The Stylus Pro 3800: Still the king

In my Stylus Photo R2880 review, one of the biggest questions I get is not about the quality of the printer, or even comparisons with HP and Canon printers in the same price range. No, it is: “How does it compare with Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800?”

This is understandable: while the R2880 is a very good printer, it does suffer from a few issues, notably the smaller ink tanks and the necessity to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges when you want to move between matte and glossy papers. The 3800 also requires a switch, but the process is automatic and requires no user intervention. The 3800 does waste a few dollars of ink per switch, which is troublesome, but given the rarity with which people change paper type—and its high-capacity (80ml) cartridge size, this is a lesser issue for many pro users.

Right now, the Stylus Pro 3800 is under $1,200 at Amazon (a savings of $100 or so), while the R2880 is priced around $650 ($150 off the list price). If you’re looking at the two printers, how do you choose between the two? I think it’s pretty straightforward: what follows are some of my thoughts, based on fairly heavy usage of both printers (and nearly every other photo printer in the $300 to $5,000 price range).

Why a two-year old product is still the best printer on the market

The Stylus Pro 3800 was introduced two years ago, and Epson currently has no stated plans for a replacement. In that time, HP and Canon have introduced printers that significantly increased the competitive pressure on Epson (especially in the $300-$800 range), but they haven’t really dented Epson’s hold on the photo printer market. And no one has really come out with a printer that rivals the 3800’s basic specs:

Stylus Pro 3800 specifications
TypeC-size pigment-based inkjet
Inks9 UltraChrome K3 (8 printing)
Ink colorsPhoto Black, Matte Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan, Light Magenta, Light Black, Light Light Black
Ink cartridge cost$60 (replacement cost: $540 for all 9 inks)
Ink cost per ml (est.)$0.75
Maximum resolution2880 by 1440 dpi
Minimum paper size4″ by 6″
Maximum standard paper size17″ by 22″ (can print longer than 22″ via custom paper sizes)
Thick paper supportYes
Straight pathYes, for media up to 1.5mm thick
InterfacesUSB 2.0; Ethernet (10/100)
Operating systems supportedWindows XP, Vista; Mac OS X (10.3.9 and up)
Weight43.2 lbs.
Dimensions27″ x 15″ x 10.2″

The biggest number to look at is the 3800’s extremely low $0.75 per ml ink cost, which is 35 percent less than that of the R2880 (and 40 percent below HP’s ink costs for the B8850 and B9180 printers). That alone will mean that you’ll save money on ink if you print lots of images.In our testing of the Stylus Pro 3800, the HP Photosmart Pro B8850, and the Stylus Photo R2880, the ink cost per 8″ by 10″ photo on glossy paper at the printer’s standard print mode was 61 cents per page for the 3800, 78 cents per page for the B8850 and 90 cents per page for the R2880. (The HP printer, while having a higher per-ml ink cost, laid down less ink on the page than either of the Epson printers, which is why its cost per page came out lower than that of the R2880.)

Ink capacity and cost

It gets even more interesting when you start looking at the ink cartridge costs. While the 3800’s ink cartridges list for more than four times the price of those of the R2880, you get 80 ml of ink for free with the 3800, while you need to purchase seven sets of ink—totaling $837—to get the same amount of ink with the R2880. That total cost, over $1400 (adding the $650 for the printer), is more than the cost of a 3800.

When my friend (and professional photographer) James Duncan Davidson came to visit Printerville a while back, we had a discussion about the economics of the ink regarding this: his post Inkonomics, does a much better—and more thorough—job of explaining this than I could, but the central conceit is the same: if you are planning on printing in any appreciable volume on larger paper sizes, the economics of the Stylus Pro 3800 are hard to beat.

By way of illustration, when printing our 200-page ink test, using a full set of ink cartridges on a fully primed printer, I had to make four cartridge swaps with Epson’s R2880, which cost me roughly $53. The HP B8850 required two cartridge swaps, which cost $68. The Stylus Pro 3800, on the other hand, was still ready for more—a lot more.

The quality equation

When it introduced the Stylus Pro 3800, Epson made a big deal of the new printhead, advanced screening algorithms and highly precise dot placement as the reasons why it produced the best prints of any desktop printer on the market. While it’s easy to lay that all as marketing hype, I can say—with plenty of backup from other photographers—that the 3800’s output is regularly better than any printer at its price range or below.

Does the Vivid Magenta in the Stylus Photo R2880 give that printer an advantage over the 3800? With some images it might, but it’s hard for anyone to see on a consistent basis, and, when you add the higher cost per page for the R2880, it’s hard to see why a pro photographer would go with the R2880 for high-volume printing.

