the computer, using a Matrox editing system running Adobe Premiere.

Both companies supplied us with DV tapes, which we captured using Adobe Premiere. We grabbed the same frames from all four sources and compared the quality. A representative sampling of frames is included here.

Video Quality 3

As shown in Figure 1 , Cinepost's WetSystem process excels at removing scratches from film to produce wonderfully clear images. If large sections of your film are scratched, you won't be able to come close to that quality doing it yourself or sending it to a service bureau that doesn't have a similar system. This image was the best case for Cinepost and the worst case for MovieStuff; their output was much closer in all other comparisons.

As you can see in Figure 2 , both service bureaus produced noticeably clearer images than the two cameras, though the differences are generally subtle and would only be obvious when viewing side-by-side comparisons. You won't be able to duplicate the quality that these service bureaus produce, but you can produce fairly impressive results.

Not surprisingly, the VX2000 proved superior to the consumer camcorder, though the differences were subtle. The HC40 showed a hint less detail and slightly less contrast than the VX2000. Figures 3 and 4 are good examples of this.

Video Quality 4

Our only complaint about the HC40 was that we couldn't set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second, since the camera only supported 1/30 of a second or slower. This forced us to speed the projector up to much faster than real time to eliminate the flicker. We much preferred the more leisurely pace produced by the VX2000 and the service bureaus.

How to Improve Display Readability

It's been a long day at the computer, and you can barely read the screen anymore. Is it that you're overworked, or is this an equipment problem? Most likely, the display is at least contributing to your bleariness. It may seem harder to read because it is harder to read. With new monitors, resolution has gone up even faster than display size, yielding more dots (pixels) per inch. The result is crisper photos (good), more windows you can put on a screen (good for productivity), and type that's smaller (not good).

Most users are comfortable with standard fonts on a display with a resolution of 100 dots per inch (dpi). That's XGA resolution (1,024 by 768 pixels) on a 13.3-inch notebook (96 dpi) or a 15-inch CRT. If you switch to SXGA+ resolution (1,400 by 1,050 pixels) on the same size display, text will only be four-fifths (81 percent) as big. As LCDs get larger, their fixed resolutions increase too. This means that fonts don't get much bigger and may sometimes shrink, since they are programmed to appear in a given number of pixels, often 8 wide by 12 high for a screen font.

To see how far we've regressed, try opening a DOS window and see how small the fonts are. Before the advent of Microsoft Windows, the so-called "DOS box" of 80 characters by 25 lines filled the entire screen. Each 8-by-12 pixel character was about 0.133 inches wide, roughly eight characters per inch. When you open a 640- by 480-pixel DOS box on an SXGA+ screen, fonts are less than half as wide, 0.061 inches, or 16 characters per inch. Manual typewriters, in comparison, typically provided 10 characters per inch; fewer cpi indicates bigger, more readable type. A 100 dpi display (such as a 13.3-inch XGA) would show about 12 characters per inch. Between the fixed resolutions of LCD panels and Windows font-scaling difficulties, it's little wonder your eyes get bleary.

Click here to view the DPI: Crispness vs. Readability table.

Font-Enhancement Utilities

Windows Font Sizes
Windows does provide some help in making fonts and menus easier to read. To increase the size of menu, dialog-box, and task-bar fonts, go to the Windows desktop, right-click on a blank area, left-click on Properties, choose the Appearance tab, and select Font Size (normal, large, or extra-large). If you want to make everything—not just fonts—bigger, choose the Settings tab and click on the Advanced button and then the DPI selector. "DPI" is a misnomer; it actually magnifies the entire screen. Choosing 120 dpi instead of the normal 96 makes everything 25 percent larger. Doing so may make some elements of certain applications display incorrectly, with fonts spilling outside list boxes or not aligning properly.

Try ClearType, Microsoft's font smoothing technology for color LCDs. Go to the Windows desktop, right-click, choose Properties, Appearances, and then Effects, and select ClearType. (Do note, though, that some users say they find ClearType harder on the eyes.)

Liquid View
Consider using Portrait Display's Liquid View utility, which does a more sophisticated—but not perfect—job of intelligently scaling Windows fonts (as well as tools in Microsoft Office), and doesn't require a Windows restart to take effect. Download the software for $30 at www.portrait.com . Two other utilities improve the sometimes tiny type on Microsoft Internet Explorer: Portrait's Liquid Surf ($20 download), which amplifies the browser window, and Ion Systems' Web Eyes ($25 download, www.ionwebeyes.com ), which reformats and enlarges the page. All have free trials. You could also change to a different browser, such as Opera, that does better sizing.

Office Apps, E-Mail

Most office apps let you magnify the work area and use font utilities to enlarge the type on the menus. To enlarge fonts in Microsoft Office, select View and then Zoom, and try setting it to 125% or 150%. Also consider changing your default font from 10 to 12 points so printouts are easier to read. Choose File and then Open, select the file type Document Templates, open normal.dot, and choose Format, Styles, and then Formatting. Then, right-click on the Normal style, right-click on Modify, change the typeface and point size, click on OK, then save the file.

For e-mail, using a larger font helps both you and your recipients. To modify font size in Microsoft Outlook, choose Tools, select the Mail Format tab and then Fonts, make your changes, and click on OK. Instead of using Arial, consider display-friendly fonts such as the slightly wider Verdana or the slightly narrower Tahoma. Try Georgia instead of Times New Roman. Book Antiqua is an excellent printer font and is also good on screen.

Mac users running either MS Office or Internet Explorer will have Georgia, Tahoma, and Verdana (it's part of the installation), and all Macs have the Book Antiqua equivalent, Palatino. But Microsoft has discontinued the free TrueType fonts download program that allowed Mac or Linux PC users to install these typefaces.

Fine Tuning the Display

Setup and adjustment can be monitor- specific. In general, let Windows try to auto-discover the resolution and refresh rate. If not, choose a moderately high refresh rate for CRTs (around 85 Hz) and a low refresh rate for flicker-resistant LCDs (60 Hz is fine; faster than that will slow down the graphics). With CRTs, you can pick a comfortable resolution and then adjust the image size and screen geometry. With LCDs, you absolutely should stick with the native resolution. If there's a one-button auto-set or auto-tune adjustment, use that and then try minor manual adjustments using the maker's tuning patterns or DisplayMate's DisplayMate for Windows ($69 download, www.displaymate.com ). With a digital LCD, only a few adjustments are possible or necessary, so that kind of display is your best bet for a great image.

