Product Experience: Canon i9900 Printer

Major Moment in Digital Printing

Pixel Population Games

When digital cameras passed the 5MP threshold, desktop printers silently entered into a new era.

At football games, sometimes sections of the audience hold up colored panels to make stadium sized pixel-based graphics. A big image made this way might have 64x80 pixels, but the result is kinda rough, but always fun.

Mosaic tiles in Ancient Rome had thousands of spots of color and covered entire floors and walls. But they were far from photographic.

At 1.2 megapixels (MP), images had 960 rows with 1280 columns of color spots making their images, and at 160 ink-jet spots of color per running inch of paper, those images could stretch to nearly 8x10 print size for crowd-pleasing results.

A 5MP camera has more color spots than the entire native population of Denmark, and if they all gathered to do the stadium image trick, the picture they'd make would be entirely photographically believable.

With over 6MP, the Digital Rebel has more color spots than there are people in Bangkok, and the Canon 20D with 8.2MP would need every soul in Austria to hold up a color panel for its stadium picture. Seen from high altitude on a clear day, such improbable displays would appear amazingly high in resolution and detail.

The point here is that modern digital cameras produce a huge number of color spots and placing them on a print is a unique digital-era specialty. Good color printers cost as little as $60 these days, and they squirt out letter page pictures that pass for photographs quite easily. Better printers cost more and offer extra features, smaller ink spots and novel input options, but once you have reached satisfaction with letter page results, the party has maxxed out. The only place left to go is up. In size.

Canon's i9900 printer has carved out a special place in the hearts and minds of digital photographers --and even hold-out film photographers-- everywhere. The reason for that has to do with its sheer image quality and performance. It's fast, silent, easy to work with, and the pictures it produces are beyond criticism.

Assuming that your original file is in good shape with all its colors and contrasts in the right places, the i9900 will spit it out in short order at photographic maximum quality on a wide variety of paper types and surfaces within moments of your pressing the Print button. At up to 13 x 19 inches (A3+ size) borderless images slide out of its platen in as quick as three minutes. Mere letter page prints issue in just under 90 seconds. My personal favorite image/paper combo of a 9 x 6 inch image floating in a sea of white letter paper jumps out of the machine in under a minute.

A lot of this speed comes from the sheer squirt-count of its print head. With 6144 nozzles jetting out ink droplets in the 2-picoliter range, each pass of the print head achieves a significant addition of coverage to the page.

Here, Spot! See Spot Run!

At the micro scale, the i9900 printer is able to deliver 4800 x 2400 spits of ink per square inch on the paper, but that is meaningless in terms of visual impact. It means the printer has 4800 x 2400 opportunities per square inch to deliver a precisely placed spot of color, not that each spot is a perfect pixel.

You simply can't see a spot of ink 1/4800th of an inch in diameter (they're roughly round), but you can see the effect of 32 x 16 of them dithered inside an area about 1/150th of an inch square. At this scale, every pixel from a Digital Rebel would make a print 20.5 inches wide. A similar print from a 20D camera would be 23.3 inches wide, and every original camera pixel would be accurately portrayed via the dot count of every color inside that tiny tile of color. Since no printer dot screen would be part of the image, your eye would see only photographic realism at this scale.

In mechanical printing, screen dots are almost always 175 to the inch or coarser. Newspapers often print them at 80 to the inch and some magazines limit their reproduction screens to 133 per inch. National Geographic's rotogravure process only uses 175 true ink dots per inch, but their size is tightly controlled, giving the illusion of continuous tones and color. Where this gains significance is in understanding that where NGS prints one dot of ink, the i9900 is able to define 376 ink-jet spurts per ink color, capable of defining chroma, tonality and even some degree of image contour (if given a large enough file).


Ink spots aren't pixels. The printer DPI you read about has nothing --repeat: Nothing-- to do with the pixel count of your image. Printers take the pixel data from your shot, then re-interpret the color of each pixel into a formula of ink spurts that will add up to the color being portrayed in the viewer's eye. To do that, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow inks are used to deliver color, plus black ink to deliver extra tonality and contrast. A few printers avoid using the black ink, but that's only possible if the printer is designed to pile on enough CMY ink at a given location, since all three of those colors do in fact add up to black if they're dense enough on the paper. HP printers do this, but it takes more ink to saturate the paper this deeply.

Gamut Limuts

The color gamut (maximum range) of CMY ink is limited. So is the color range on the color monitor you're reading this from. So is the color range of film, photographic paper and oil paint. It's a fact of life, but it doesn't have to be as small as one might assume if more colors of ink were available.

For instance: the greenest Green one can make by adding 100% yellow and 100% cyan together on the paper defines the green limit of the color gamut from those inks. But one can formulate a greener ink that isn't made out of yellow and cyan ink mixed together. It would have to be be created from a different dye molecule, but it would be notably purer and livelier to your eye.

The same holds true for Red, Blue, Purple and Orange. If you had a hundred ink colors, the visual gamut of a print could be quite superior to anything seen before, but print time would rise phenomenally.