And, while HP has made huge strides in the wide-format market with the new 12-ink Designjet Z3200, the B-size B9180 and B8850 just aren’t printing at the same level as the 3800—or the R2880, for that matter. (HP will also have its hands full competing with Epson’s recently announced Stylus Pro 7900 and 9900 wide-format printers, which could ensure that Epson continues to stay at the top of the image quality heap.)

The 3800’s drawbacks

The 3800 is far from perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. Working with two units, and observing the usage of about five other units among colleagues, there are three things that regularly cause grief, some big, some small:

  • Ink swapping. While much less impactful on the 3800 than it is on Epson’s desktop inkjets (the R2880 and the older R2400 and Stylus Photo 2200), is still wasteful. We know that many photographers have looked to HP and Canon printers as an alternative, but the print quality—especially at the price—remains in Epson’s favor.
  • The rear manual-feed mechanism. It often requires multiple attempts to load a piece of fine-art media via the rear tray. Again, this is a minor issue. However, if you’re thinking of printing on thick fine-art media regularly, using a roll-feed printer like the Stylus Pro 4880 is a better long-term alternative.
  • The flimsy plastic front door. The 3800, like many of Epson’s recent photo printers, folds up nicely, which helps keep dust out of the paper path. Unfortunately, the front door, which slides down and out, generally breaks off after a month or so of use.

Most of these issues are generally minor, but they’re worth mentioning in a context like this.

What about the R2880?

Does this mean that we don’t think that the R2880 is not worth buying? Not at all. If you want excellent prints, are looking to print less than 50 photos per month, and the the idea of spending more than $1,000 is anathema to you, the R2880 is a great buy. As we said in our review, the ink swapping is really the biggest problem with the printer, and, if you rarely switch paper types, then you won’t find it as big an issue as we did.

The other thing that constantly comes up is the mythical “Stylus Pro 3900 ”, the unannounced successor to the 3800. Epson has given no indication that such a printer will ever be made available, but we continue to hear from people who won’t buy a 3800 because they believe such a printer is “around the corner.” But we don’t put any stock in it, especially given the logistics of building a high-volume, 9-channel printhead when they’re already moving to a 10-channel head with the UltraChrome HDR inks in the Stylus Pro 7900. (See my comment below for more on my thoughts here.)

Given Epson’s track record, the 3800 is probably still going to be the company’s flagship printer for the foreseeable future, and with HP staying out of the 17-inch market and Canon still floundering—despite the decent reception surrounding the (pricier) imageProGRAF iPF6000 and iPF6100—the 3800 remains the best printer in the class.

Wrapping up

I’ve worked with nearly every major photo inkjet that has been released in the past decade, and in all that time, there have been few printers that have both the high quality and design for hard duty. I have banged hard on two 3800s for nearly two years, and they rarely have disappointed me. Like Epson’s other Pro-series printers, the 3800 doesn’t clog, prints quickly on a wide range of media, and produces gallery-ready prints. Sure, there are little problems here and there, but the comments I made more than 18 months ago regarding the 3800 still stand:

If you’re looking to sell your work professionally, and you don’t need anything bigger than a 17-inch-wide print, the Stylus Pro 3800 is without a doubt the current benchmark at this level of the market. There are some fine photo inkjet printers priced under $1,000, but they’re not designed to be workhorses that will churn out print after print. The 3800 will do that in spades.

Epson Stylus Pro 3800

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
Price: $1,295 (currently $1,180 on Amazon)
Epson’s 3800 product page


  • Excellent print quality, best of any printer under $2,000.
  • High-capacity ink cartridges reduce per-print cost considerably.
  • Outstanding black-and-white output with near-perfect neutrality.
  • Handles thick media via two manual-feed paths (including straight-through path.
  • Speedy.


  • Wastes ink when changing between photo and matte paper types.
  • Occasional paper-load problems with rear manual-feed tray.
  • Flimsy front door.

[Edited 12/10/2008 to clarify competitive set and to add comment link.]

40 thoughts on “The Stylus Pro 3800: Still the king”

  1. I have to echo your comments. I don’t print that often, but when I had my show at the Leica Gallery in New York, I didn’t have much time. So I picked up the 3800 and some Epson Fiber Gallery paper and the results were just amazing. Beautiful archival black and white prints with the look and feel of traditional chemical based fiber paper, without the curl. It’s going to be hard to improve on this printer’s quality and value.