Dust on a monitor may block half its light output. Clean it gently with a microfiber cloth soaked in almost-hot water. If possible, orient the monitor so neither you nor the display face a bright window. A dark shirt, if it suits your style, cuts reflections. To reduce glare from overhead lights, tape matte board with a six-inch overhang over the top of the display and wear a baseball cap.

How to Improve Display Readability

Upgrade Your Monitor

If you've had it with your current display and want to start anew, focus on LCD technology. LCDs are easier on the eyes and less sensitive to indifferent setup. Wide displays (16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio) are useful for showing side-by-side apps on one screen, but they don't necessarily have more total pixels or space than a comparable 4:3 display, because they may be an inch shorter as well as an inch wider.

With virtually all laptops and some desktop PCs, you can run dual monitors. You could use one for word processing, for instance, and use the second for your music player, e-mail, and utilities. Activation is simple (providing you have either two graphics cards or a card with two outputs): Plug in a second display, and in the Display Properties Settings tab, check the box "Extend my windows desktop onto this [second] monitor."

Dual displays aren't as crazy as you might think: Two $200 to $500 15-inch LCD panels have slightly more screen area than a single $1,000 to $1,500 21-inch LCD. The single panel is better for video or photo editing, and it will also let you view two full-size 8.5-by-11 pages side by side. A pair of 17-inch displays, which will still cost less than one 21-inch display, will have one-third more screen area.

These days, though, your best bet for big, readable type without scaling is a 19-inch 1,280-by-1,024 (SXGA) digital LCD. For more information on these eye-savers, check out our LCD Product Guide.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Hack Your Gadgets

How many times have you seen a product and thought, "Great, but if only it could..."? Or perhaps you recognized its potential as a platform for an entirely different application. That's the basis for hacking gadgets—improving them, giving them new features, tailoring them to your specific needs, or defeating built-in limitations. Here's our survey of some of the more interesting consumer electronics hacks. Be forewarned, though: Hacking a product may cause irreversible damage and will almost certainly void the warranty.

Rebel, Rebel

The Canon EOS Digital Rebel
You've just spent the better part of $1,000 on a digital single-lens-reflex camera, so what's the first thing you do? Hack the firmware. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel shares much of its firmware with the higher-end EOS 10D. This was first discovered by an enterprising Russian hacker known as Wasia, who figured out how to turn on the inactive portion of the firm-ware, expanding the camera's capabilities. He's now releasing his own version of the firmware and updating it as he figures out how to get the Digital Rebel to do even more.

The hacked firmware lets you turn on flash exposure compensation, adjust the shutter and aperture, control bracketing, boost the ISO, and much more. You update your camera via a CompactFlash card after you've downloaded the code onto it from your PC. The update is reversible. Several sites document the firmware hack, but this one has other useful tips, too: www.bahneman.com/liem/photos/tricks/digital-rebel-tricks.html .

Get Around Dvd Player Limits

We don't have enough pages in this magazine to list every DVD player hack, but most of them focus on defeating region/ country codes or changing the codes. Other hacks add the ability to play unsupported file or disc types. Though the media companies want their content to be as restricted as possible, DVD player manufacturers seem to be adhering more to the letter than to the spirit of the law, by making their players as flexible as possible while technically complying with the international agreements. Thus, the undocumented features are hidden away under layers of error messages, button presses, and weird on-screen messages.

The definitive source for DVD hacks is www.videohelp.com/dvdhacks , but you can find more by searching various message boards for your machine's model number.

Microsoft Xbox + Hack = Linux Workstation

There's a powerful graphics workstation inside every Microsoft Xbox. Hackers, especially Linux fans, would love to run a general-purpose operating system on the Xbox and use it as an inexpensive graphics computer, so Microsoft designed it to be highly hack-resistant. Microsoft probably loses money on every console it sells, with the intent of making it up on the games. The Xbox hardware and software check one another during boot-up and execution to make sure that everything is present and accounted for and that no foreign hardware is detected.

The state of the art in Xbox hacks is at www.xbox-linux.org , which provides complete instructions on how to modify the machine to load Linux, using the savegame feature of a popular game and a USB key—no hardware hacking is required. The mod is reversible, so you're not sacrificing your Xbox, but some features—such as Xbox Live—will not work while the mod is active.

The various Xbox Linux projects are a testament to the cleverness and determination of programmers and are also prima facie evidence that nothing is hackproof. But the Xbox, with its 733-MHz Celeron CPU and 10GB hard drive, is looking somewhat dated, even for $150. As the power of sub-$500 PCs continues to climb, the Xbox is a less and less inviting target.

Refill Ink Jet Cartridges

Ink jet printers have been based on a razors-and-blades model since long before the Xbox, with replacement ink cartridges costing a hefty percentage of the printer's price. Despite dire warnings from the manufacturers, cartridge refilling kits are big business, and many users report success and savings in refilling their cartridges.

In an effort to dissuade refillers, many Epson and Hewlett-Packard printers keep track of electronically readable cartridge serial numbers. So if you refill and replace a cartridge, the printer rejects it.

Several Epson cartridges store data in a small memory chip on the cartridge. Eddie's Ink Chip Hack ( www.eddiem.com/photo/printer/chipreset/resetchip.html ) uses a homebuilt dongle from the printer port to reset the cartridge chip. Even if you never intend to refill a cartridge, it's an engaging story of using hardware and software to solve a problem. Commercial Epson cartridge resetters are now available from refill suppliers.

On many HP printers, the printer remembers the last two cartridges, so if you keep three or more old empties around, you can refill them sequentially or use the empties to force the serial number of the one you've refilled out of the printer's memory. You can also mask a couple of the contacts on the cartridge with tape to spoof the serial number, but be sure not to leave any tape residue on the contacts. You can get details on HP cartridge hacks, plus far more than you ever wanted to know about the technology, politics, and economics of HP printers, at www.searchlores.org/realicra/hp_slobo.htm .

