The PictureMate Pal resembles a small, high-tech picnic basket, complete with pivoting handle and basket lid. The lid flips up to reveal a 2-inch color LCD and a few buttons, and the lid also doubles as the paper input support. One of the buttons, labeled Open, opens a panel on the front of the printer. This panel conceals two memory card slots and does double duty as the output tray. The unit measures 8.5 inches wide, 6 inches deep, and 5.7 inches tall, all folded up, and weighs only 5.3 pounds. Its handle and small size make it portable, but you'll have to carry along the included AC adapter and power cord, which can be unwieldy. (The Snap and Flash versions both have optional internal batteries for truly hassle-free portability.) The other buttons include power, menu, Select All, OK, cancel, print, forward and back buttons for navigating the menu or scrolling through pictures, and a layout button that toggles through your layout options. The memory card slots accept all major types of memory cards, though some require an adapter. In the back of the printer lives a USB port for printing from PictBridge-enabled cameras. The Snap and Flash versions allow you to use the USB port for connecting external storage devices, but the Pal does not.
Setting up the PictureMate Pal is a simple task, whether you are using it with or without a PC. If you want to do PC-free printing, simply plug in the power adapter, insert the ink cartridge, and power up. The first time you do this, you'll have to wait a few minutes for the ink cartridge to charge. To print, simply insert a memory card and follow the instructions on the LCD. If you want to print all of the pictures on the card, just hit the Select All button, choose how many copies of each image you want (you have to print the same number of each photo), and hit the green print button. If you want to pick and choose, scroll through the images using the arrow keys. You can print images one at a time as you look at them or scroll through the entire batch (changing image settings and the number of copies as you go) and print all your selected images in one fell swoop.
Another option is to print index sheets of all the photos. The 4x6 index sheet prints with 20 images per page, and each image is labeled with its filename and number. The maximum size print you can make with the PictureMate pal is 4x6 inches, but you're not limited that size. Using the layout key, you can toggle among bordered, borderless, wallet, and mini wallet prints. The wallet print produces two 3x2 images on a sheet, which can either be the same or two different photos. Likewise, the mini wallet print layout produces four 1.75x.375-inch photos, which, again, can be four of the same photo, one each of four images, or any combination thereof.
You have the option to print your color photos as black-and-white or sepia using the menu. Be sure to switch the color effects mode back to normal when you're done using the effect; the setting has to be canceled manually, or all subsequent photos will have the same effect. You can also use the built-in PhotoEnhance feature, which lets you correct photos that are too dark, backlit, or too light by improving color and tweaking the sharpness and contrast. Unfortunately, you can't specify the changes, that is, your only option is to turn the feature on or off. We did see some minor improvements to a dark photo but would prefer to have more control over the image enhancements.
If you want to print photos already stored on your PC's hard drive, you'll have to use the included driver CD to install the PictureMate Pal. Installation is quick and painless; you simply step through the wizard. You also can install the included ArcSoft PhotoImpression 5 software, which gives you greater control over photo enhancements. You can crop, resize, and touch up photos, including manually tweaking contrast, sharpness, and color variables. Once you've connected the PictureMate Pal to your PC, you can view the photos on a memory card as if it were just another drive. Additionally, you can save, transfer files (in both directions), and copy files between the printer and your PC.
Epson makes choosing the paper and ink cartridges for your PictureMate Pal very simple: paper and ink come in print packs, with the amount of ink calibrated to the number of blank sheets in the pack. That is, once your paper runs out, so should the ink. The ink cartridge is one simple cassette you insert into the back of your printer. All you need to do is choose between Glossy and Matte finishes. The Glossy pack includes 150 sheets of paper and costs $38, which works out to about 25 cents per print. The Matte pack contains 100 sheets and costs $33, or about 33 cents per print. These costs are about the same as the per-picture cost for the Canon Selphy DS810, and well under the cost of using the Kodak Easy Share Printer Dock Series 3 device.
The Epson PictureMate Pal printed 4x6 photos at a rate of 1 page per minute (ppm), right in step with Epson's estimate and slightly slower than the Canon Selphy DS810's 1.11ppm. The photo quality was acceptable, definitely good enough for casual snapshots. The prints revealed sharp details, though we did see very slight graininess in color blocks and the image lacked a certain warmth and brightness. We like the colors produced by the Selphy DS810 better.
Epson backs the PictureMate Pal with a one-year limited warranty. Phone tech support is available Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. PST, though it's a toll call. If you would rather not pay for the call, you can e-mail your question to Epson's tech support; they promise to respond via e-mail within one business day. The company's Web site offers downloadable drivers and manuals as well as FAQs.