I have wondered aloud in my writings why printers didn't have more than the standard range of ink colors. Then three years ago printers began appearing with two extra colors of light magenta and light cyan ink to assist in their portrayal of delicate colors. Since ink-jet printers make their images with blobs of ink sprayed statistically pseudo-randomly on the paper (in what is called a stochastic array), light areas of color can end up looking rather grainy if full strength cyan or magenta ink were the printer's only option.

Making the spots smaller than eye resolution is the first defense against looking gritty, and Canon has made printer spurts as small as 2-picoliters each, meaning that they are ONE 500 BILLIONTH of a liter each. Just to put that into perspective, if you had 500 billion ping pong balls, it would make a cube nearly half a mile on each side. Now crank up your imagination and visualize that cube next to one single ping pong ball. Yes, it's a very small spot, indeed.

Adding the light versions of C and M ink lets the printer put dots onto the paper that aren't so far apart that you can see them when looking extremely closely. That's fine for hiding the dot pattern from your eye and making color look smoother, but it does nothing to increase the color gamut.

So Canon has added two novel extra colors into the mix, Green and Red ink. By analyzing the incoming RGB image, the printer's internal processor can see the pure green and red areas clearly. So it diverts some of the G and R ink into those places, improving the color gamut about 60%. You might not know this when looking at a print, but if you printed the same shot on another printer, it would lack the particular snap that the Canon i9900 delivers in its greens and reds.

Eight inks in all. CMY and K (black) plus Light C and Light M, and the gamut-increasing G and R each come in a separate ink tank, to be replaced as needed. Each color costs about $11 US.



In my office there isn't space for many extra items. The next room has more free area, so I decided to put the i9900 there. Fortunately I use Mac computers, and that means I could employ the Macintosh Airport Express as my printer connection.

Lemme 'splain: The Airport Express is a $125 wireless module with a USB outlet that can act as a wireless, remote USB connection within about 50 feet of the local Airport wireless network. It's a talented product with many more uses than that, but for this test setup it proved ideal. Within mere moments, I had hooked up the i9900 thirty feet away from my printer and printed a test page.

Three input ports on the back allow USB 1.1, 2.0 and FireWire connections for data input. A separate PictBridge USB connector on the front of the printer allows Canon digital cameras to print directly, and that's a whole interesting option you Digital Rebel and 20D camera owners can discover on your own.

While Airport Express shoots data out its USB port at USB 2.0 speed, it also accommodates USB 1.1 devices without a whimper, so it can be plugged into either USB jack on the i9900. Canon recognized that USB 2.0 protocols as distributed by Microsoft with Windows XP created a Big Hairy Problem since Microsoft's XP compatibility with USB 2.0 ports isn't totally congenial, so they limited the data rate to USB 1.1 on one of the two USB ports, thus making everybody sane. For the fastest results, the FireWire plug on the back can be used by Mac computers.

Print Q

Since the printer was now on the LAN (Local Area Network) every computer in the house could play. Canon's printer drivers (now version 2.5.1 up from the 2.5.0 shipped in the box) recognized the printer immediately, and everything from spreadsheets to giant prints ran into it from every corner. It even sorted out print jobs coming in from more than one computer at a time.

Plain paper can be loaded in the single vertical back tray with ease up to about 30 sheets at a time. For photographic thick papers Canon recommends limiting the stack to about 10 sheets. Paper can be from 4x6 to 13x19 but the absolute maximum is slightly larger, about 13.25x23.4 inches. In order to enjoy that upper limit, you would have to cut custom sizes, but it's nice to know that it is doable.

Prints can be borderless, filling the paper utterly and many custom settings are available to tweak the output for various media. We found that many photographic paper types were usable including some old glossy formulas that we had given up on from the deep past. While other printers (some from HP and Epson) couldn't use the older media due to ink drying, smearing and crossover smudging failures, the Canon passed it with flying colors and stable results.

Canon's own glossy giant paper is rather expensive. At around $2.25 per sheet, it isn't something you want to use for test printing, so using smaller media is recommended for testing, then scaling the print out up to full size completes the picture, so to speak. Results at all scales are consistent, so this strategy works well on the i9900. The tonalities you see in a 5x7 match those in a 12x18.

As is typical with any color printer, images in Photoshop will need to run through either a standardized tweak to the image or Transfer Function to adjust them to ink on paper versus the image on the screen. I selected a particularly challenging shot made with the EOS 300D that contained extremely delicate highlights, bold and subtle coloration, and very difficult shadow detail.

Here's the shot:

The light orange float never quite bleaches out in the shot, and the dark shadow detail against the dark dock surface and in the shadowed net areas proved to be the hardest to control, so the question became, will a small custom Transfer Function in Photoshop do the trick on my Mac? I tried one that lifted the shadows a little too much, then pulled back to this one:

Bleached highlights were never a problem, so the focus of this Transfer Function is all in lifting shadows up to the level I see on my monitor, and it works. Using this transfer function on several images produced superior results. And each print was made at 12x18 on 13x19 paper.

