CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Canon S820 review: Canon S820

Canon S820

Kristina Blachere
7 min read
As we approach the holidays, we here at CNET have reviewed almost every inkjet currently on the market. Based on the 2002 season's crop of printers, inkjet print quality is in a serious slump. Fortunately for our jaded eyes, the Canon S820 photo printer is an exception to this depressing trend. At less than $200 (after rebate), the S820's no bargain-basement printer, but it delivers beautiful text, graphics, and photos--particularly if you use high-resolution paper. Photo enthusiasts and small-business workers alike can feel safe putting this printer in their homes or offices. On the outside, the Canon S820 is your typical inkjet printer. It has Canon's standard, slightly potbellied design and an L-shaped paper path (in vertically, out horizontally). The input tray, which sticks up behind the printer, holds 100 sheets; the output tray is merely a plastic piece that hangs somewhat precariously off the front end of the printer and falls off anytime you move the unit. The plastics are somewhat more substantial than those on some lower-end inkjets (such as the HP Deskjet 3820), but for a midpriced printer, it would be nice to hear a satisfying snap when you insert the output tray.

Flimsy paper trays.

Mac and PC, USB and parallel.

Whether you're on a Mac or a PC, setting up the Canon S820 won't cause you any headaches; just plug in the printer via the USB or parallel ports (neither cable is included), let your OS detect it, insert the installation CD, and follow the directions. Very new users should glance at the included, colorful poster, which instructs you on how to unpack and plug in the printer, install the printhead and the ink tanks, connect to your computer, then load the driver. A thin paper manual called the Quick Start Guide details such things as how to optimize photos for printing and install the included photo management applications (see Features for a description of these). The CD also contains a Photo Application Guide, which explains how to use the included photo apps (for more info, see Features).

Canon's Think Tank System for photo printers.
Unlike most inkjet manufacturers, Canon separates the ink cartridges from the printheads in its inkjets. This means that ink cartridges cost less and produce less waste because you're not throwing away and replacing a whole new printhead with every cartridge. With this printer, Canon also separates the inks into separate color cartridges so that you pay $12 for each color tank as it runs out, instead of paying $30 to $40 to replace all three colors even if you've run out of only one. However, because the S820 is a photo printer, its ink system is based on Canon's Think Tank System, and the printer requires six colors: the three standard colors and black, plus photo cyan and photo magenta. You'll pay $72 to replace the whole lot. This works out to about the same amount as replacing two cartridges on a regular inkjet.
The included printer drivers offer an array of possible ways to adjust or enhance your digital docs before you print, but these options are definitely geared toward the novice photo nut. You won't find any snazzy photo-editing software or even features for a nifty photo album. Rather, you'll find six tabs along the top of the driver interface. Main lets you select paper type, print quality, and access the Print Advisor, a feature that helps you choose the appropriate driver settings for your particular print job (for example, choose Photo Paper for photos). Page Setup lets you adjust page size and select borderless printing. With Stamp/Background, you can choose watermarks or a colorful background pattern (only two bitmap file samples are included for this option, so you'll have to find or create the rest yourself). From the Effects tab, you can simulate a cartoon, choose a Vivid Photo preset, or apply various monochrome effects such as sepia. In Profiles, you can save your driver settings for easy reuse.
Lastly, Maintenance lets you clean and align the printheads or set the printer to operate in Quiet mode, though the engine's not very loud to begin with. Although Quiet mode minimizes the whir and whine of the engine, it makes the printer run a bit slower, so you wouldn't want to use it all the time. The settings are very easy to follow, but for a photo printer in this price range, we would have liked some more custom tweaking options--at least a slider bar or two to adjust color saturation, for example. As it stands, there are only a few presets for photo optimization on the Effects tab.
For photo enthusiasts, Canon also throws in three simple photo-oriented software applications. In Zoom Browser EX, you can view and organize all your digital images. Photo Record lets you create photo albums, add captions and frames, and change the backgrounds on your images. Photo Stitch makes it easy to merge or stitch a series of photos to make panoramas, posters, and collages.
The S820 also supports EXIF, a format in which most digital cameras save higher-resolution images so that your high-res photos look better than your low-res ones. We've never really noticed superiority from photos printed from EXIF files, however. The differences are usually minimal, primarily discernable only to professional photographers.