A Robot in Every Roomba

Roomba with a tablet PC
Why would anyone want to hack a vacuum cleaner? Because it's a robotics platform. If you're into the software side of robotics, a Roomba will give you the hardware platform—motors, wheels, sensors, battery, and charger that you would otherwise have to obtain elsewhere, a process that would be an expensive and time-consuming obstacle to your project. The Roomba isn't rugged enough for a BattleBot, but it's perfect for experimentation.

One approach is to do brain surgery on the unit, replacing its microcontroller with a popular, easy-to-program controller such as the Basic Stamp. The Zoomba was an early attempt at such a device, but it never made it past the prototype stage. Another effort, dubbed RoombaBT, has as its goal a Bluetooth-enabled Roomba, so you can direct your vacuum wirelessly, even from your cell phone. You can stay up-to-date on various Roomba hacks at www.roombacommunity.com and get step-by-step disassembly instructions at www.tla.org/roomba/.

Killer HDTV Gaming

HDTV resolutions
If you're fortunate enough to have a PC that can output to a widescreen TV, and you're an avid gamer, you're in luck. An increasing number of games can be played in HDTV resolutions without ugly stretching or distortion. All those extra pixels can slow down some of the most graphics-intensive games, but you needed a reason to upgrade to an even faster machine, right?

TigerDave ( www.tigerdave.com ) maintains a list of games and links to the software hacks you'll need to force them into these nonstandard modes. Much of the information comes from the home- theater gaming group at the AV Science Forum ( www.avscience.com ), but it's nicely distilled here and confirmed by TigerDave. The games vary widely in the amount of effort you have to expend. Odd behaviors, such as disappearing cursors and the like, are to be expected, but the rewards are phenomenal when everything works right.

TiVo to the Max

TiVo hacks are so popular that at last count, we found three books on the topic, as well as numerous Web sites, and they cover both series 1 and series 2 TiVos. The hacks run the gamut from simple access to the internal Linux operating system to backdoor codes that call forth a variety of undocumented features, including enabling a 30-second skip. Some of these "features" can also turn your TiVo into a doorstop, so proceed with the utmost caution and read everything before you do anything. www.tivocommunity.com is a good place to start, as is the www.tivo help.com knowledge base.

You'll find freeware TiVo screensavers, utility programs that run on the TiVo OS, and some guides to hacking TiVo hardware. You can even install an FTP server on your box and transfer files over your LAN with it. The amount of effort people have expended on their TiVos is impressive; it's a wonder that they have any time left to actually watch TV.

Do-It-Yourself DVR

The Digital Home

A digital video recorder (DVR) can change your life. Well, your TV-viewing life, at least. TiVO is the most famous DVR on the market today, but there are plenty of PC-based hardware and software products that give you similar abilities and features and a lot more freedom.

For starters, you can now watch TV on your terms. No more staying up to the wee hours to catch an old movie or reruns of your favorite show. Instead, your DVR records it for you, and you can watch it whenever you choose. But a DVR is more than just a smarter VCR. It can also pause live TV and go into a time-shift mode, in which you can watch what was on the program a few seconds or minutes ago while the DVR continues to record in real time.

Buy or Build?

You could just go buy a TiVO—they're very well designed, and easy for everyone in the family to use. Midrange models are priced at around $200, plus $12.95 per month for the electronic program guide (EPG). But despite some recently added features, the TiVO remains by and large a closed system, and for copyright reasons, recorded video content is pretty much locked in the box.

Taking an existing PC and converting it into a DVR costs up to around $500, but before you run out and buy a TiVO, stop to consider how much more versatile a PC-based DVR will be. Along with letting you watch, time-shift, and record your favorite TV programs, a DVR system can also function as a media client or even a server on your home network. That means you can watch recorded TV programs from any PC on your home network. You can also show your digital photos on your TV, access your entire collection of ripped music, play PC games, surf the Web, and check e-mail. And the EPG service for Beyond TV (our DVR application of choice) is free.

Design and Components

For this project, we used a Dell Dimension 8200 system, which has a 2-GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 512MB of system memory, an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro 3D card, an Audigy 2 sound card, and a 30GB hard drive. This was a top-of-the-line system about two years ago, and is still competent today, even for processor-intensive chores. Part of what determines the minimum system requirements for a DVR system is whether you want to capture and time-shift HDTV content, which places more demands on the system (see "HD or Not HD").

To turn this PC into a DVR system, we added a TV tuner card, a remote control, a second hard drive, and DVR software. If your graphics card doesn't have a video output and you're connecting your PC-DVR to a standard-definition television, you'll need to upgrade your graphics card to one with good TV output. If you're not planning on playing games on this system, then you can opt for a modest $100 graphics card. But if you want to use your system for games as well, you should consider a card with a bit more power.

If you already have a large hard drive in your system, you may not need to add another. We recommend allocating at least 40GB for recorded video; add more if you like to archive a lot of programs. You may even want to consider a DVD burner so you can catalog shows to watch later without using up all your disk space.

As a DVR, this system can be driven entirely using SnapStream's Firefly PC remote control, so you don't necessarily have to buy a wireless keyboard/mouse combo. But if Web-surfing or e-mailing from your couch or easy chair is in your plans, you should consider adding those components.

Installing Hardware

Snapstream Firefly Unless you want to use an external TV tuner box and an external hard drive, you will need to open up your PC to bring this project to fruition. If you take your time and don't apply excessive force to anything inside your PC, the installation process should come off without a hitch.

Locate the screws for your PC's side panel and remove them, then open the case's side panel. Not all cases are created equal. For instance, our Dell Dimension 8200 has a case that you first lay on its side and then open like the hood of a car. Once you're inside your PC, you'll need to locate a free PCI slot to install the TV tuner card. After you seat the card in a PCI slot, screw the card into the back panel, so it won't come unseated when you connect cables to it.

Putting in the new hard drive is trickier, since you need to figure out where it can be installed. Most PC cases have room for more than one hard drive, so find where your system's current hard drive is mounted, and see if there's a space for another drive. If there is, you'll want to leave the drive with Microsoft Windows on it as the master drive, and set the new drive as the slave. This may require changing the jumpers on both your current and new hard drives.

