Like its pricier sibling, the Stylus Pro 3800 accepts paper as large as 17 inches wide. In fact, the biggest appreciable difference between the two printers is the 3800's lack of a roll-feed option, which means that the largest photo you can print is 17x22 inches. Of course, that should be plenty large for most situations.
It's worth noting that the Stylus Pro 3800 isn't for everyone. Its wide tonal range, long-lasting prints, fantastic black-and-white printing, accurate color prints, and wide array of paper types make it wonderful for enthusiasts and professionals. But, if you don't plan on selling your prints, or you lean toward scrapbooking instead of fine art printing, you may be more economically served by something such as Epson's Stylus Photo R2400 or R1800, HP's Photosmart 8750 or Canon's i9900. Plus, any of these other printers will take up less desk space than the Stylus Pro 3800. However, if you're after the best print quality available for less than $1,300, this printer should definitely be toward the top of your list. And if you plan to use the printer for proofing, Epson offers a professional edition, which includes the same hardware but also ships with professional RIP software. Despite all the major improvements that have occurred in home photo printers in the last few years, big time prints still require a big printer. But, even though it's a lot larger than most home printers, Epson's Stylus Pro 3800 manages to fit the same print engine as that of the company's much revered Stylus Pro 4800 into a unit that can fit comfortably, if a bit snugly, into a home office.
Somehow, the 3800 manages to come across as both blocky and stylish--at least to photo geeks--at the same time. Upon further inspection though, the efficiency and intricacies of Epson's design shine through. More than half of the front panel flips down and slides forward to become the output tray. The further the tray is extended, the more it rises up to meet the paper so that especially large prints are less likely to hit a snag on the tray as they emerge. On top, the back section flips up to become the input tray, the middle section flips up to provide access to the print head and the paper path, and about three-quarters of the forewardmost section of the top and the front section above the output tray opens to reveal the ink cartridges. Just be careful--to prevent mishaps, the ink cartridge door can only be opened through the printer controls, so don't try to force it open manually.
Next to the ink cartridge door there's a small monochrome LCD screen, a set of controls, and the power button. The screen displays the ink remaining in each of the printer's nine cartridges and which type of black ink is currently in use, and it provides direct menu access for maintenance and paper handling, as well as status reports on many of the actions the printer performs, such as switching between matte- and photo-black inks.
In addition to the regular paper input tray, which can hold as many as 120 sheets of plain paper or 60 sheets of Epson photo paper (depending on the paper type), there's a separate, slightly straighter path for fine art papers, which accepts only one sheet at a time from its own short feeder tray; Epson calls this the Manual-Rear paper source in its driver. For very thick stock, up to 1.5mm thick, you can use the Manual-Front paper source, which loads one sheet at a time from a slot just above the output tray. If you use the front loading option, you'll have to make sure there's adequate clearance behind the printer. In the case of 13x19-inch paper, that means 13.39 inches, and for A2 size paper, you'll need 17.71 inches. As long as you have the room for it, Epson makes the front-loading process very simple with a tray that lowers into place and has guides to help you align your paper.
The driver is similar to the one Epson includes with all of its higher-end printers and includes a wealth of tweaking options. We really like the color management section, which includes choices of Epson Vivid, Epson Standard (sRGB), Charts and Graphs, or Adobe RGB, as well as a clearly marked Off position. That's something that many printer drivers omit, leaving you to divine the combination of settings needed to circumvent the printer's color management when you want to leave that decision up to the application from which you're printing. Strangely, though this printer is obviously meant for advanced users, the driver still defaults to its basic automatic setting, instead of the more advanced custom mode. Plus, since there's no plainly marked Advanced tab, as there is in Epson's Stylus Photo printer drivers, it took us a second to figure out how to access the color management settings. Looking at its specs, you might not suspect that the Epson Stylus Pro 3800 is as solid a printer as it is. Resolution maxes out at 2880x1,440dpi, the minimum ink droplet size is 3.5 picoliters (some printers go as small as 1 picoliter), and Epson's MicroPiezo print head offers only 180 nozzles per color. However, Epson claims that its Active Meniscus Control (AMC) technology, combined with fancy new control algorithms, let them achieve more precise ink placement than any of their competitors. We won't go so far as to verify that claim, but we can say that the Stylus Pro 3800 does show a remarkable level of control over the ink it places on the page.
