Big Brother's Little Brother

Evaluating a printer is a tricky business. The short period of a trial may not be sufficient to reveal all of the pros and cons of a particular machine. Most likely, a short association may reveal more immediate vices than long term virtues.In the case of Canon's new A1 inkjet printer, the iPF610,we had the advantage of a year's familiarity with one of its bigger brothers, the W8400, which meant that the software, the interface and some of its characteristics were no surprise.There are some significant differences in Canon's new generation of large format machines, most significantly they use twelve individual inks rather than the mere six in the older model. This is both a virtue and a vice in equal measure, and a fair summary of performance versus practicality would have to conclude an open verdict.Increasing the colour range of printers by simply increasing the number of colours sprayed onto paper has been a common trend for a number a years, but has moved on apace in the high quality, large format, department in order to obviate some of the problems associated with uv stable pigment inks.Pigment inks are minute but solid particles that lie on the surface of the media and reflect colour, rather than the once richer dye blends that were absorbed into the material giving a greater appearance of depth.Widening the colour range available, has put the essential long life pigment inks ahead of the colour gamut game, and automatic calibration devices and the like ensure they keep top performance.

But all this sophistication comes at a price. Squeezing all those extra colours into the box means that the individual cartridges are necessarily smaller - a mere 90ml. Though this means that the machine holds over a litre of ink when all the tanks are topped up, inevitably consumption rates vary, so some colours will run out quicker than others.We had the Canon delivered in the box specifically to go through the installation process on a new machine, and it was pretty straightforward if you are used to any inkjet machine, and if you follow the comprehensive
instructions to the letter. It takes no more than an hour to get the machine on your side, and that includes a lengthy time priming the two print heads, and performing the necessary calibration, using a specific colour printing pattern on particular paper. This machine does all this by itself so you can walk off and leave it until it stops making beeping sounds.

The installation uses at least twenty per cent of the ink in all tanks, so supplies were already down before we ran the machine in anger. By the end of two weeks, the first tanks were glowing warning signs of running empty. Usually it's the photo magenta and photo cyans that get used up first - they fill in the tonal range between the main colours. In this case, it appeared the two shades of grey were the first to be exhausted, and by some margin. Eventually PC and PM were denuded followed by matte black, red and yellow. After a month, red, blue, green and blue are still on the original tanks, though down to twenty per cent or below on the measuring stick.We put a variety of media and jobs through the Canon in this time - exactly copying an average work load. This was everything from line drawings on bond paper, photographic images on heavy duty satin, through to canvas, including both Canon's own supplied media, and known paper from regular suppliers. On the latter the 6100 did seem to veer a shade towards the red/magenta compared to known profiles with the 8400, but this could be easily corrected.Strangely the inks didn't seem to take too well to Canon's own canvas compared to other media, and using the printers own canvas profile.The machine is a full A1 portrait size printer, so will print A2 rotated across a 24inch roll for economy of media. It has three separate loading bays - the conventional roll feed, now placed behind the printer for convenience of flow, a top feed for sheet paper, and a front feed for heavy duty 1.5mm board. The one big headache with all of the feeds is that Canon, in their wisdom, have let the machine take control. Why they have done this is a bit of a puzzle. I don't know if they consulted people who do regular large format printing, or just thought it would be a good idea for a possible entry-level machine, but a fully automated paper take-up is a seriously irritating feature. The 8400 has a semi-automatic system in that once it has taken hold of the media it locks up to prevent any human intervention. It can be finicky with certain roll media and is particularly sensitive to the lining up of cut sheet, but at least there is a lever that lifts the grip jaws and allows some manual adjustment.

The 6100 is much worse as it has no manual lever at all, and has a well rehearsed routine it has to go through before telling you the media is misfed even though it may be the machine's fault because the take-up has made a badly judged grab at the paper. If you have time to waste this is nearly as much fun as beating your head against a brick wall, slowly. I did manage to get cut sheet and even one board to go through the 6100 but in doing so you would also qualify to beat a saint in a game of patience.Another loading issue is that with the front catch tray extended, it is quite a stretch to the paper roll at the back in order to commence the feeding operation. If you only do it once a week, maybe no problem, but change the media for print on demand several times a day, and your back knows you've done it. Canon says that extensive research has enabled them to make improvements on the new models, and to be fair there are a number of things that are better than the 8400, particularly on the control panel. If you haven't matched the media correctly between driver and device, it just warns you and gives you the choice of cancelling, rather than sulking and refusing to print the job.The control panel display is a much bigger LCD screen, with lots more information on show as a result, but the recurring and intentionally helpful how-to-do-it graphics which interrupt the flow are just as annoying as that paperclip man that used to pop up in windows with a stupid grin.More importantly you have to get your head into the mindset of the Canon boffins who designed the interface. A number of important functions are concealed in other options - like altering the head height, and the strength of the vacuum that sucks the media flat. You need to adjust this for heavy paper, or media that curls, at the end of a roll for example. But the adjustment for this is not in the printer set-up, which would be logical to me, but in the individual media details.

It may sound like a lot of nit-picking, but it's the little details that make me wonder where exactly the 6100 fits in the customer market. It's too sophisticated and expensive for the enthusiastic amateur, and possibly too temperamental in operation for the experienced professional. The print quality is superb, no question about that, but at what price ?When the machine is running and inks are flowing, the printer seems reasonably economical. But as we found with the 8400 it's the ink it uses when it decides to maintain itself that is the issue. Self checking, calibrating and head cleaning, all chuck bucket loads of ink through the heads, and fill up the maintenance tank, which is like a sump for unused liquid. And it's the ink that flows through the printhead in total.That reduces its lifespan, not the amount of paper it prints on. Canon make a big thing that the new models come with a new printhead warranty - valid for one year "...in the rare eventuality that anything should go wrong with a Canon printhead, customers are guaranteed a replacement". I should think so too in the first year.

Just one month after our twelve month warranty on the 8400 ran out, the printhead failed. Worse, as the fault appeared initially to be merely a blocked nozzle, repeated head cleaning attempts using the machines own flushing system just used up loads of ink. The machine would then seize up during self-checking, and switching it off and an to try and clear the system resulted in more of the same. Just filled up the maintenance tank with some very expensive and entirely unproductive waste.The new printheads on the 6100 are apparently underwritten to the tune of 10 trillion ink droplets, which sounds like a lot, but is actually only two and a half litres, which would therefore be after less than three complete sets of inks have been used up, so head replacement,warranty or not, has to be taken into the running costs.Our 8400 had completed its third complete set of inks when the head failed, and at nearly £600 its an expensive, and unpleasant surprise in your annual running costs. In comparison, two older models an HP5000 and an Epson 7600 have run for five years before having any major head problems, so you have to wonder if a manufacturer has taken one step forward to go two steps back. Redundancy of an intricate and costly item is as much of an issue as any waste of ink or media, and perhaps needs more attention than the finer details of exact colour droplet management and calibration.The 6100 is a great print quality machine, but we would probably need a year (and maybe a day) to evaluate its real performance, and actual cost.