Sublimation Gets an Upgrade

Copyright © 2012 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2012, Volume 38, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
This image was used to check raster color using both PowerDriver and an ICC Profile. Both did very well providing accurate colors, especially the red.

   From the beginning of inkjet sublimation in the late 1990s, new printers have been introduced every six to ten months—sometimes with devastating results. Once again, the sublimation world is at this same crossroads. The question is, will the new printers be an advancement or a disaster?
   Of course, the introduction of new printers is necessary to the continued advancement of sublimation. However, too often, the new printers have brought with them a number of headaches, including unexpected results, color shifts, mechanical problems and more. Actually, it wasn’t until the introduction of the Ricoh series of printers that this trend turned around. Virtually everyone agreed that the new printers were a gift from heaven and, in my opinion, they may have actually saved the sublimation industry. Even if that is an overstatement, they have saved countless hours of frustration, tens of thousands of customer service calls and a fortune in wasted ink.
   With the terrific performance of the current Ricoh printers, the GX7000 and the GXe3300N and their predecessor, the GX5000DN, it is with great trepidation that two new Ricoh printers and one new Epson printer are being introduced to the mix. For all intents and purposes, the current Ricoh printers are sold out nationwide, so anyone who needs to update their printer or needs to buy a new one will have little choice but to go with either the new GXe7700N or the entirely new SG3110DN. (Henceforth, I will refer to these printers only by their numbers and drop the letter for clarity. Ricoh demonstrates an inconsistency on how these letters are used anyway, which can be confusing. Some have DN while another only has an N, even though they are both duplex network printers, etc.)
   Thankfully, most agree that the new printers are not only going to match the performance of their predecessors, they may very well out-perform them. Here’s what I have learned.
   First, there is the larger of the two Ricoh printers, the 7700. This printer replaces the 7000 which has been the workhorse for the tabletop market with its 13" bypass tray capability. This is the printer I have been running for almost three years now and it has performed 100% flawlessly.
   Although I have not had the opportunity to actually test the 7700 printer myself, far more skilled people than I have been testing it for a couple of months now and here’s what they tell me. First, the mechanical portion of the printer is virtually identical to the 7000, so if you are tempted or enticed to upgrade just because it is the latest and greatest, don’t. If, on the other hand, you need to upgrade from a smaller printer, you should be safe in doing so.
   Second, if you are one of the many users who runs an ICC profile rather than PowerDriver for managing color, the 7700 does have a slightly better profile which results in better images. The difference is certainly not enough to temp me to pitch my old 7000, but at least it does have a redeeming factor should my 7000 die suddenly and I don’t have a choice.
   Next is the replacement for the Ricoh GXe3300, the SG3110DN. This has been a little workhorse of a printer for those who don’t need anything more than an 8.5"x14" paper capability. I have been testing the 3110 in my shop and although I have had some minor issues, which were not the fault of the printer, it is producing the best images I have seen yet from a desktop printer—ever! And that is “right out of the box” with no tweaking involved.
   The 3110 is a radically new design. Almost everything about this printer is new. Like other Ricoh printers, it is fast, producing up to 29 pages per minute. I remember the first sublimation printer, the Epson 600, which took ten minutes to print a single 5"x7" transfer. We have certainly come a long, long way from that one!

As you can see in PowerDriver for the 3110 or 7700, there are a lot of choices that have to be made each time something is printed. If any one choice is different from a previous print job, the final product will be slightly (or, in some cases, extremely) different.

