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Kodak ESP 5 Printer Review
by David Rasnake -  7/8/2008

When Kodak unveiled its latest ESP 5 all-in-one photo printer/scanner, we were impressed with the specs sheet: a sub-$200 printer with a sleek new look, an easy-to-use interface, and outrageously low operation costs. All of this makes the new Kodak sound like the perfect combination of features for casual shooters looking to do a little more with their photos than a basic desktop inkjet or drug-store photo kiosk allows.

Kodak ESP 5


Of course, in actual use it’s rare that anything proves to be that simple. In the case of the Kodak, some complications with operation and performance may ultimately make this device less appealing than it initially looks.

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Specs and Features

The Kodak ESP 5 is a multifunction print/scan device that provides photo-res as well as office-quality printing, scanning, and copying in a compact unit that can function on its own or connected to a PC or Macintosh via USB 2.0.

Kodak ESP 5

On the connections side, the ESP 5 sports a multi-format card reader capable of printing JPEGs directly from your SD/SDHC, MemoryStick, XD-Picture Card, or Compact Flash memory.

Kodak ESP 5

A PictBridge port also allows compatible cameras to be connected directly to the ESP 5 for easy, direct image printing without working through a computer.

Kodak ESP 5

Somewhat frustratingly, Kodak doesn’t provide resolution specs for its printer, preferring to describe the ESP 5’s print resolution as “lab quality” and leave it at that. While I have what you might call an “agreement in principle” with Kodak on this point – namely, that resolution doesn’t tell the whole story of print quality, just as megapixels don’t define the overall image quality a camera’s capable of – it’s an important point for technical comparisons nonetheless.

Whatever its resolution numbers, the ESP 5 claims the ability to do black and white printing/copying at speeds of up to 30 pages per minute, print color documents at 29 pages per minute, and print borderless 4x6 photos in “as little as 30 sec/print” per Kodak. Along the same lines, the Kodak is capable of borderless photo printing at sizes up to 8.5x11. These specs compare favorably with other all-in-one devices costing much more, giving the ESP 5 a theoretical edge on the competition.

Kodak ESP 5

Likewise, while the Kodak uses a simple two-cartridge configuration (one for black and one for all five pigment-based color inks, rather than individual ink tanks), the printer still boasts extremely low operation costs – using black and color cartridges that run a mere $10 and $15, respectively. Serious photographers will dislike the waste and lack of flexibility that a cartridge-based system affords, but with the ESP 5’s cartridge costs under control it’s doubtful that this will be a point of serious concern for most buyers.

Design, Interface, and Build Quality

Hypothetical situation time: if you had to choose between a device that looks good and a device that feels well-built, which would you pick? Visually, the ESP 5 is a very nice printer that will look right at home in a number of settings; in terms of build quality and functionality, it’s a little more challenged.

Kodak ESP 5

Visually, the ESP 5’s black-on-black body with subtle design cues and the occasional splash of color looks convincingly high-end, with a nice combination of high-gloss and matte materials. Simple, clearly labeled controls provide easy access to all standalone functions from the main panel.

Kodak ESP 5

In the same vein, one of the ESP 5’s most impressive features given its price is the inclusion of a large, bright 3-inch LCD, which makes reviewing, selecting, and even applying corrections to images before printing a snap.

Kodak ESP 5

(In fact, with a computer-side interface that is a little more trying at times, the size and color accuracy of the ESP 5’s LCD often made printing direct from memory cards my preferred method of use with this device.)

Kodak ESP 5

The same can’t be said for the ESP 5’s build quality, however: the device feels flimsy all around, with one of the most unappealing scanner lids we’ve ever dealt with and an access deck for getting at the cartridges that feels poised to fall on your hands (thankfully its all-plastic construction means it’s not very heavy) at any moment.

Even worse than flexy plastics and other less-than-desirable materials choices are some of the ESP 5’s functional decisions. There’s no dedicated cassette for holding paper – rather, it’s all fed through a single tray with a single and difficult to operate plastic retaining fence. Getting paper properly aligned for feeding (the ESP 5 will jam and/or bend paper edges if you skimp on this step) is an exercise in frustration, especially with smaller paper sizes.

Worse still, there’s no separate output tray: paper is drawn up around a roller at the back of the unit and then deposited unceremoniously atop the feed stack when printing’s complete. Besides seeming mildly cobbled together, the bigger problem with this solution is that heavy papers that tend to stick together (i.e. photo rag) can get easily drawn back into the printer with another sheet, leading to jams, overprinting, and an assortment of other messes. If you’re printing a multi-page document, near-constant vigilance is required, making the ESP 5 ultimately somewhat impractical as even a light-duty office printing solution.

Setting Up the ESP 5

Prepping the ESP 5 for print is a straightforward process, and Kodak provides a plainly worded, graphics-heavy guide for getting the printhead and cartridges installed correctly. Remove a few pieces of retaining tape and the snap-in printhead is ready to be locked into place, followed by the cartridges.

