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!
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.
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.
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 www.amazon.com, 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!
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.
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.
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.
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".
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