Affordable long-term ink costs.
Considering the poor print quality we've seen from most inkjets lately, the Canon S820 was a pleasure to evaluate. When printing photos, the S820 produced nice, true colors; even, natural-looking skin tones; and smooth backgrounds. On text and graphics, the output looked extremely good as long as we used Canon's High Resolution Paper ($10 for 100 sheets). On this paper, text was evenly dark, individual characters bore sharp edges, and the italics looked especially crisp. Graphics displayed good color matching, solid saturation, sharp line drawings, fine details, evenly distributed gradients, and beautifully clear photo elements with no visible dithering.
On plain paper, by contrast, text looked fuzzy, individual letters were not very well formed, and the blacks looked more like charcoals. Plain-paper graphics looked muted, and there were white flecks throughout that made them look stonewashed. All in all, stick with specialty paper, and you'll be thrilled with the output from this printer. The S820's output doesn't match that of the more expensive Canon S900. But it has other similarly priced photo printers, such as the HP Photosmart 7350 and the Epson Stylus Photo 925, beat cold. Only another recent Canon release, the S530D photo printer, boasts results that match and occasionally best those of the 820.
Print speeds were less exciting. With text, the Canon S820 ran surprisingly slowly, averaging 2.22 pages per minute (ppm), whereas 3.5ppm is considered slow for inkjets in general. But compared to average photo-printer speeds, that score's not too shabby. For faster text printing, Canon's i-series printers, the Canon i320 and the Canon i550, are twice and thrice as fast, respectively. On photos, however, the Canon S820 was quite quick. It printed our 8x10 test photo at 2.3 minutes per page, which puts it among the fastest photo printers we've tested recently.
The Canon S820 is quite frugal with ink. On our drain tests, it averaged a low 3.5 cents per page of black ink and 29 cents per page of color ink. We consider both scores on a par with our ideal times for all inkjets.

Inkjet printer text speed
Pages per minute (longer bars indicate better performance)
Canon S900
Canon S820
Epson Stylus Photo 925
HP Photosmart 7350
Inkjet printer color photo speed
Minutes to print a color photograph (shorter bars indicate better performance)
Canon S900
Canon S820
HP Photosmart 7350
Epson Stylus Photo 925
Inkjet printer quality
Poor   ••Fair   •••Good   ••••Excellent
 Printer Text Graphics Photo
Plain paper  Coated paper  Plain paper  Coated paper  Photo paper 
 Canon S900 •• •••• •••• •••• ••••
 Canon S820 •• ••• •• •••• ••••
 Epson Stylus Photo 925 •• •• •• •• •••
 HP Photosmart 7350 •• ••• •• •• •••
For most basic questions and troubleshooting, you can access the aforementioned Quick Start Guide, which includes troubleshooting tips and a comprehensive list of customer support options--always a helpful resource to put right up front. For even more information about using and caring for the printer, check out the CD-based user guide, which gives detailed explanations of printer parts and printer driver functions (for example, how to select the appropriate paper type for your print job or print borderless 4x6 photos).

Plenty of online tech support.
There's one major flaw in the cornucopia of book and CD-based setup/documentation information: It doesn't provide a link to Canon's Web site. Most installation CDs from competing inkjet manufacturers offer helpful one-click access to tech support and supplies such as ink cartridges and specialty paper.
Canon backs the S820 Photo Printer with a one-year warranty, which is standard for inkjets. You can extend this warranty to three years for $95, average among the other plans we've seen. Canon also offers free tech support via a toll number for the length of the warranty, then $9.99 per incident after that. Hours are 8 a.m. to midnight weekdays and noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays ET. Beyond that, Canon offers e-mail support, drivers, and FAQs via its Web site; 24/7, toll-free automated phone support and fax-on-demand specifications; and technical information.
When we e-mailed Canon tech support with a simple problem, we received an automated reply within 20 minutes that contained links to 10 different possible documents that might solve our problem. At the bottom was a link to "escalate to tech support," but we were satisfied with the solution outlined in the first document. A call to Canon's tech support yielded a live technician in less than five minutes. He was very courteous and gave the correct solution to our problem.


Canon S820

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7Support 7