Kodak ESP 5

As noted, connections here don’t provide the most solid feel we’ve seen, making it seem like some cost and weight savings were probably realized under the ESP 5’s hood. The “prop rod” style deck support is particularly irritating to close cleanly.

Kodak ESP 5

With the printheads and cartridges loaded, getting the ESP 5 ready for software is as simple as connecting the power cord, the USB cable (true to its squarely consumer market, there are no Ethernet or wireless networking options with this device), and powering the device on.

Installation of even just the bare essentials of Kodak’s all-in-one software suite took awhile – too long, in fact. The PC version of the software took more than 12 minutes to fully unpack onto the hard drive from the CD, and the progress bar was prone to ominously hanging up for minutes at a time.

Kodak ESP 5

If you’re persistent (and perhaps a little lucky), you’ll finally, after a second file unpack, get to this screen:

Kodak ESP 5

In our case, the whole process took just under 14 minutes to perform on my usual test notebook, which seems a little arduous for the setup process on a squarely consumer device. Start the software up for the first time and the first thing the ESP 5 wants is to download and install an update, which will each another 15 minutes or so out of your day (but you’d best comply – without the updated driver, the ESP 5’s scan saving proved to be flaky).

Once installed and updated correctly, the range of printer functions are driven completely from the ESP 5’s “Home Center” menu.

Kodak ESP 5

From this screen, users can access scan/print/copy tools, modify a fairly basic list of default configuration options, and even order printer cartridges or seek assistance directly from Kodak’s website.

Those with serious printing aspirations will find all of this helpfulness more of a hindrance, often doing more to get in the way of complex printer controls (profiling work, for instance) than to make it more accessible. For novice users looking for an easy-to-understand print experience, however, Kodak’s default interface with its good flow and clear pictorial options works nicely.

Scanner Use and Performance

The ESP’s scanner isn’t exactly a high-performance unit, but with a stated scan resolution of up to 1200 DPI it holds its own among the ranks of consumer flatbeds. The platen is large enough to handle the Euro-spec A4 size (roughly 8.5x11.7 inches total), but beyond this the scanner’s physical presence isn’t so impressive.

Kodak ESP 5

The lid looks nice from the top down, but proves to be particularly flimsy when lifted – flopping ungracefully out of the way when fully raised. Additionally, there’s no vertical axis slide on the lid, meaning those looking to scan from thick documents (books, for instance) will have trouble keeping the lid closed far enough to get a clean capture. For all its nice styling cues, the scanner lid – one area that is likely to see repeated handling during normal use – just doesn’t convey build quality, with its thin molded shell and frighteningly flexible plastic hinges suggesting that something might give way at a moment’s notice.

If the scanner area’s build quality has the potential to irritate, navigating the scanning portion of Kodak’s all-in-one software interface couldn’t be much simpler. Click on “Scan Pictures and Documents” from the home screen and you get a fairly basic drop down menu with some simple document type options to select from. To get to the full range of scanning options, you have to click the “Advanced” tab.

Kodak ESP 5

Kodak’s software gives a basic range of choices – including resolution settings up to 1200 DPI and four sharpening levels – that fit well with the ESP 5’s fairly modest scanning capabilities generally. For hobbyists looking to scan in snapshots to process or simply save them, the scanner is plenty powerful, but more serious enthusiasts should approach the ESP 5 with the knowledge that it’s probably not the comprehensively capable budget option they may have in mind.

To this end, Kodak also includes some photo-kiosk style options in the scanner interface – excellent for amateur shutterbugs looking to duplicate prints. The red-eye correction feature is a nice addition in theory, though without asking for a target selection area before going to work, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that it didn’t seem to do much.

Kodak ESP 5

The above crop from a scanned print shows about the same red-eye severity as the original, even after processing.

Kodak’s PerfectTouch technology is somewhat more successful, using the same dynamic range optimization system to balance shadows and highlights seen in Kodak’s latest digicams. The tool, which can be applied before or after the scan (as with the cameras, it’s a post-capture process) makes a noticeable difference in the amount of highlight preserved in side-by-side scans.

Kodak ESP 5
Without PerfectTouch
Kodak ESP 5
With PerfectTouch

What it can’t do, of course, is bring back highlight details from scans where they’re blown out, for obvious reasons: if the color information isn’t in the original, it can’t be magically “found” post-capture. That said, Perfect Touch really does a nice job of expanding shadow areas as well, making it ideal for extracting available detail from too-dark areas of prints.

On the whole, the ESP 5’s scanner does just fine for its average-consumer audience, with scan settings up to 1200 DPI extracting as much detail as most normal users digitizing snapshots will ever want or need. More detail-conscious shooters should be advised, however, that the ESP 5’s CIS sensor – which saves size, cost, and power over a higher-res CCD unit like most dedicated flatbed scanners use – is soft and fairly limited where find detail extraction from prints is concerned.