  2. This means that either the 3880/3900 is imminent… or I’ve wasted over two years of great printing by not getting the 3800.

  3. I never even tried to get a replacement, Michael – I’m sure I could, but the design is the problem: the replacement would be just as flimsy, and I’d rather not have the problem.

  4. Phil,

    My philosophy has always been, “if you need it now, get it.”

    I’ve watched Epson, Canon and HP work in this market for nearly two decades, and I think I have a pretty good idea of how they work with respect to lifespans for their printers, especially at the higher end of the market.

    They tend to let their pro printers sit in the market for 24 months (or more – the Epson Stylus 3000 lasted for nearly 6 years!), and they don’t undergo big changes until the following generation. While we might like a 3880 with the Vivid K3 inks, Epson’s not going to do that. The next printer in this class will have a pretty different look and a new printhead.

    Look at what they’re doing with the 7900/9900. Those printers are nearly a year behind the 11880, which was introduced in mid-2007 (see my article here).

    With no inside info, I would imagine that, barring big changes from the way Epson works, that we wouldn’t see a 3800 successor until next fall at the earliest, and there’s really no reason. It’s a damn good printer as is.


  5. Thanks for the insights, Rick. The one thing that got me a bit paranoid and/or hopeful is that at last January’s PMA the 3800 was the only model in the Epson booth that had a sales incentive. I think it was an Epson P2000 or P3000 photo storage/viewer. (I took that as their attempt at lowering inventories.) Dang, I should have bought it then!

  6. The big reason I went with the R2880 is the roll paper/pano support.
    The 3800 does not have this. I would have to go to 4800 for pano support.
    I know, alot of people do not print that way, so the 3800 is great.
    Since using the 2880 heavy, I must say that it exceeds anything I have every used. My clients are blown away by the prints.
    Just wished they had bigger cart support.
    Might try ciss.

  7. I’m still in love with my year old 3800. I had to laugh when you mentioned the flimsy door. The locking tab on mine broke off on the very first day. I use the excellent Tumi printer cover, which keeps the door closed when I’m not using the printer.

    I understood that one of the differences between Epson’s Stylus Pro and Stylus Photo lines is that the Pros are individually hand calibrated at the factory, whereas the printers in the consumer line rely on tight manufacturing tolerances for consistency from printer to printer. I can’t help but wonder whether or not this affects real-world print quality for those who don’t make their own profiles.

  8. Roger: I too have a cover for my 3800, although I don’t use it as much as I should.

    And you’re right about the calibration features. We fired up my Stylus Pro 4800 this week after 10 months without use. One round of head check/alignment and five sample prints, and it was producing perfectly rendered images. The same can not be said for either my Stylus Photo R2400 or HP B8850, both of which require extensive cleaning if they don’t get used regularly.

  9. Interesting re the Standard vs. Pro (vs. Portrait). I was just going to ask the question: For fine art photo printing, I should go with the Pro? I don’t need a RIP. Any other compelling reasons for or against?

  10. If you’re really just wanting to do the fine-art stuff, the Standard edition is all you need. The Portrait edition is designed for working wedding photographers, and the Pro edition, as you note, has a RIP, which is largely designed to be used in a production setting for graphic designers.

    You can always add a RIP if you want later – there are a few for the 3800.

  11. B&H has the 3800 for $1189.95 and a $200 mail-in rebate. Epson’s history with incentives like that is that a replacement is in the wings.

    I’m a prosumer, not a pro. I give my 2400 a lot of use and am very happy with it except for the ink cost. I’ll replace it with a 3900/4900 when they appear.

    Washington DC

  12. Ian: That’s actually not true. Epson has a history of offering rebates when they want to move printers quickly, or when there are new printers out.

    The 3800 has had rebates before, including one last year around this time.

    Their RX series were on rebate for quite a while after they shipped, largely due to competitive pressures related to new HP printers that were priced lower than the RX printers.

    There _very_ well could be a 3900 in the wings – I’m not disputing that – but every source I have tells me that we’re a while away from that machine. (And I am occasionally wrong, too, as many people are more than happy to remind me.)


  13. Marcelle:

    I have printed a fair amount of canvas sheets on the 3800, mostly Crane’s Maestro sheets. I’m not a big fan of Epson’s current canvas rolls for the lower-end printers like the R1900 and R2880.

    The 3800 lacks roll support, although I have heard that some users have been able to create their own simple mechanisms for feeding a roll through the printer. You have to cut it yourself.