   The new printer is compact, easy to set up and use, easy to load paper into and it provides easy access to the bypass tray. It even has an option of two extra paper drawers that fit underneath the printer so you can keep letter, legal and mug size paper available at a moment’s notice. It is a duplex printer (prints on both sides of a sheet of paper) which doesn’t help us in sublimation but when you retire it, you’ll probably want to use it as an office printer where that feature can be super helpful. It runs on USB or Ethernet, so it can be used as a network printer should you have more than one work station. One expert went so far as to actually call the printer “cute.” I’m not sure I would call it cute, but it is one heck of a nice little printer.
   The designers of the new 3110 were obviously influenced by Apple since it looks like it belongs next to an Apple computer. It has a compact, streamlined black and white case and you can fold it up into a cube when it’s not in use. You won’t want to do that, however, since you will want to be printing sublimation transfers. The 3110 is a workhorse. As I mentioned, it is capable of printing 29 pages a minute, so you will see those transfers coming out faster than ever before, and this is because of the way it handles paper. Like the previous Ricoh sublimation printers, this printer uses an electrostatic belt to move and position the paper as it passes under the heads. Unlike most other inkjet printers, the 3110 has no wheels or belts. The paper is held securely by an electrostatic belt that provides far better registration than other printers. I actually tried printing a transfer twice on the same sheet of paper and the alignment was so good I had to use a loop to see any variation. Of course, there would rarely be a reason to take advantage of this capability but I have been known to try this when I forgot to include a graphic element before I sent it to the printer. With such good alignment, I can actually double print to save ink, time and paper when I need to.

This slick new SG3110DN replaces the retired GXe3300N and looks like it is going to be a great printer for those who don’t need anything larger than an 81/2"x14" print. The new Ricoh GXe7700 is basically identical to the now retired GX7000 except for the color of the cabinet.

   For those who are not familiar with the Ricoh printers for sublimation, here’s a quick overview: Unlike almost any printer I know of, these printers use an ink that is much thicker than traditional ink. Referred to as gel ink, this thicker ink seems to be well suited for the relatively large particles in sublimation ink. This is why the Ricoh printer nozzles almost never clog. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen one clog—ever. That is quite a statement compared to all the clogging problems we experienced using the old Epson printers. Like the larger Epson printers we once used, and many of us still use, these printers use a four color (CMYK), four cartridge system. When the printer runs out of one color, just pop in another cartridge and you are ready to go. No running multiple nozzle checks and cleanings—these printers are amazing!
   Although some will argue that a six or eight color printer yields better images, and theoretically they should, I have compared images from the Epson 4000, 4800, 9600 and the older Ricoh printers and I couldn’t see any significant difference. If I could make those comparisons with the new 3110 or 7700, I am confident the Ricoh printers would win hands down.
   Perhaps one of the best features of Ricoh printers, including the 3110, is the ink usage and how that relates to cost. Because the gel ink goes farther than the liquid ink used in Epson printers, and there are no wasteful head cleanings and unusable transfers, the cost of running a Ricoh is far less than the Epson’s. I am told that 1 ml of gel ink will yield about the same coverage as 3 ml of regular ink. That results in a considerably lower cost per transfer.
   An interesting feature about most Ricoh printers, and certainly the new ones, is their ability to show you how much ink is left in the cartridge. Like most printers, it shows a graphic on the LCD readout on the front of the printer, but that is difficult to interpret other than to know when to order more ink. What I am talking about are actual percentages of what the printer thinks is left in the cartridges. The advantage of this is that we can take a reading before starting a big job and then again after the job is finished to determine almost exactly how much ink was used. For instance, when I started my first day of printing, my ink levels were 66%, 42%, 42% and 42% (the first number is for the black cartridge, then cyan, magenta and yellow). After a full day of printing some 30 or more large transfers, I had 65%, 41%, 41% and 41% on my readout. This means that I used approximately 4% of my ink volume to print 30 large transfers. That equates to a little over $8 for ink. If those had been actual jobs of any significant size, I could have determined the dollar amount spent for each job.

If you use an ICC Profile to print your sublimation images, this is what the print driver will look like. The Profile will make all the choices for you except paper size.