Many hard drives are installed with jumpers set by default as if the drive were the only one on the machine. You may need to change your existing drive's jumpers to turn it into the master drive. Read through your new hard drive's documentation to determine the correct jumper settings to make it the slave. Next, connect the data ribbon cable and a power cable to your new hard drive.

Once those two items are installed, you can close your case back up. You'll need to connect a small patch cable that comes with the TV tuner card; it goes from the card's audio output to your sound card's line input. This is a crucial step, because without it you won't hear any audio, which needs to be routed to your TV's or sound system's speakers when you're watching live or recorded TV. Once you've connected this patch cable, you can reboot your system.

Before you connect the USB receiver for the Firefly remote, you need to install its driver software. When that is done, plug the USB receiver into an available USB port.

Getting Connected

Video: You have three options for video. If you have an HDTV, you can connect to it via either its VGA or DVI input straight from your graphics card. For a standard-definition TV, your choices are either the S-Video or composite video inputs of your TV. S-Video is the better option, as it does a superior job of carrying the video signal and delivers higher-quality images. If you have analog cable TV, you can connect it—or a TV antenna—directly to the TV tuner card. If you have a cable or satellite box, you need to connect it to either the TV tuner card's S-Video or composite video input, again preferably to the S-Video input. You'll also need to route audio output from your cable/satellite box into the TV tuner card's audio input.

You will want to set your computer's resolution fairly low. If you're using a standard-definition TV, set your PC's resolution no higher than 1,024-by-768. This is because SDTV images have an approximate pixel resolution of 640-by-480, and you don't want to stretch them much, because the image will begin to get either blurry or somewhat blocky. If you have an HDTV, we recommend running at its native pixel resolution (check your HDTV manual). This will usually be something like 1,280-by-720.

Audio: Ideally, you should connect your PC to your home theater receiver via a digital audio connection (called S/PDIF). This single wire can carry either two-channel stereo or multiple channels (5.1, 6.1, 7.1) of Dolby Digital or DTS.

If your sound card doesn't have a digital-audio output, you can connect its analog output to your receiver with a mini-jack-to-RCA patch cable. Your sound card probably came with one, but if not, they're inexpensive and easily found at a Radio Shack or other electronics stores. One note of caution: Some sound cards still put out a "DC thud," a noise burst when the PC is turned on and the sound card first gets power. When powering up your PC, either turn your receiver's volume down or select another input, as this noise-burst signal could damage your amp and speaker drivers. This DC thud only occurs when coming off a cold start; sound cards generally don't produce it when coming out of a sleep state.

Configuring Beyond TV

Recording Settings SnapStream's Beyond TV DVR is easy to use once you've run through its initialization wizard. There, you'll set an account up on SnapStream.Net so that you can receive the correct EPG grid, based on where you live and who your cable or satellite provider is. If you use antenna reception only, there's an option for that as well.

You can operate Beyond TV's user interface with either a mouse or the Firefly remote control. First, you need to configure the recording settings. With digital video, the tradeoff is usually between file size and video quality; higher quality will generally consume more hard-disk space. You get to choose between using MPEG-2 or the Windows Media Video file format. Both formats have four quality levels; we suggest you test each at the Better level. At that level, MPEG-2 records at a constant bit rate of 5.22 megabits/second—it fills 2.3GB of hard-disk space per hour, or 57GB for 25 hours of video. WMV's Better setting, at a variable bit rate of 1.76 Mbps, uses only 792MB of disk space per hour, or 19.8GB for 25 hours.

From the main menu, select Settings, and from there, select Recording Settings. Either file format will deliver good video quality; WMV does better with lower bit rates, but MPEG-2 is easier to use for creating DVDs. You also have the choice of adding SmartSkip information to the recordings, which allows you to easily skip past commercials. You can even have Beyond TV add this information after the program has been recorded.

Up and Running

Program Guide Your PC DVR system should now be ready to record and play back TV shows and movies. The Beyond TV interface makes your PC DVR easy enough for the whole family to use. Even better, those recorded programs can now be played on any PC on your home network. And remember, the computer can still do everything a PC can do—play games, music, home videos and DVDs; view pictures; surf the Web; and check e-mail, all from the comfort of your couch. But be warned: Once you try a DVR, you will soon become one of the converted.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Printing Great Photos from Inkjets

Printing Great Photos from Inkjets

PC Magazine Guide to Printing Great Digital PhotosEditor's Note: PC Magazine has partnered with Wiley Books to create a series of PC Magazine and ExtremeTech books. In Printing Great Digital Photos graphic design instructor David Karlins shows readers how to get pro-level prints from their digital cameras and printers. This chapter focuses on getting good prints out of the ubiquitous inkjet printer.

You can purchase the complete book online here.

Total posts: 1

By David Karlins

In just a few short years, inkjet photo printers have branched off from their evolutionary predecessors, the inkjet office printer. From slow, crude producers of dotty text and marginal-quality graphics, the current generation of six-, seven-, and even eight-color photo printers produces prints that most people cannot distinguish from photo lab pictures.

Really? Well, photo printer manufacturers have surveys to prove it. A survey cited by HP concluded: "When presented with prints of five different photos, US consumer respondents preferred HP prints more than other inkjet and silver halide [photo lab] prints... Most participants did not realize inkjet printers are capable of producing true-to-life photographs. The test proved to be a real eye-opener."

Spencerlab Study
The previously mentioned study is called "Consumer Preference Research: Photographic Print Quality, HP 8-Color vs. Conventional Processing & Competitive 6-Color Inkjet Printers." You can read it at http://spencerlab.com/Spencer-hpPIQ_Sep03.pdf.

It's worth dissecting this claim a bit. First, the survey said "US consumer" respondents, which I interpret as significantly less demanding than those of us who aim to produce great digital photos. I have conducted many informal surveys and I think it's true to say that, overall, people who like photos and take and print photos at photo labs are generally rather amazed at the quality of a well-done inkjet photo, even compared with a photo lab print. Inkjet quality is good, but there is more involved in achieving great results from an inkjet. The elements of preparing a photo for digital printing covered in this book—ranging from editing and touch-up techniques to the ink and paper you choose—play a major role in raising the quality level of digital prints.

