Although the high street remains the cheapest place to get your digital photos turned into glossies, there's always been an appeal to developing photos at home. The romance of darkrooms and chemical solutions is long gone for most amateur photographers, and we're left with this clinical-looking device: the photo printer.
The HiTi 641PS is an especially clunky-looking example of the new range of dye-sublimation printers which are capable of results matching prints from traditional developers. Despite looking like an air-conditioning unit, it's better featured than many of its ilk: there's compatibility with most memory cards, PictBridge functions and a built-in photo preview screen.
We don't expect Philippe Starck design credentials from our printers, but the HiTi really pushes the boundaries of good taste. It's a plastic monolith with a huge slatted grill down the front and what looks like a CB radio handset hanging off the side. What it lacks in style it makes up for in clear layout. The memory card slots are easily visible and accessible to the right of the paper tray.
The paper tray loads into the front of the machine, increasing the footprint to approximately 300 by 300mm. Considering the rest of the unit has been designed in a vertical orientation it seems like a bizarre decision to feed the paper horizontally. This means that HiTi has inadvertently tripled the size of the 641PS in comparison to other photoprinters. Considering the HiTi produces standard 152x102mm photographs, it's massive. This is definitely not for the space-conscious.
The HiTi uses cartridges which are specifically designed to fit its range of printers. These are large plastic containers that look like binoculars and contain a spooling film of inks. The front of the HiTi flips down to expose the printer's feeder rollers and the cartridge bay. It's tricky to insert the print cartridge the first time round -- the HiTi's manual lacks some detail and contains some mildly unnerving translation mistakes. After a few cartridge changes you'll have no problem fitting replacements, but the manual could have been clearer on the procedure.
The detachable handset is useful for cursory examination of digital photographs prior to printing, but the screen is so small (40mm) that we found it impractical for anything more.
Photographs can be transferred to the printer directly from CF, Microdrive, SD, MMC and MS/MS PRO cards. These formats of memory card slot into the ports on the side of the HiTi and are accessed through a series of straightforward menus that automatically appear on the HiTi's handset.
PictBridge-compatible digital cameras connect directly to the USB port on the front of the printer and photographs are transferred using the on-screen menu system. However, our preferred method of printing to the HiTi was via the rear USB port which can be connected to a computer with a standard USB cable. This method of connection lets you print photographs directly from an image editor like Photoshop and gives the greatest amount of control over how your photographs will turn out. The HiTi is compatible with both Mac OSX and Windows XP computers.
Consumables for the HiTi include glossy photo paper in dedicated reams of 50 sheets. These insert with the wide border furthest from the printer body. This is useful to note, because the manual was not clear on the loading procedure. There's also a range of sticker papers which work with the HiTi. These look much like the standard photo paper, but peel off in sections according to a fixed template. In the standard format, these consist of two main stickers bookended by four mini-stickers of the kind favoured by those Japanese novelty photo booths you see in arcades.
Prints from the HiTi matched the quality of those from a professional high street developer.
Yellow, magenta and cyan layers are printed by the HiTi in separate passes. A combination of these colours can be used to recreate the entire spectrum of light found in a photograph. You can watch this process happen. As the HiTi produces a photograph it inhales and exhales the photo paper four separate times. Three times for the three element colours, and the fourth time to lay down a layer of laminate to defend the photo against fingerprints, fading and moisture.
Once the photo is printed, you can snap off the two borders on either side of the photo paper to make the print a perfect 152x102mm photograph. The printer uses the removable borders to grip the paper when feeding it across the ink spool.
The HiTi generates the precise number of prints specified on each cartridge and paper pack combo, so there's no dedicated ink gauge to worry about. Once the paper-pack bundled with the cartridge has run out, you'll know that there's no more ink in the spool. A pack of 50 152x102mm photos, with the ink ribbon included, costs around £17 online, so each photo will set you back 34p. This is comparable with high street developers (excluding special offers), but of course you have to buy the printer as well. And if you're new to digital photography and horrified that each print costs so much, consider that you only need print the ones you absolutely love, so you don't throw away the ones that didn't come out right.
We found the paper tray on the HiTi gave us occasional problems when we failed to realise that it wasn't seated properly in the feeder mechanism, but we were prompted to check this by the driver software when the paper failed to feed. You should make sure that the paper cartridge is clicked firmly into place when you replace sheets.
With great power comes great responsibility, and the biggest challenge with the HiTi is knowing when to tweak your digital photos before you print them. Although the HiTi generates fair results even from a PictBridge connection, the difference even a few simple tweaks in Photoshop made to our finished prints was remarkable. A basic sharpen filter and some contrast adjustments in Photoshop really made the HiTi shine. When you're responsible for both taking your shots and making them look good when they're printed out, there's a whole lot more to worry about. If you're happy to pay for the privilege of home printing, and are prepared to spruce up your images in an image editor before you send them to the HiTi, this is an extremely powerful printer that can at least match traditional methods.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide