Want to print high-quality snapshots from the comfort of home? The 300ppi Dell Photo Printer 540 delivers very good borderless 4x6-inch thermal-dye-transfer prints, and it's a cinch to use, too. While it's not as economical as bringing your negatives to a Wal-Mart photofinishing kiosk (25 cents per print vs. the Dell 540's 39 cents), the Dell 540 is among the thriftiest options in this home-photo-printer category. The Dell 540 is also faster than most, averaging just 65 to 75 seconds per print. It has two minor drawbacks, though: There's no battery pack for truly mobile printing, and the Dell 540 supports every media card format but xD-Picture, though you can buy a separate adapter if you use a Fuji or Olympus digital camera.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Like other thermal-dye printers with a horizontal paper path, the Dell Photo Printer 540 hogs desk space when you're using it. The device itself measures just 5.4 by 7.4 by 3.2 inches and weighs 3.2 pounds, but you'll need to tack another 8 inches in front for the paper-cassette/output tray and 4 more inches of clearance in back to allow the sheets to travel all the way through during the four-pass yellow/magenta/cyan/clear overcoat printing cycle. The power cable plugs into the side, but it has a tendency to move behind the printer. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't snag your paper while you're printing.
This Dell is easy to set up and use. Just slide the dye-transfer ribbon cassette into an opening on the printer's side; the ribbon comes preinstalled in a holder, so it's easy to pop in. The 20-sheet paper tray snaps in and unfolds to accept finished prints. Link the printer to your computer or PictBridge-compatible camera with a USB cable, or pop a memory card into either of two slots (one for CompactFlash and a second for SD/MultiMediaCard, SmartMedia, or Memory Stick media), and you're ready to print. A bright, 2.5-inch LCD pops out of the top of the printer and unfolds to a comfortable viewing angle for previewing images. The LCD also keeps a running tally of the number of remaining pictures that can be printed from the cassette so that you're not left in the lurch in the middle of a big print job.
Six top-mounted buttons, plus a large four-way cursor-control pad, take you through all the command chores when you're not printing from a computer. To the right of the control pad, you'll see a pair of buttons for printing selected images, and a third stops the current print operation. On the left side of the panel, there's a button to initiate transferring images from your memory card to your computer, a key that rotates the image on the LCD, and an additional button to navigate through the printer's basic menus.In standalone mode, the Dell's fix-it options are sparse. You can't rotate, resize, crop, or add special effects and frames. You can adjust brightness and saturation, specify an index print with up to 25 images per sheet, print all the photos on a memory card (JPEG only; TIFF is not supported), or select individual shots for printing in either 4x6- or 3.5x5-inch formats. You can also print selected images two-, four-, or nine-up on a single 4x6-inch sheet with removable tabs. Additionally, the menu has settings to rotate an image on the screen and to display all the photos on a memory card consecutively as a slide show in 3-, 5-, or 10-second intervals, making the Dell 540 a decent presentation device.
Dell clearly designed this printer for standalone operation. If you decide to print from your computer, you won't be able to access most of the options found in the printer's top-panel controls. The supplied driver that comes on the installation CD offers very basic saturation adjustments and no layout options other than portrait and landscape orientations, but it includes trial versions of Paint Shop Pro and Paint Shop Photo Album. Dell sells a $47 Print Pack of enough consumables for 120 prints, bringing the cost per print down to 39 cents, which is a bit more than the cost of similarly priced inkjet printers such as the Epson PictureMate and the HP Photosmart 375 (each about 29 cents per print) but less than some rival dye-sublimation printers, including the Kodak Printer Dock 6000, which levies a toll of 49 to 75 cents per 4x6-inch print.The Dell Photo Printer 540 is fast, solid, and very easy to use. It performed very impressively in CNET Labs' tests, taking around to 1.1 minutes to finish a 4x6-inch photo. Of the compact snapshot printers we've tested, it's the second fastest. The Olympus P-10 currently holds the top spot, at just 0.2 minute faster than the Dell.
Print quality is good, with pleasing flesh tones and rich colors. The 540, like all thermal-dye-transfer models, doesn't use black dye; grays and blacks are produced as a composite of yellow, magenta, and cyan dyes. Even so, grays looked fairly neutral, and blacks looked dense. The prints showed decent dynamic range, and details were sharp and clear as they could be for 300ppi resolution. There was no banding visible. The Clear Life coating applied at the last step meant the prints emerged dry, resistant to water, and smudge-proof.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
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CNET Labs project leader Dong Van Ngo contributed to this section of the review.Dell provides product-specific driver and documentation downloads, e-mail tech support, and a wealth of troubleshooting information on its Web site. You also get 24/7 toll-free technical support over the phone and via online chat. If you're impatient (or your printer is seconds away from self-destructing), you can pay for Express Tech Support. Dell offers a one-year Advanced Exchange Service plan.