This means if you send an average photo from a digital or film camera to a professional print lab for traditional (chemical-based) photo printing, that print will rarely look anywhere near as good as a photo that was touched up using photo editing software. Photos that have been well prepared with photo editing software, and printed using high-quality photo ink and high-quality photo paper, look very good indeed.

The debate over whether inkjet quality really equals or exceeds traditional photo printing is bound to rage for some time, as are arguments over dye sub quality versus inkjet color. But the very fact that there is a debate—and that large numbers of people find inkjet prints as good as or better than traditional photo prints—says much about the state of photo inkjet printing.

Given that very high-quality prints are available from inkjet printers and building on the previous discussions in this book about photo editing, paper options, and ink quality, you can see that two basic factors determine the quality of inkjet photo prints:

Quality and options available in the inkjet printer
Correct use of the settings available with the printer

The rest of this chapter explores both these factors. I'll help you identify features that improve inkjet quality and help decipher the sometimes confusing printer property options available for photo inkjets. Along the way, you'll find advice on features that make inkjet photo printing more convenient, economical, and reliable.

Inkjet Types, Sizes, and Features

The biggest single factor determining inkjet photo quality is the interaction of the inkjet method itself with appropriate photo paper. Chapter 5 explained the processes that combine to align ink with paper to generate precise dithering (combining ink colors), which produces a wide range of colors. Remember that with all the advances in inkjet technology, there have remained certain colors that aren't easily generated by combining droplets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Figure 6-1In general, six-, seven-, and eight-color inkjets do significantly better at managing challenging color tones and transitions between colors. A photo of the sky with subtle gradations of color, a close-up of a face, or a delicate transition between clouds, like the one in Figure 6-1, will be much improved when printed on a six-, seven-, or eight-color inkjet as opposed to a printer limited to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.

Beyond the benefits of additional ink cartridges, other elements make photo prints look good and print quickly. High printer resolution—the number of tiny inkjet droplets per inch—produces sharper photos with a better color range than printers with lower resolution. Printers with top or back sheet feeders subject photo paper to less stress than bottom-feeding printers that print on the back of paper as it is inserted into the printer. Finally, printers that use inking processes that mesh well with photo paper produce longer lasting and better color prints than printers using "quick drying" photo paper, or photo paper not configured specifically for a particular printer.

Inkjet Features

Photo inkjets come in all sizes, ranging from cute, football-sized miniprinters to huge professional printers costing tens of thousands of dollars. Consumer-level (as opposed to professional print shop) printers generally cost between $100 and $600, with printers that support wide sheets costing significantly more.

In addition to the number of ink cartridges, other features that influence print quality include the type of paper loading, the paper drying and finishing process, resolution, ink drop volume (the smaller the drop—measured in picoliters—the better), borderless printing, and support for nonpaper media like CDs and DVDs.

Features that make inkjets more convenient include card readers that accept memory cards from cameras, USB connections that import photos directly from a camera, paper trays that feed 4-by-6 and smaller paper, LCD windows that preview photos, and features like duplex (two-sided) printing that allow the inkjet to do double-duty as a home or office printer.

Figure 6-2In general, inkjets trend to provide trade-offs. Those with the most convenient features, including those that double as office printers, tend not to offer features like six-, seven-, or eight-color printing. Among the major manufacturers of photo inkjets, Epson and Canon inkjets tend to provide six, seven, or eight individual color cartridges, while HP photo printers combine four or six colors of ink into a single cartridge. The mini Epson PictureMate, shown in Figure 6-2, uses a six-color ink cartridge.

Figure 6-3Stuffing a lot of convenient features into a tiny printer, the four-color HP Photosmart 245 printer provides five different slots supporting the most popular printer memory cards and combines an LCD display and minimal in-printer editing tools to print without a computer, as shown in Figure 6-3.

Paper Loading

Paper-loading options include the freedom to feed different sizes of photo paper conveniently and the ability to feed photo paper through a printer without bending the paper through rollers. Consumer-level photo inkjets offer two basic options for loading paper: front or top. Top- or back-loading printers run paper past the inkjets in a straight path without bending the paper. These printers sometimes include rollers that accept long rolls of photo paper.

Figure 6-4Paper trays under the printer, like that in the HP Photosmart 7960, allow for a smaller printer footprint but force paper to wrap around rollers before printing. Photo paper is inserted face-down in these printers, which risks scratching the paper. The Photosmart includes a convenient feeder compartment for 4-by-6 photo paper, as shown in Figure 6-4.

Figure 6-5The contrast in paper-feed options between the HP Photosmart and the Epson Photo Stylus printers illustrates a trade-off between convenience (easy loading, less space) and quality (no bending during paper-feeding). The Canon i860 shown in Figure 6-5 feeds from the top and includes a 4-by-6 feeder tray. It even does duplex printing for office tasks or double-sided photo projects.

Overall, top-loading printers produce less handling stress on photo paper but take up more vertical space and often have fewer convenient features for managing small prints.


There are several ways to get photos from your computer to your printer. Printer connections include the ubiquitous USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection, as well as FireWire or IEEE 1394 cables, wireless connections, and the old-but-reliable parallel port connection. Each connection has its advantages and disadvantages and varies significantly in speed.

It's important that your printer connection be compatible with your computer input ports. Most computers have USB connections and most printers support USB but computers and printers manufactured before 2002 often do not support USB 2.0, which is quite a bit faster than older USB connections. Because different printers come with different connections, or sets of connections, I review the main connection options to help you choose a printer with a configuration that works for you.

You can also transfer photos directly from your printer to your computer. Many printers ship with card readers that accept as many as five of the most widely used memory cards. This means you can insert CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, Secure Digital/MultiMedia, xD-Picture Card media or another memory device directly into a printer and essentially use the printer as an additional hard drive to move photo files to your desktop computer's hard drive.

