For busy families on a budget who need one printer that can print two-sided text and image pages (using special double-sided photo paper) and crank out 300 sheets between refills, the Canon Pixma iP4200 should fill the bill. A versatile performer, this four-colour inkjet includes automatic duplexing, decent text output, bordered or borderless colour prints, and dual paper trays that make it easy to alternate between paper stocks.
It took about 5 minutes to set up the Canon Pixma iP4200, and we spent most of it installing the printer drivers and the optional software for organising and editing images and printing Web pages. We connected the power cord, plugged in the supplied USB 2.0 cable, snapped in the separate printhead and the five ink tanks, and were ready to go. Measuring a boxy 42.4 by 30.2 by 16.3 centimetres and tipping the scales at about 6.35kg, the iP4200 unfolds to reveal a flip-down 50-sheet output tray that needs 25cm clearance in front. The flip-up vertical autofeeder tray accepts 150 sheets of paper. A second 150-sheet input tray is tucked underneath. It fits flush with the printer when loaded with 4x6-inch or 5x7-inch paper and extends outward an additional 12cm when loaded with 8.5x11-inch stock.
Like most printers in its class, this budget model has a simple, functional design that befits a printer designed to be operated primarily from the computer. It has only a handful of onboard controls: a front-mounted power switch, a resume/cancel button, a paper-feed switch (which alternates between the autofeeder and the cassette), and a PictBridge port. Each of the three switches has an embedded status LED.
The Canon Pixma iP4200 offers versatile paper-feeding options, but you need to manage them with caution. You can load letterhead paper into one tray and second sheets into the other, or you can use the same size of paper stock in both trays. The iP4200 can automatically switch from one tray to the other to handle print jobs of up to 300 copies. Alternately, load 8.5x11-inch paper into one tray and keep a supply of up to 20 4x6-inch sheets of photo paper in the other, alternating between them with the front-panel feed selector or the printer-driver override. The multiple options make it easy to accidentally direct output to the wrong tray, so it's wise to use the printer driver's Paper Allocation feature to specify the type of paper in the cassette. That way, the printer will switch to the automatic sheet feeder on its own if the cassette is inappropriate for the current job.
Automatic duplexing is a valuable feature for a printer in this price class, and the implementation on the Canon Pixma iP4200 worked flawlessly. You can define margins and specify a gutter for stapling on any of the four sides of the sheet. During the first pass, the sheet comes out the front into the output tray, then gets sucked back in to print the next page or image on the reverse side. We didn't encounter any feed problems, whether duplexing from the automatic sheet feeder or the cassette, although the printer provides a door on the back for unsnarling paper jams.
The Pixma iP4200 uses Canon's Full-Photolithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering (FINE) printhead, which emits droplets as small as 1pl for each of the 1,536-nozzle cyan, magenta, yellow, and black printheads (plus 320 nozzles for pigment-ink black text), providing an effective colour resolution of 9,600x2,400dpi. Canon claims its ChromaLife 100-ink system will resist fading for 30 years when used on Canon Photo Paper Pro or Photo Paper Plus Glossy and framed in glass, or 10 years when not framed. Seal your prints in an album with a plastic cover sheet and keep them in the dark, and Canon says they'll stay preserved for 100 years. The iP4200 also handles transparencies, plain paper, letterhead stocks, and envelopes.
The driver's five tabs provide access to all functions. The main tab has drop-down lists for paper type and input source, which can include the paper source specified by the printer's switch as well as autofeeder and cassette overrides. You can also select continuous feed to change automatically from one tray to the other during long print jobs. Choose from High, Standard, and Draft quality or the Custom setting, which lets you select Dithered, Diffusion, or Auto halftoning and adjust a quality slider for gradations between fast/coarse and slow/fine output.
Although the iP4200's driver can automatically adjust colour balance, you can access sliders that adjust the intensity of the individual inks; you can also switch from sRGB to Windows Image Color Management (ICM). Grayscale printing just requires the tick of a check box, and a simplistic Print Advisor wizard can quiz you on the kind of document you're printing and recommend an appropriate paper.
In addition to duplexing, the Page Setup options include size and orientation, number of copies, border/borderless printing, and whether you'd like to add a background image or a watermark (such as For the President's Eyes Only). An Effects tab provides settings for optimising the image; reducing noise; boosting contrast; or adding effects such as sepia, pink, and other colours. You can save any of your settings as a profile for reuse in another printing session.
The Maintenance tab has buttons for nozzle checks and cleaning, printhead alignment, and other tasks, including a bottom-plate-cleaning function that uses a folded letter-size sheet to tidy up before duplex printing.
The economy of four-colour photo printing comes at a price. As expected, the Canon Pixma iP4200's colour gamut doesn't equal that of printers with six or more primaries. It still produced good-looking, neutral colours with only a faint cyan tinge in some prints. However, despite the small droplets, we could readily see the ink clusters as multicoloured speckles under 10X magnification. While the pigment-based text output looked good, up close it didn't come near laser quality, showing a profusion of artifacts and jaggies in diagonal lines. Even vertical lines didn't look as sharp as they should. Still, we thought that most bargain-hunting home users would find the photo and text quality very acceptable.
The iP4200 ran slower than other Pixmas we've used, such as the iP5000, though it was pretty fast for its class. In our tests, the iP4200 output a page of text in about a minute; an 8.5x11-inch colour print in 4 minutes, 9 seconds; a 4x6-inch print in 74 seconds; and a duplexed sheet with text in almost 3 minutes.
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Canon's support for the Pixma line includes a one-year limited warranty and a broad range of telephone and online support options. While Canon Pixma iP4200 comes with a skimpy printed manual, the installation CD has an expanded HTML version. We usually found it faster to zip over to Canon's Web site, which has downloadable drivers, a comprehensive set of FAQs that answered most questions, and an interactive step-by-step troubleshooting wizard, along with duplicates of the CD manual if you lose your disc. Canon also offers an e-mail address for sending questions to live tech-support representatives.