   Gel ink also seems to dry faster on the paper than liquid ink so there isn’t an issue of smearing when printing heavy coverage and, since there are no wheels or belts touching the paper, there are no tractor marks.
   This printer is more portable than most. Although the former 7000 and 3300 were both portable, the 7000 and the new 7700 are quite a bear to haul around. The 3110, however, folds up into a little box that makes it extremely portable, especially if you leave the bypass tray at home. Unlike the Epson printers that required the ink cartridges be removed when transported (it was really recommended that the printers not be moved at all), the Ricoh printers demand the opposite. Just leave the cartridges and the waste ink receiver tray in place. I would, however, highly recommend the printer be kept as level as possible while being transported, just in case gravity overrides the printer’s sealed units.
   When ordering your printer, I would recommend considering four points. First, although you can buy this printer from many sources, including, I highly recommend you purchase your printer from a trusted sublimation wholesale distributor who will give you as much support as needed should you run into a problem or have to return the printer for some reason. I actually ran into a really sticky problem after I had run my printer for a full day. For no apparent reason, something wiped out the information related to the USB port and I couldn’t get the printer to run as it should. I needed help diagnosing the problem since it was so strange and help setting up the solution, which was an Ethernet connection. Condé Systems, who so graciously supplied the printer for my review, spent hours with me finding the best solution. I doubt you will have any such problem, but if you do, Amazon or some other discount supplier isn’t going to spend a minute helping you solve your problem. The few extra dollars it might cost to deal with a bona fide sublimation distributor will be an excellent investment if something goes wrong.
   Second, because charging your printer will remove 25%-40% of the ink from your cartridges, I suggest you go ahead and order an extra set of inks when you buy the printer. The same is true with the waste ink container. This device is critical to the operation of your printer and the more you print and turn the printer off and on, the faster the tray will fill up. You should always have one set of inks and a waste ink container on the shelf at all times.
   Third, this printer comes in two versions: wired and wireless. Either one will work fine, of course, but initial testing with the wireless unit proved to be unsatisfactory so beware should you be tempted to lean in that direction.
   Fourth, connect your printer to a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). It isn’t necessary to spend a lot of money on a UPS but smoothing out the power coming into the printer may go a long way towards protecting your investment. You don’t need something powerful enough to run the printer from, just something that will give a few seconds of backup power should your power “flicker”—a common occurrence in West Virginia!

For those needing more than a 13" paper path, there is the new Epson 7700 and its big brother, the 9700. These 24" and 48" printers are proving to be two of the best Epsons yet for the sublimation market.

   There is some confusion about whether Ricoh either makes a laser version of this printer that uses the same cabinet and has the same SG3110DN model number or some online distributors have labeled it incorrectly. Amazon, for instance, shows both printers with the same model number; one with gel ink and one with toner and toner trays. This could just be a mistake but if you order your printer online, be sure you are buying the “gel ink” printer and not the laser!
   The warranty for all Ricoh printers is the same. It comes with a one-year advance replacement warranty. What that means is that if you have a problem with your printer that can’t be fixed over the phone, Ricoh will ship you a new printer within 24 hours. You have to return the defective printer but Ricoh foots the freight bill both ways. Some dealers offer an additional warranty for these printers and, although I question the value of buying an extended warranty on the 3110, I very strongly recommend you purchase the advance replacement warranty on a 7700.
   Like all sublimation printers, there has to be some form of color management. There are two methods for the Ricoh printers: One is to use PowerDriver from Sawgrass Technologies. The other is to use an ICC Profile. I have worked with both on all the Ricoh printers and a number of the Epson printers and both will do a good job. There are differences, however. If you use Condé’s ICC profile, you will find the color is well balanced and accurate on raster images. I was extremely pleased with all colors, especially flesh tones, black and red. These have always been difficult colors since black likes to thin out when imprinted and reds have always been difficult. My finding has been if these colors are accurate, the other colors will most likely be accurate as well.
   There are no options or choices when using an ICC profile. The same profile is used for everything, regardless of the type paper you use, the substrate you are printing on or any other variable that might come along. Because it is a profile and not a substitute driver, it uses the print driver supplied by Ricoh. This is advantageous for a couple of reasons. First, you retain all the benefits of the Ricoh driver, including all the paper sizes. Second, your prints will be very consistent since there aren’t any buttons to push that are going to change the color palette or alter the image. Finally, the Ricoh driver is much faster than PowerDriver.
   The second method for color management is to use PowerDriver from Sawgrass Technologies. This software works in tandem with the Ricoh print driver (it doesn’t actually replace it). This means you need to have both the Ricoh driver and PowerDriver installed in your printer folder.
This image was printed using “Color Sure” settings in PowerDriver on the Ricoh 3110. The color was “right on,” making the burger look so real we had to go to lunch.