USB Printer Connections

High-Speed USB
High-speed USB and USB 2.0 are the same. They describe a standard that supports high-speed data transmission (480 megabytes per second). Some peripherals-USB keyboards for example-do not require or utilize this high data transfer rate, but USB 2.0 connections are backward-compatible so peripherals with slower speed connections work just fine with USB 2.0. In short, there's no reason not to upgrade to USB 2.0 if your computer has older USB ports. USB 2.0 cards for PCs and Macs are available for under $50.

The USB connection is establishing itself rapidly as the global connector between all kinds of peripherals and computers. USB connections work with PCs and Macs and have replaced awkward, clunky, and slower computer/printer connections. Many cameras connect directly to a PC or a printer with a USB cable.

The USB 2.0 standard provides a fast data transfer rate between your computer and printer, which is helpful when transferring massive files associated with high-resolution photos. If your system supports only the older, slower USB configuration, it's most likely that your connection to a USB printer will work but it will be slower than if you have a high-speed USB 2.0 connection.

The biggest problem with USB connections is that printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals all require USB connections, so you need multiple ports and enough bandwidth to support it. Five-port USB hubs help this situation by increasing the number of printers and other peripherals you can connect to a single computer.

Overloaded USBs Slow Down Printing
Theoretically, 127 USB devices can be connected to a PC at the same time. However, each peripheral (that is actually running) shares the same USB management resources in your computer, so the more active peripherals you have, the slower the printing.

If you find yourself tripping over unsightly cords, one solution might be the newest printer link technology: wireless connections. I discuss that option a bit later in this chapter.

Firewire and IEEE 1394 Cables

FireWire Nomenclature
Apple calls them FireWire ports. Sony calls them iLink ports. Other PC manufacturers use the catchy name IEEE 1394 (even I could come up with a catchier product name than that). They're all the same thing.

FireWire and IEEE 1394 cables (the same thing) provide connections between your printer and computer that are as fast as USB 2.0 connections. FireWire works well with peripherals that require real-time interaction with a computer, like video cameras. A maximum of 64 FireWire devices can be hubbed into a FireWire port.

As with other connection options, FireWire hookups are almost always a second option and nearly every printer comes with USB 2.0. If your USB hubs are overloaded, and you have a FireWire port in your computer, that option can speed up printing. But there's no need to add a FireWire port to your computer if you have USB 2.0.

Parallel Port Connections

The parallel port is following the serial port into the dustbin of history but several current photo inkjet printers continue to support this connection. Although parallel ports are significantly slower than USB connections, if you have many USB peripherals plugged into your computer sharing the same computer resources, parallel printing might be just as fast as USB printing.

Also, parallel ports don't use up any of those precious USB slots. If USB resources are at a premium and your computer has a parallel port, it might be advantageous to choose an inkjet that supports a parallel connection. All current printers support USB so if a parallel connection is available on a photo printer, it will be a second option.

Wireless Printer Connections

Compatibility Issues
Check the wireless connection manufacturer's Web site to see if your printer is compatible with their connector technology. AmbiCom frequently updates its list of compatible printers and operating systems at www.ambicom.com.

Even if your desktop or office isn't crammed with photo printers, you might want to consider going with a wireless connection.

Wireless printer connections, like the AmbiCom WPKIT Wireless Printer Adapter, plug into the USB port in a supported printer and the USB plug in your computer. Many of these wireless connectors use Bluetooth wireless technology.

There's no need to do a lot of configuring with wireless printer hookups. There is no server to configure or connect to. However, the downside is that each wireless kit works with just one computer and additional computer connections are sold separately. Wireless printer connections are advertised to work at distances up to 100 feet, but users report mixed experiences in connecting beyond 20 feet.

Using Inkjet Card Readers

Many photo printers allow printing directly from a memory card without any interaction with a computer. One theme of this book is that great digital photo prints generally require some touching up with at least some basic photo editing software. To that end, this chapter does not spend much space discussing the slim set of options available for printing directly from you're a flash memory card.

Figure 6-6This does not mean, however, that there's no point in getting a photo printer with flash memory card slots. Even if you're not planning to use your inkjet to print directly from a camera, any card slot that comes with a printer can function as a card reader. HP Photosmart printers, for instance, include a card reader that supports CompactFlash, Memory Stick, SmartMedia, Secure Digital/MultiMedia, and xD-Picture Card media, as shown in Figure 6-6.

Memory cards in printer slots—and memory cards in card readers—work like an additional hard drive. You can move files from a memory card to your hard drive just as you would manage any other files with your operating system.

Cameras can connect directly to printers. The easiest and most widely supported method is a USB cable running from a printer to a PictBridge-enabled digital camera.

Digital cameras and photo printers with card readers offer minimal cropping and editing features. These options often include enlarging, cropping, and sometimes a "one-step" color/level/contrast photo fix button.

Other instant-print features can be handy for quickly seeing what's on a memory card. HP Photosmart printers include menu options for printing contact sheets from a card, combining photos into an album, and printing selected batches of photos. These printers include display screens that preview photos too.

Hybrid Options

Dedicated photo printers tend to offer more features for printing great photos but hybrid models that function as general office printers can produce very nice photos as well. A four-color ink cartridge combined with high-quality photo paper yields very nice photos on printers that double as duplex printers, scanners, photo copiers, and even fax machines.

In fact, some printer/scanner/copier machines include card reader slots and print photos directly from a card or accept photos directly from a camera with PictBridge technology. If your budget or desk space constrains you to one printer, you'll find a nice set of options, particularly from HP, that provides special photo color and black cartridges for all-in-one printers.

Features you are not likely to find in a hybrid printer include the ability to print 4-by-6 and smaller prints; the use of six, seven, or eight color ink cartridges; individual, replaceable cartridges for different colors; and paper feeding features for roll paper or special media.

Setting Print Options

Quick quiz: You need to adjust the orientation of your photo from portrait (tall) to landscape (wide). Do you do this in your printer settings or your image editor? How about choosing the size of your photo paper? In fact, both image editing software and printer preference dialog boxes often provide menus for defining page orientation and size. So the first thing to sort out is the relationship between print options defined in an image editor dialog box and those defined in printer dialog boxes.

