Kodak's 5260 wide format inkjet printer is elusive.

How can a photographer find out about the dynamic contone when the printer is not shown publicly at leading trade shows? What is "apparent resolution" really? ColorSpan uses that concept in a different manner with their 12-color system and it's apparent resolution of 1800 dpi is indeed impressive. But we can see the ColorSpan quality since we have one in our evaluation studios, along with an Encad, two Epsons, four Hewlett-Packard DesignJet printers and a Mimaki JV4 en route. But so far seeing an actual Kodak 5260 printer has been a challenge.

We went to Seybold San Francisco to see the Kodak 5260, but Kodak decided not to exhibit. At Print '01 no printer either, though a really beautiful print was stated to be from the new mystery printer. Same at the BigPicture Show: nice Kodak booth but nary a model 5260. Yet Kodak was issuing millions of dollars in full-page ads announcing this printer could print at super fast speeds at super top quality? But why was no printer available to see?

FLAAR had no report on the Kodak printer until so many readers saw Kodak's full-page ads in all the trade magazines. Those expensive ads raised lots of interest. But when no printer appeared, people began to ask what was going on. So they started to ask us repeatedly for a report. Thus we checked with correspondents in England, Germany, and across Asia to gather information, since Kodak itself did not provide information that was realistic.

Since FLAAR is a large and well known educational service center for wide format printers, it did not take long to learn that the printheads were reportedly made by Brother. All indications are that the machine itself is manufactured by Mimaki. However the printer is clearly entirely a Kodak product. Neither Mimaki nor Brother is likely to offer a similar machine.

Its great that Kodak has poured enough millions of dollars into Brother's piezo research. Now a viable piezo alternative exists for people who prefer a different printer besides Epson. Presently Epson makes the piezo heads for Gretag, Gradco, Roland, Mutoh, Mimaki, and of course for Epson itself. Xaar and Spectra also make piezo inkjet heads but they are only for billboards where you don't mind the banding and low resolution. Kodak+Brother has succeeded in achieving fast speed. If the Brother piezo can avoid banding, it's a winner. The newest 8-color Agfa-Mutoh (GrandSherpa) uses Epson heads and has severe banding problems. Many other Epson heads have banding defects as well; seems to be inherent in their piezo technology. Both of the Epson 7500 printers at FLAAR had banding defects after they went unused for several weeks over the summer.

The new printer by Kodak is targeted by their marketing department for commercial photo labs, sign shops, or other places that print millions of square feet of images. In other words the kinds of places which today already have HP 5000's, ColorSpan, or Encads.

If you are an individual photographer, or hobby photographer, or artist (wanting to do fine art giclee), you would tend to look at the more economical Epson, Mutoh I-Jet, Hewlett-Packard 5000, ColorSpan, Roland, or the Iris or Ixia at the high end.

But nowhere else has an piezo printhead been able to match Epson's quality. So if a new Kodak-Brother 5260 piezo printhead can achieve quality, plus avoid banding, dropping colors, and all the clogging downside of piezo printheads, its a winner. Otherwise Kodak might have better invested its funding by pouring millions into BubbleJet technology instead. Canon has a really attractive BJ-W9000 printer; only reason it is not popular is lack of UV pigmented inks and lack of reseller/marketing strategy (Canon does not have a dealer-reseller network to sell its wide format printers).

Hopefully all this recent Kodak investment will not end up like the Canon BJ-W9000, which was indeed presented at trade shows as early as the year 2000, was actually developed in 1999, but not really available until 2001 (two years delayed). But despite these two years of effort, still today Canon has only about a 1% market share (Epson, HP have the lion's share, followed by Encad; Oce, Ilford, and Kodak prior to buying Encad also have minor percentages. Of course Canon can cover those millions of dollars of losses from their profit from Canon copiers and other nice Canon products such as cameras.

Another wide format printer that fizzled over the last two years is Konica's Iguazu, 8 colors with piezo heads but from Xaar rather than from Epson. At DRUPA 2000 Konica was looking forward to sell 10,000 printers.

A year later not a single printer had been sold in the USA. Indeed at the Konica booth at Print '01 they were using Hewlett-Packard DesignJet 5000 to show off proofing software (also a non-Konica software; I could not figure out what part of the system Konica itself produced; maybe the media?). If there was a single Konica wide format printer in their giant booth I sure did not see one.

The Epson 10000 is gobbling up the wide format photo market. The HP 5000 occupies the corporate market and is entrenching itself in the proofer and photography market as well. The new Mimaki JV4 is turning out to be a sleeper, that means, a printer which no one really talked about or recognized at first (when it was still an unfinished prototype at ISA and DPI tradeshows). But today Mimaki has already sold 2,000 of its model JV4 printer. It has dual sets of six colors with state of the art Epson 10000 printheads.

Mutoh recently switched to these same Epson 10000 printheads; Agfa is already offering it as their GrandSherpa 2. So there is plenty of able competition for the Kodak 5260.

We wish Kodak (and Konica) luck. They each put millions of dollars into their separate and unrelated projects. However the general consensus of industry experts with whom we have discussed this is quite simple: piezo technology is complex. Epson has a seven year head start. It has taken Epson years of experience and they still can't remove all the banding or inherent slowness from their systems. Thus it is not expected that any first-time piezo head (Brother for Kodak; Xaar-licensed head for Konica) can come out perfect the first time around. The subject pops up at every technology conference since the earlier CrystalJet project of Kodak was an industry legend.

Everyone realizes that a piezo printhead can either achieve impressive museum quality output (Epson is the example).

Or a piezo printhead can produce impressive speed (Spectra is the best example).

But so far no piezo printhead produces acceptable quality with acceptable speed together. It is either one, or the other, but not both.

Ironically Vutek has come the closest to producing a fast piezo system of an attractive quality. The advances in quality from Vutek printers have been rapid in the last 16 months. Indeed Ilford, a photography company, now sells Vutek printers. Would be ironic if the photo labs (who are Ilford customers too) go for the Vutek or the upcoming new ColorSpan piezo printer. ColorSpan announced in trade magazines earlier this year that they would OEM a piezo printer by the end of this year.

Gretag's two new Arizona printers are also getting close. Oce now owns these.

It will be interesting to learn more about the new piezo printheads from Brother. Maybe other companies such as Roland, Mutoh, or Mimaki may decide to abandon Epson printheads. The banding defects of Epson printheads have been a continuing problem with Roland especially. Xaar heads band even worse. Perhaps banding is a result of piezo technology, or bad feeding mechanism? Dr Ray Work has explained to me how air in the ink system generates nitrogen which causes systematic weakening of the effects of the piezo pulses, and hence banding.

But if Kodak+Brother can overcome banding, and if Brother can improve their heads with their next generation, Kodak might actually survive in the inkjet market. What is very telling is what brand names photographers and other end-users ask about when they are getting ready to go out and actually buy their inkjet printers. FLAAR has lots of end-user statistics on precisely this kind of question, and answer.


Most recently updated June 1, 2002.
Previous updates:November 31, 2001.