   PowerDriver has been around for almost as long as inkjet sublimation. In the beginning, it was a godsend but as time has passed, many users have come to question its usefulness. In fact, for some, it is a detriment because it has too many settings and choices that change the color palette and confuse the user. Still, if you are a PowerDriver user, you can expect to obtain good, consistent color so long as you duplicate the various choices when you print your transfers. This is especially true with the 3110.
   To be fair, there are a couple of advantages to using PowerDriver over an ICC profile. PowerDriver does give you tremendous flexibility in controlling color. If you print a lot of spot colors where you need to alter the intensity of the color in the final product, the options within PowerDriver do give you that capability. PowerDriver also produces a stronger image when printing on gold metal.
   PowerDriver software is free from but you will have to register to get it. When you do register, you may wonder, as I did, why they wanted more information than they need, such as the serial number and firmware version of the printer. I don’t think they really need that information and, although I know that may be nitpicking, I’m beginning to suffer a bit from “Big Brother” paranoia.
   The 3110 has been tested on several platforms. I personally tested it on Windows XP and Windows 7. It was also tested on Vista, the upcoming Windows 8 (beta version) and on a MAC. All performed just fine. I also tested it using CorelDRAW X4 and X5. Someone else tested it on X6. All three performed without an issue although one problem did come up that was strictly related to version X5. There seems to be a glitch in this version that alters spot colors. For instance, when working with spot colors, if you print cyan, you will get a medium blue (cyan is a very light blue). When printing magenta, you will get an orange. Red has too much pink for my liking, although I can’t be sure since I don’t have access to a device to measure it. Yellow doesn’t seem to be affected. This can be a very serious issue to graphic artists who rely too much on what they know about color rather than using an actual color chart. The easiest solution is to always use a color chart. Some improvement was noticed when I changed “Document Color Settings” to read “RGB” as the “Primary Color Mode” and “Relative Colorimetric” as the “Rendering Intent” setting.
   Setting up the printer was fast and easy. No rocket science needed here. Loading ink was equally simple—just plug them in. DO NOT INSTALL THE RICOH INKS THAT COME WITH THE PRINTER! This is so important that Condé actually pulls in every printer they sell and removes both the OEM ink and the CD that contains the Ricoh print driver. Why? They give several reasons.
   One is that the print driver that comes with the printer is old by the time it gets to the USA. You can download a more current driver from either the Condé or Sawgrass website. Secondly, Windows 8 will be released any day now and trying to install a driver not written for Windows 8 will probably end in disaster. A Windows 8 driver will be available as soon as possible. Until then, use the appropriate drivers and don’t make your life difficult.
   Condé says the original printer ink cartridges are removed because they don’t want you to accidently install them, either now or later. How easy would it be to insert one of the Ricoh cartridges when the printer calls for more ink? If you have them sitting around, it wouldn’t be too difficult. The result of that moment of carelessness? At least $100 and several hours of hair-pulling frustration. If you buy from a dealer that doesn’t remove the ink, just throw it out the day the printer arrives. It may save you a lot of grief later.