You can print a photo directly from your digital camera, CD, storage device, or memory card. Both Mac OS X and Windows provide features that print photos without accessing any photo editing program. To put all this in perspective, it's helpful to divide the process of editing and printing photos into two distinct stages. Use photo editing software to touch up color and contrast, crop, and make other content changes to photos. Think about printing as a distinct process.

Whether you print from an image editing program or using the print tools in your operating system, printer options are managed in a specific printer properties dialog box. Thus if you select a file in your operating system's file management tool (like Windows Explorer or Mac Preview window) and choose File > Print, you will access the printer properties dialog box directly. If you print from an image editor instead, you will be prompted at some point to select a printer—and then see a button to access that printer's properties dialog box.

Figure 6-7Let's return to the confusing quiz at the beginning of this discussion. There are a few features defined by both the image editing software and the printer's properties. For instance, Figure 6-7 shows page orientation defined in the Page Settings dialog box in Photoshop (accessed by selecting File > Page Properties in Windows or File > Page Setup on a Mac). Similar page properties dialog boxes exist in other photo editing software. As you can see, Photoshop's dialog box allows you to select landscape or portrait orientation.

Figure 6-8Figure 6-8 shows the same feature being selected in the Properties dialog box for an Epson printer. So where do you go to define page orientation—or size? Read on to find out.

Photo Editing Software Versus Printer Properties

In general, use image editing software to control color, contrast, levels, cropping, and other image-specific tweaking. Use printer properties dialog boxes to control which printer to use, the number of copies, the quality of the print, the type of paper, and other printer-specific issues. Unfortunately, as I noted, some options straddle the line between printer and software.

Not Quite as Confusing in Mac OS X
The printer properties dialog box for Mac OS X does not define page orientation or page size; it inherits this information from the photo image file itself.

I've complained to printer manufacturers about the confusion posed by the fact that both image editing programs and printer properties dialog boxes allow people to set conflicting settings for page size and orientation. They agree that this is an area where standards continue to be baffling to users. In the meantime, avoid confusion by breaking down print jobs into three categories:

Photo printing options defined in image editing software
Photo printing options defined in printer properties dialog boxes
Photo printing options that must be synchronized between both the printer and the image editor software in Windows

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken
As I introduce the relationship between printer and software formatting, I emphasize the distinction between the two and warn against making printer-related adjustments in your image editor and image-related adjustments in your printer. Later, I discuss briefly some situations where it is sometimes useful to cross these lines.

Figure 6-9In Windows, make sure to select the same settings for page size and orientation in image editing software as well as printer dialog boxes. Some printers include a preview option in their printer properties dialog boxes, like the one in Figure 6-9 showing a photo about to be printed in portrait mode that should be printed with landscape orientation—the sides of the photo are cut off and the top and bottom of the page are empty.

Selecting Paper Size and Type

The Best Way to View Photos in Windows XP and Mac OS X
To enable the best set of folder options to view photos in Windows XP, choose the Photo Album template. Do this in Windows Explorer by choosing View > Customize This Folder and then selecting Photo Album (for a dozen or fewer photos) or Pictures (for more photos).

In Mac OS X, photos in the iPhoto library are displayed as thumbnails that you can view either one at a time or at once by using the enlarging slider. If you select several photo files and open them in Preview, you will see one image in the main window and thumbnails for the rest along the right side. Display the thumbnails in the main window by clicking them.

There is a warped logic to photo editing software formatting a photo for landscape or portrait printing. Essentially, the decision depends on the previous printer setting you defined. Don't count on the Windows printer properties dialog box synchronizing with the printer's setting. Therefore, set the paper size and print orientation in both the image editing and printer properties dialog boxes.

The best way to assign page size and orientation in Windows is to define these attributes first in your printer and then in your image editor.

Figure 6-10You can do all your image editing in your image editor, save the file, close your image editor, and print directly from Windows Explorer. Then select a file and chose File > Print, as shown in Figure 6-10. In Mac OS X Preview, choose File > Page Setup and then File > Print.

Another alternative is to do your image editing in a photo editing program and then use the Properties dialog box (accessed by clicking the Properties button in the Print dialog box of your photo editor) to select the paper size and type.

Either path—printing from your operating system or accessing printer properties from your image editor—will open the properties dialog box for your inkjet printer and access the features to be explored in the remainder of this chapter.

Let's return to the warped logic of printer/software interaction I referred to earlier. Image editors assume that the last printer setup (printer, page size, orientation) should be applied to the next photo you open for editing. If you switch printers, paper size, and orientation often (and many of us do), you'll soon grow tired of this situation. To reconfigure the image editor's printer, page size, and orientation settings, pretend to print a photo. Do this by choosing File > Print, choosing the printer, page size, and orientation in the printer dialog box, and then closing the dialog box (without actually printing anything).

Setting Print Quality

As I discussed in Chapter 5, photo printers use ICC profiles to translate what you see on a monitor into a printed photo with—hopefully—the same coloration. In order for these profiles to transform a photo file into a great print correctly, proper paper and ink settings are necessary.

Figure 6-11When you select File > Print, either from your operating system or an image editor, the first dialog box provides an option for choosing the printer. Figure 6-11 shows a printer selected in Mac OS X.

Figure 6-12With the correct printer selected, the Properties button in the Windows Print dialog box accesses the appropriate ink and paper options. These options depend on the printer's make and model, although families of printers, like the Canon "i" series, the HP PhotoSmart series, the Epson Stylus Photo series, and so on tend to have similar paper and ink features. Figure 6-12 shows the print properties dialog box for a Canon i860 photo printer.

Figure 6-13In Mac OS X, these unique printer options become available in the Media Type, Ink, and Mode areas of the printing dialog box, as shown in Figure 6-13.

Defining the Paper Type

The "big decisions" to be made about paper and ink are made when you purchase the paper and ink. The settings you choose in the printer properties dialog box match only the actual paper you have loaded in your printer. Because the process of mixing inkjet sprays with absorbable photo paper is quite fragile, choose the setting closest to the actual paper in the printer.

Figure 6-14
For HP Photosmart printers, paper or media type is defined in the Paper/Quality tab of the Properties dialog box, as shown in Figure 6-14. Usually, paper selection is available from the first tab in a printer dialog box. In Mac OS X, paper settings are found in the Print Settings section of the print dialog box.