Kodak ESP 5
Scan, 100% crop

Edge definition can be enhanced by cranking up the sharpness a bit, but in many ways this just makes busy areas of prints more of a hard-edged, artifacted mess in their digital versions. For preserving or enhancing snapshots or simply having a little fun with family photos, the ESP 5 is more than capable. Those looking to turn a critical eye toward their scans would be advised to look elsewhere, however, and the lack of film scanning options (a feature more and more consumer scanners and all-in-ones are including these days) probably seals the deal on the scanner for serious photo enthusiasts.

Printer Use and Performance

The printer was trouble free when controlled from a range of standard photo editing (Photoshop, Picasa) as well as office (Word, PowerPoint) applications, with changes to paper size and type recognized easily by the driver. The same can’t be said for printing through the device’s Home Center menu: I often had to make several attempts when printing at sizes smaller than 8.5x11 to get the printer to recognize the smaller paper size and feed stock accordingly. Given that printing directly from the Home Center menu is the kind of basic interaction with the device that many photo printing novices will have, I really wished the control functions in this area had worked better.

Speaking of needed improvements, the ESP 5 is the first printer I’ve ever used where waking the neighbors (or the dead) while printing was a legitimate concern. Even in a world filled with loud consumer-grade inkjets, the ESP 5 is shockingly noisy when printing, emitting a combination of whirring, buzzing, and screeching sounds guaranteed to be heard from the next room – or the house next door.

 

As proof of just how loud this thing is, a decibel meter placed six inches from the front of the printer while printing a 4x6 photo registered a maximum audible output of 85.2 dB. That’s roughly analogous to the noise level of loud city traffic, and close to the threshold at which sustained exposure can cause hearing damage. (By comparison, the background white noise levels in our office were well under 40 dB.) While we don’t think anyone’s likely to go deaf printing with the ESP 5, the noise may be both loud and sustained enough to make some go crazy.

Since Kodak doesn’t provide specifics of print resolution for the ESP 5, it’s hard to know where the resolution should slot out. Compared to the Epson wide-format printer we use for benchmarking image quality, which sports a maximum optimized resolution of 5760x1440 dpi, the same shots at maximum res from the ESP 5 resolve visibly less detail under a magnifying glass. With the naked eye, there’s a difference in edge definition between the two shots that can be discerned at close-normal viewing distances, but it’s a relatively minor distinction to everyone but certified photo nuts.

After a little menu wading to disable some default settings, I had no trouble adding a profile I built from our test unit’s sample prints to my workflow. This level of color control is almost certainly overkill for this device as it will be used in most applications, but profiling gives us a baseline for comparing printer output to other devices. And all the same, it’s nice to know that those seeking more output control should have little trouble finding it here.

Overall, compared to a high-end photo printer, output from the ESP 5 can be a little soft and just a hint muted (I was never able to get red or green saturation levels up to on-screen values, even after tweaking the profile). Likewise, printing black-and-whites from the ESP 5 yielded somewhat disappointing results on each of our standard test papers, with the printer struggling to produce the rich, deep blacks that we’ve come to expect from photo-quality printers.

On that note, the Kodak was finicky about which brands of heavy photo stock it wanted to feed correctly, struggling to pull some glossy stocks at all. Stick to Kodak’s own premium gloss and you’ll be just fine, but if you’re an ESP 5 owner, some experimentation with other stocks to see what works before buying a truckload is more important with this device than with some.

All of that said, as a general purpose printer for general-purpose users, if the ESP 5 doesn’t do anything exceedingly well, it does just about everything good enough. Printing all around is a little slow – the ESP 5 needed 48 seconds (after spooling) to produce a photo-quality 4x6 from a cold start – but the printer is able to crank out satisfyingly sharp black-and-white office prints relatively quickly and copies acceptably fast as well (allowing for some initial lag in firing up the scanner).

Conclusions

While I can appreciate the ESP 5’s low operation costs, the costs associated with trying to do everything – print, scan, and copy – within a single device may make the Kodak a poorer deal than it first appears for photo enthusiasts: for not much more than the ESP 5’s $170 price tag, you can get a really superb stand-alone inkjet. A printer-only device with the ESP 5’s image quality can be had for much less. Combine this with scanner performance that can be finicky and doesn’t deliver the kind of super-high-quality results photo enthusiasts demand and unless you have a pressing need to do lots of scanning, the ESP 5 may not make a lot of sense.


Unfortunately for Kodak, it seems that the ESP 5 succumbs to an issue all too common with all-in-one devices: in trying to do everything, it does little well. Print quality is fine if not stunning, but many of the device’s other features are a bit clunky at best. Styling is excellent, but build quality is only fair. Kodak’s latest looks great on paper and fits in great just about anywhere – making it potentially a “good enough” solution for casual users. But with so many “yes, but” qualifications, the ESP 5 struggles to stick with the pack in real-world performance.

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