This color chart is from CorelDRAW X5 and was printed using the Condé ICC Profile. Spot colors are very close to what one would expect but occasional tweaking might be necessary. This photo was used to test flesh tones. The one shown here was printed with the 3110 using an ICC Profile and was the best I have seen yet off of a desktop printer.

   After you load your first set of inks, the printer will charge the heads automatically. This process takes about seven minutes to complete. The only thing you have to do is prevent anything from disrupting the process. You will notice that charging drains considerable ink from your cartridges. In my case, almost 60% of the ink went to fill the supply lines. About 40% of the black ink was consumed. Other people have reported much less consumption, so we aren’t sure exactly what is happening to cause the variation, but it isn’t really a concern since none of the ink is wasted. It could be a glitch in the chip on the cartridges, causing some to read high or low. Whatever it is, it is of little consequence since all the printer is doing is filling the supply lines going from the cartridges to the print heads. Eventually, every drop of the ink will be used to print transfers. Each color cartridge holds 29 ml of ink. The black cartridge, which is physically larger, holds 42 ml.
   One of the reasons these printers are so much more efficient than the Epson brand is because of the way they measure the amount of ink remaining in the cartridge. Epson printers depend on the chip mounted on the end of the cartridge to keep count of the number of droplets used. When it reaches a preset number, it turns off the printer. This is why you often hear ink sloshing around in an “empty” cartridge. Manufacturers have to overfill the cartridges to insure they never introduce air into the lines. The Ricoh printers have a chip that counts ink droplets but its only purpose is to give a display on the front of the computer and a readout in percentages when called upon. They do not turn off the printer. What turns off the printer is the presence of a vacuum that occurs when the bag inside the cartridge is completely collapsed. In this way, it is assured that every single drop of ink is used.
   When all is said and done, the only gripe I have with the printer is actually human error, and that is my tendency to forget to select the paper size before printing. That and other silly mistakes such as loading the paper print side up rather than down are both irritating and costly. Carelessness must come with age because I don’t remember making so many mistakes when I was younger.

   The other new printer to arrive on the sublimation scene is the Epson Stylus Pro 7700. This is a 24" wide printer and is obviously for those who need that extra paper width or a continuous roll of paper for banners, flags, carpets, full face printing on shirts or other large format tasks. The 7700 has a big brother called the 9700 should you need something as wide as 44".
   Although I have not tested this printer, it is reportedly the best Epson has produced in a long time. The ICC profiles available are very good and the printer is dependable, affordable and user friendly. Like all Epson printers, however, the secret to being happy with this printer is keeping it busy. Just printing the occasional transfer is begging for trouble. Running the printer every day, all day, is a far better path to being a happy camper with any large format printer.
   If you are tempted to consider this or some other wide format printer, consider your options carefully. Your distributor should be well equipped to help you make a wise decision as to whether or not you are ready to take this major step. If you are already running wide format, you should like this printer.
   The 7700/9700 uses five Epson MicroPiezo TFP print heads capable of producing images up to 1400x1400 dpi. It uses a five cartridge system which is the standard CMYK plus an extra light black, photo black or light-light black (that’s not a typographical error, it is called light-light black). This printer accepts roll paper that can run up to 100' long. If you would like to learn a bit more about these printers, check out YouTube. There are a number of instructional videos for your consideration.
   Whatever your taste in printers, one of the three new printers should meet your needs. Those just starting out should probably go with the SG3110 until they are comfortable with the business. Those more established users should certainly go with the Ricoh GXe7700 and of course, the big, big users should feel comfortable trusting the new Epson 7700.
   Gone, I hope, are the days of trembling trepidation over new printers and the frustration of trying to get them to work. I love the new Ricohs—all of them—and encourage you to jump right in if you haven’t already. Sublimation, or the “photo-gift” market as I like to call it, has great potential that has just barely been tapped. No longer is it just a market for selling colorful trinkets. It now rivals the engraving market and is just waiting for more people to find it. I hope you will be one of those people and I hope you make a bunch of money in the process!




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