Speaking of ink, the printer holds nine cartridges of Epson's UltraChrome K3 inks: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Matte Black, Photo Black, Light Cyan, Light Magenta, Light Black, and Light Light Black. Us regular folk would probably call these last two medium gray and light gray. Each cartridge holds 80ml of ink and sells for about $60. By comparison, inks for Epson's Stylus Photo R2400 cost about $14 each, but hold about 15ml of ink.
Some Apple users may be disappointed to see that the 3800 doesn't include a FireWire connection. Of course, since it includes a Hi-Speed USB 2.0 jack, there should be no real loss of speed as long as you have a compatible port on your computer. If you'd like to share the printer on a network, you'll be pleased to see that Epson included an Ethernet port. This should be especially useful if you plan to use the printer in a small office environment. Prints from the Epson Stylus Pro 3800 are among the best we've seen from any inkjet printer costing less than $1,500. In fact, in some ways, this printer even outclasses the pricier Stylus Pro 4800. Most notably, we saw very little banding in the smooth, difficult-to-render, out-of-focus areas of images, which often turn to virtual stairsteps on inkjet printers. We still did see some extremely minor banding on some prints, but it wasn't noticeable when viewed from a normal distance.
Like the other printers that use Epson's K3 inks, the 3800 produces prints with accurate colors and minimal metamerism, and none of the bronzing that marred the performance of the Stylus Photo R2200. We also saw impressively deep blacks--Epson rates the maximum density (DMax) at as high as 2.3D. Of course, the depth of black, and more importantly, the brightness and neutrality of whites and lighter colors will vary based on the paper you choose, but we saw an impressive amount of color fidelity across various paper types. Plus, the ICC color profiles that Epson ships with the printer proved excellent.
Wilhelm Imaging Research's longevity tests for the Stylus Pro 3800 match the results they found with the Stylus Pro 4800 and Stylus Pro 9800. For all the paper types tested, they rate prints from the 3800 to last more than 60 years when displayed behind non-UV filtered glass. As you'd expect, longevity numbers increase as storage conditions improve. For example, under optimal conditions--dark storage in archival-quality holders, 73 degrees, 50 percent relative humidity, with protection from open atmosphere--WIR says that images from the 3800 can last upward of 200 years. But, unless you have storage facilities that rival fine art museums', good luck storing all your photos in absolute perfect archival conditions. Either way, these prints should last significantly longer than traditional C-prints would in comparable conditions, and you don't have to expose yourself to harmful chemicals to make them.
As we saw with the R2400, the advanced black-and-white conversion in Epson's driver did a great job of creating neutral monochrome prints with plenty of detail across the entire tonal range. We did see some slight color casts with certain images, but the driver's own tone control makes it easy to counteract any subtle tint that may encroach upon your black-and-white masterpieces. If you do plan to try the advanced black-and-white mode, be sure to check the HTML manual for a list of compatible paper types since that option doesn't work with certain papers, though unlike the R2400, the 3800 allows Enhanced Matte paper in this color mode. The biggest drawback we found when using Epson's advanced black-and-white instead of doing a color conversion in an image editor, is that the Epson driver doesn't give an actual preview of your image. Instead, it substitutes a generic image to let you see what your settings should do to yours. Obviously, we'd prefer to see a real preview.
The Stylus Pro 3800 isn't the fastest printer out there. A 6x10 print took 2 minutes, 8 seconds with the printer quality set to 1,440dpi (a.k.a. SuperFine) instead of its highest 2,880dpi (a.k.a. SuperPhoto) option. Also, remember that if the printer has to switch between matte- and photo-black inks, it'll add to your wait. The same 6x10 photo took 5 minutes, 18 seconds on our first try, when the printer had to make the switch. A borderless, 13x19 print that didn't require switching inks took 10 minutes, 9 seconds. As we've come to expect, Epson's service and support is top notch. The Stylus Pro 3800 comes with the usual one-year warranty, and Epson supplies online access to drivers, FAQs, and documentation, as well as an interactive troubleshooter. The driver's help system is as useful as most help menus, meaning not very. But, the HTML manual does a great job of stepping you through anything you might want to do with the printer. Epson also offers telephone support through a toll-free number Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. through 6 p.m. PT.