When you make an image that big, people gasp when they see it. You get a lot of ooo's and aaah's. It's not uncommon to hear people wonder aloud if the original was large format film, too. The print from an uncropped full frame shows up this large with just a fraction over 170 ppi (pixels per inch) and viewing it closer than you would normally regard an image never disappoints, in fact it's rather inspiring. I keep thinking of all those tiny people down there from Bangkok with their colored hats...

Note: every single paper you use will react to the ink slightly differently. It's not a Canon thing, it's just a paper and ink thing, so for full custom print quality results, you need to get used to the idea of custom print output settings. Default results are quite pleasant, and the Canon Printer Drivers offer the option of making a Lighter print for folks who aren't looking for pro results, but at $2.25 a whack for the paper, the only thing standing between you and superb output is the desire to learn that last Transfer Function step in Photoshop. But I digress...

Where Faded Ink Is What You Want, or, I'll Be Back

We even found that printing on the back of some troubling media was practical if the ink color was faded down.

This takes some added explanation.

Paper backing on premium photographic media is often strictly not printable. It has light gray paper brand logos on it so you can flip the paper over and be impressed with the Canon, Kodak, Epson or HP trademark printed at a diagonal. Some few formulas are true double-sided, and those are no problem, but printing on the ones that have all that --let's face it-- advertising on it is a good way to smear up the back of the paper. Ink doesn't adhere well to this slightly plastic-feeling surface, because it has zero absorbent characteristics, and any contact with the image is almost guaranteed to move the ink around and coat your sleeve or finger. I think the manufacturers do this on purpose just to be mean, but tell me, how do I really feel about it. Where were we?

The worst case example of this media (no names, please, Mr. K) was successfully printed by reducing the black text to 33%, making the print look tastefully faded back. Full black didn't work, since the ink had no help in drying, so it beaded up and stayed wet for hours. But the faded text worked like a champ, allowing data to be printed on the reverse side, albeit not at full intensity. It won't turn every page into double sided media, but it works for notes, signatures and provenance information.

If you are making fine-art prints with this machine (a distinct consideration) then printing on the back is a definitely desirable capability.

Ink fade-proofing is long, but not as long as pigment inks. It's measured in decades and joins a growing number of printer/ink/paper combinations that are worthy of fine art production.

There are faster printers for straight pages of text. But there are no better looking photographic printers out there. Critics from all sorts of places have recognized the sheer image quality of this machine. If you need wholesale black text output, get a laser printer. That said, the text from the i9900 is as clean as you would wish to see.

Heady Stuff

Print heads are a problem. They can clog, rendering the printer useless for the moment, or in extreme cases, forever. HP printers change the print head out with every cartridge, but neither Epson nor Canon do.

Epson printers are notorious for head clogs, but most clear out by squirting a quantity of ink through them in a recovery procedure. If you use them every day (and I do not) then head clogs are extremely rare. Over time, I imagine that more than a hundred dollars worth of ink and many hours of my time have been spent on bringing Epson printers back to life. One died of terminal head cloggitis and had to be put down. The Epson factory reconditioning of the old beast would have cost far more than a newer low-cost model. Such is life and death in Ink-Jet Land.

HP printers have always been the paragons of reliability and seem to print perfectly even after months of sitting around idle. I can't remember the last HP head clog and I don't know if it's the head design or frequently updated heads, but it works.

Canon has done the next best thing. You can interchange the heads for new ones and replace them all in the privacy of your own home or office. So far, though, the reliability and clog-free qualities of the i9900 are as good as the HP. I wish my Epsons had been as good as this.

B and/or W

A big test of a color printer is its performance in monochrome. We've seen how ugly B&W images can be from a printer that doesn't *quite* handle all tonalities with equal freedom from color phenomena, but I'm happy to report that the i9900 rises to the challenge. Here's a printer I think Ansel Adams would have enjoyed. Subtle tints and toning also come through with accuracy and subtlety.

Bottom Line

You have a 5+MP camera and you want the best results. You want a printer larger than letter size or legal size to deliver the results your camera actually captures, so you want something this size. For the Digital Rebel or 20D or EOS 1Ds --or anything else that requires tabloid size color print outs-- the i9900 fills in all of your wants except the one that says, "...and it should cost me under a hundred bucks." This isn't a cheap printer, but it goes head to head with $700.00 printers, though, and comes up costing just over half of that.

If I had to pick between an Epson Photo 2200 and the Canon i9900 all over again, I'd pick the i9900 and save a chunk of hard-won cash.

Understandably, Canon is proud of their latest printer technologies and there are a host of them you can read about here.

From a performance standpoint, this would be the printer worth saving up your nickels and quarters for. It's a stretch to buy a printer this expensive, but your digital camera cries out for expression and where it comes to printing, this one is the most expressive.

You can find it around the Web for about $400US and if your experience with it is anything like mine, you won't regret the purchase for an instant

Canon i9900 Printer: A+*

Other Reviewers:

Imaging Resource

Steve's Digicams

PC Magazine

PC World

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