Setting Print Quality

Photo printers provide a series of quality options that balance speed and ink usage with quality. These options are different for every printer. Some offer a set of options for high quality, standard quality, or draft. Others offer more intermediate steps (fast normal, normal, fast draft, and so on). Epson printers provide options depending on the type of content.

Figure 6-15
Sometimes printers provide an advanced set of options so you can configure ink settings manually, like the Epson dialog box shown in Figure 6-15. The warning messages that accompany activating these advanced configuration interfaces are well deserved. Few people have any idea how to start messing with the individual color controls associated with these advanced color dialog boxes.

You certainly can, and should feel free to, choose among different quality settings. Frequently, I print a draft version of a photo to get a sense of how it will look, and then only after a final round of retouching do I spring for the ink and best-quality paper required for a great photo print.

Printing Without Borders

Evading Borderless Rules
The criminal minded among you have already figured out that you can test a borderless print on nonphoto paper by lying to the printer properties dialog box. Most photo printers refuse to print a borderless photo on plain paper but you could, for instance, print a draft version of a borderless photo on plain paper by claiming that you're printing on photo paper. Expect the colors, of course, to be different when you print on real photo paper.

The current generation of photo printers supports borderless printing. Better said, the current combination of photo paper and photo printers supports borderless prints. Most photo printers disable the borderless print option in the print properties dialog box unless a paper that supports borderless printing is selected.

Figure 6-16Manufacturers claim that attempting to print borderless photos on unauthorized paper will produce smeared and unsatisfactory results and they're not about to let us try for ourselves to see whether it's true or not. For instance, in Figure 6-16, the Borderless Printing option is grayed out because a nonphoto paper type (Plain Paper) is selected.

Figure 6-17The drivers for many Epson printers refuse to allow you to define a print job for borderless printing on plain paper. To print proofs, I have to "lie" to the printer driver and claim I'm printing on photo paper. I prefer the message from Canon, indicating that my plain paper draft will not look as good as a borderless print on photo paper (see Figure 6-17), while still allowing me to print a photo on plain paper for proofing before committing to a quality print on expensive photo paper.

Photo Editing with Print Options

Figure 6-18Photo printers offer a variety of features for editing the color, contrast, and levels. In the Canon "i" series, these features are found in the Effects tab, shown in Figure 6-18. In the Epson Stylus Photo series, these options are revealed by clicking the Advanced button in the Main tab, as shown in Figure 6-19. HP Photosmart printers make these features available in the Color tab.

Figure 6-19The color editing features in printer dialog boxes offer limited options. Worst of all, they do not allow you to preview the actual photo you are printing, only a sample photo—if that. For these reasons, editing color, contrast, and levels in any image editor is preferable to making these adjustments in a printer dialog box where the only "proofing" available is churning out one print after another until you get lucky.

Proper Inkjet Care and Feeding

Avoid Unauthorized Inks
Experimenting with unauthorized ink refills and third-party ink cartridges is one thing for an office document printer but a bad idea for photo printers that require precise matching of ink and paper. I've heard complaints from Epson users who use non-Epson refill inks that this disables the ink level indicator. I'm all for saving money, but messing with photo ink cartridges is not the way to do it.

Photo inkjets are remarkably self-diagnosing and self-tuning. Like automobiles, they're chock full of sensors that tell you when a door is open or fluid is low. If an ink cartridge is gummed up, built-in cleaning features can wash it out.

The most important elements in inkjet quality—paper and ink—get replaced periodically, in effect reviving your printer. It usually isn't necessary or recommended to use nozzle clearing features to clean up ink, unless you've badly abused your printer by running paper and material through that doesn't absorb ink properly. Some photo printers include alignment tools if inkjet heads are misaligned. Unnecessary cleaning and alignment uses up quite a bit of ink.

Figure 6-20Ink-level displays in the current generation of photo inkjets are pretty accurate. Most photo printers periodically display print levels when you print and indicate when new cartridges are required. The Epson indicator is shown in Figure 6-20.

Self-cleaning features that clean out sticky inkjets are needed only when photos print with streaks or come out missing lines, as shown in Figure 6-21.

Figure 6-21If you ever experience unsatisfactory printing, use the nozzle-check features in the printer dialog box. The location of that feature depends on what system you use:

For many Epson printers, these features are found in the Maintenance tab of the properties dialog box.
For HP photo printers, these features are often found in the Services tab.
Canon diagnostic and maintenance tools are in the Maintenance tab of the dialog box.
In Mac OS X, maintenance utilities are activated by a file in the Applications folder on the drive or partition where the system files are located. The file is called "Applications/EPSON Printer Utility."

Calibration features in printer property dialog boxes differ from the calibration tools I described in Chapter 2. These options do not calibrate your monitor or color output of your printer. They simply calibrate how cartridges are aligned, making sure inkjets are shooing ink where it is supposed to go. Most photo printers auto-calibrate each time a cartridge is replaced and that is generally sufficient.


Inkjets are the 500-pound gorilla of photo printing—they dominate home and office photo printing and consistently improve in quality to the point where a genuine debate exists about whether people prefer good inkjet photos to those produced by traditional photo labs.

Inkjets come in all sizes but those that print photos wider than 11 inches are priced far beyond the $200–$600 cost of very good 8and-a-half-inch-wide printers. Inkjets include a wide variety of options and features, with HP photo printers generally providing more in-printer viewing and editing tools, while Epson and Canon photo printers provide features like top-loading paper trays and replaceable color cartridges. USB 2.0 has emerged as the connection standard but printers often offer a second option of a FireWire/IEEE 1394 cable or even a parallel port. Wireless printer connectivity works through USB ports.

Do your photo editing in photo editing software and avoid the sparse, unpredictable tools for editing color, contrast, and levels in some printer dialog boxes. Use your printer dialog box to define page size and orientation instead. This determines how image editing software sizes a photo. Pay close attention to choosing media options that match your paper.

Ink cartridges and paper have much to do with the quality of your printed photo, and you replace them periodically—paper more quickly than ink, of course. Replacing ink cartridges as needed is the main factor in maintaining printer quality.