  14. One can print longer than 24″ with this printer. The standard driver limits the maximum length to 37.4″. Using a third party RIP or the RIP that come with the professional version, it is possible to print longer lengths. I have not personally tried to print anything longer. Supposedly, one can print up to 327″ using the ImagePrint RIP by ColorByte (see ).

  15. I got my 3800 for a terrific price (about fifty bucks less than anywhere else I found) including overnight shipping from Sarah Newman at Shades of Paper in New Jersey. I am dumbfounded at how gorgeous the prints are that come out of this thing!

  16. Purchased a 3800 in late Sept. Prints were exceptional. Approximately 60 days later, I started getting an error every time I turned the printer on. Usually a power cycle would clear the error. Then it started taking two power cycles.

    Emailed Epson Support. Received a quick response to call the Preferred Support Number when I was at the Printer. Called Support. The Tech said the only “fix” was to replace the printer. One would be overnighted to me. But since the printer was more than 30 days old, Epson would ONLY replace it with a REFURBISHED Printer. I was quite shocked that Epson’s definition of “World Class” Support and Warranty is to replace a new defective printer with a REFRUBISHED Printer. Also the Tech highly suggested I purchase the extended warranty.

    I went ahead with the replacement – given the errors on the printer, I feared the printer I had would not last. I did receive the REFURBISHED replacement 3800 the next day. Shipped the defective printer back to Epson with the shipping pre-paid. Cosmetically, the Refurbished Printer shows obvious signs of use – it certainly is not the nice clean printer (albeit defective) I sent back.

    I emailed Epson concerning the REFURBISHED Replacement Policy, still waiting on that reply.

    I do give points to Epson on the overnight service. I also give points to the fact that I have not had any issues with the Refurbished 3800. However all those points are quickly eaten up by the fact that my new (very clean) printer was replaced with a scruffy refurbished printer.

    I am happy that I have a working printer, yet I feel somewhat cheated.

  17. Rick:

    The week before Christmas I had the opportunity to talk with Epson Pro Tech support about the reason for current rebates on their their x880 series of printers — we were purchasing a new 4880 for our digital lab at the university where I teach. I mentioned seeing a lot of ads for the new 7900 and 9900 series of printers, and wondered did that mean there were 4900 and 3900 printers in the immediate wings. He stated flatly, NO. He said it would at least a year — probably mid 2010 — before either of the 4880 or the 3800 would be replaced. I should mention that I’ve been printing on my personal 3800 for almost a year now and could not be happier. The best profile I’ve seen for any luster surfaced, baryta-based papers — Innova Gloss Black, Epson Exhibition Fiber, Ilford Gold Fiber Silk, Hahnemuhle Gloss Photo Rag, Harman Gloss FB AI, etc. — is the Harman Gloss profile. The most neutral B&W profile I’ve used, period. Printed Bill’s Color Test page dead on. And, OH, did I mention I love my 3800?


  18. I recently bought the 2880. While my prints were outstanding with this printer it had a rather loud growl to it. After talking to Tech Support I sent it back to dealer. I opted then for the 3800 and am tickeld pink that I did. Not only are the prints just unbelievable, but it also has the larger ink cartriges. If you seen the ones in the 2880 you would see what I mean, there are very small indeed. I am not at all worried that I may get outdated with a newer model coming because I can’t imagine needing anything any better than what this 3800 is now.

  19. I am a writer as well as a photo enthusiast. I am looking to upgrade my current all-in-one printer with either the 2880 or the 3800 so I can produce archival prints. How well will it do with manuscripts, not only draft, but those that need to be of professional quality? I really don’t have room for two printers. Based on reviews, I’m leaning toward the 3800. Tess

  20. Rick
    Hi. We communicated before. I’m almost ready to buy the printer from your site that we talked about in emails, but cannot remember which one it was!! And your emails were lost during a crash. To refresh, I had asked you about a great quality printer, for stationary…the one you recommended cost around 1300 or so and you were very enthusiastic about it.

    can you please send me an email and let me know which printer it was? As I’m wanting to sell the invites, your comments were that it was amazing, the replacement inks were not too bad etc, could print I think up to 18 inches wide…etc etc.. the key was ultra high quality look as the stationary thing is going to be high end.



  21. Hi Rick.
    This website’s reviews are outstanding. I’m writing because I’m beginning a Stationery company, and am deciding if it would be worth it to purchase the 3800 or 4800 as a means to print custom jobs, rather than outsourcing it. From what I read, there are multiple feed trays, depending on the thickness of the stock. Would it easily support a 80 lb. coated stock without having to manual feed? Also, how do you feel it works with papers that aren’t produced by Epson, such as Mohawk Superfine, or other commercial papers. Thanks.

  22. We are an architectural design firm with frequent need to print 13 x 19 borderless photographic-quality images, but also do 4 x 6, as well as text documents. The printer needs to be on a server, use high quality matte paper, and with 6 people using it, it needs to be a workhorse. We use an HP 2800 and like it, but for enhanced photographic quality, added an HP 9180…we have had 3 HP 9180s and it just is not up to the task. Can you recommend a printer?

    • I would probably go with the 4880 or the 7880 over the 3800 for a high-volume task like that. Depending upon the thickness of the paper, you could use a roll to pump through that much paper – cutter replacement blades are cheaper than printer replacements, and the ink efficiency is much better with those printers.

      1,000 thick sheets per week would all have to be manually fed on any printer, unfortunately.


  23. Hi, First I disagree about the print quality of the Epson versus Canon. The Canon ipf5000 produces stunning eye catching vivid color prints; thats were it ends. Having a roll-feed problem under warrantee and Canon wanting to charge me 500 Euro for a 20 minute visit and more recently a firmware upgrade which made the printer unusable because of a failing printhead (500Euro each), I now wait for the HDR ink A2 or A3+ printer from Epson who must have confidence in their products by offering an extended warrantee. Pete

  24. Hi, I was curious about the full bleed functionality of the r2880 compared to the 3800. It seemed that the r2880 can print full bleed on a larger range of paper sizes while the 3800 is only able to do this on a limited selection of sizes. Is this true?

    I am an illustration student and am often having to produce projects at various sizes depending on what the teacher is asking for that week.

  25. I am a graphic designer working mainly on projects that will print on press and I need a good color printer for proofs for my clients and to print my own small runs of promotional materials. What interested me about this printer was the ability to create proofs that accurately show colors as they’ll print on press. Any comments on how this printer performs in that arena? Is it easy to set up to create accurate proofs? Once you have color settings in place can you count on the color being stable over time?

  26. Laura –

    With a RIP like the ColorBurst, you should find that the 3800 is a great proofer. We used the 3800 as our prepress unit at Macworld, and I use it on my current publication.

    Epson spends quite a bit of care on the Pro products to make sure that there’s little or no color drift over time with the print engine. Of course, if you’re serious about all this, you should also make sure that you’re regularly profiling the printer.


  27. Well, it’s time for a revisit to this thread. I still haven’t pulled the trigger on a printer decision but have found new info that is taking me away from an Epson option. That is, operating humidity specs. Of the big three, Epson requires the most, HP in the middle with Canon the least at 10%. Now, for most folks this may not be an issue but with a studio at 8,000 ft I think I now know why I’ve been frustrated with my old Epson 2200 clogging from the get-go. Now, that leaves the only other 17″ option with the Canon iPF5100. In my heart I’d rather get the HP 3200 but wonder what your take is on buying a 24″ printer where I’d be mostly printing sheets at 17 x 22 or less with only an occasional 24 x more for special projects?

  28. I have held off for about a year on getting the 3800 because of the rumored pending upgrade. So, is a replacement pending soon, if not, is it still the best printed to replace my R2400. I print less than 5-prints per month, but need professional quality results.

  29. Any information on how long the printer can sit with its cartridges, before they go bad?

    Clearly, although the cost of ink is much less for the 3880, if it can go bad through lack of use, then it could be more economical (in the long run) to go with the 2880.

  30. I have the same question which was not answered yet.

    Any information on how long the printer can sit with its cartridges, before they go bad?
    Clearly, although the cost of ink is much less for the 3880, if it can go bad through lack of use, then it could be more economical (in the long run) to go with the 2880.

    • Nancy, my 3800 has gone months between printing jobs, without any trouble. It’s not like they become unusable, or less potent without use, although I’m sure if inks sat for years they might clump or become less viscous.


  31. I’ve been holding off upgrading to “Snow Leopard” because Epson has not bothered to create a new driver for the 3800. Is there a good option for the missing 3800 Epson print driver for Snow Leopard?


  32. I am glad to hear (Above) that the ink has no “use by” issues once installed in the printer… I liked the larger format capability of the 3880 – but ended up w a 2880 since I read that the 3880 makes you replace the ink cartridges every 6 months – and I thought that would be a large expense in my low volume use..
    thanks for the info that the ink cartridges can stay in the printer for a long time without the printer demanding they be replaced prior to their consumption.

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