I was intrigued last year with Epson’s announcement of the EcoTank Photo ET-8500 and ET-8550, the latest iteration of their “supertank,” high-capacity inkjet printers. These were the first EcoTank printers to offer a six-color print engine tuned for printing photos, while also offering high-quality document printing and scan/copy support. Reading through Epson’s lofty marketing language, which talked about “lab-quality color photos and graphics at an incredible value,” it was clear that, if the company followed through on its promise, the ET-8500/ET-8550 could very well usher in a new era of high-quality photo prints, at significantly lower costs than classic, cartridge-based, photo printers.
After working in-depth with the letter-size model, the ET-8500, for the past few months, I will say that these printers truly are the most exciting photo printers I have come across in a long time. They have excellent photo quality, flexible paper handling options and superb usability, with print costs that are a fraction of those found in specialized photo printers. The EcoTank Photo printers are not for everyone—you wouldn’t use one of these for gallery-ready prints, for example—but they are perfect if you want to get into printing your photos, and want great output with minimal hassle.
- What is a supertank printer, anyway?
- Basics and setup
- EcoTank inks
- Paper handling
- Print quality
- Ink usage
- Other items of note
What is a supertank printer, anyway?
The supertank class of high-capacity inkjets is designed to go head-to-head with laser printers, with low-cost black-and-white or color output, high-speed print engines, and good overall print quality. With large, refillable ink reservoirs, supertank printers dispense with the small-capacity—and ecologically wasteful—plastic cartridges found in most consumer inkjets, while dropping the costs of document printing to a price point comparable with lasers. Epson’s first supertank printers shipped more than a decade ago, and since then Canon and HP have also entered the supertank space, with their MegaTank and Smart Tank printer lines, respectively.
While most four-color supertank printers that I looked at in the past were capable of printing photos, I rarely saw prints that were anywhere near the quality level that we have come to expect from specialized photo printers,1To be fair, most dedicated photo printers generally have six to 12 ink colors, which provides a wider gamut than is possible with the standard cyan, magenta, yellow, black (CMYK) inksets. which is one reason why the EcoTank Photo line is so intriguing.2Canon has also announced a six-color supertank all-in-one printer, the $300 Pixma G620. I have ordered one for review, but supplies have been constrained for months. As soon as I get it in, I’ll post my findings. (UPDATE, June 2022: Don’t waste your time — this is not a printer for a serious amateur.)
EcoTank Photo specifications
The ET-8500 and the ET-8550 are essentially two versions of the same printer. They share the same inkset, ink capacity, print engine, connectivity options, interface and paper handling. The ET-8500 has a maximum paper width of 11 inches (and a smaller footprint), while the ET-8550 can print up to 13 inches wide. Full specs for each printer are listed in the table below.
For this review, I tested the EcoTank Photo ET-8500, but most of my comments regarding print speed, paper handling, usability, and print quality will also be applicable to the ET-8550. I will note any differences in the text.
Basics and setup
As has been the case with other recent Epson inkjets, setting up the ET-8500 is relatively simple, and Epson provides clear documentation to get you up and running with minimal trouble. The printer can be connected via USB, Ethernet or WiFi, and can be set up from either a Mac or Windows computer or an iOS/Android device.
Epson includes six 70ml ink bottles with the printer. While it initially seems a bit freaky to be holding an open bottle of ink and inserting it into the appropriate tank opening, it really is a clean operation. The bottles are keyed to their specific color and have some sort of valve in the stem to prevent spills, and the tanks are labelled clearly. And, when you insert an ink bottle into the printer, it will automatically stop filling when the ink reaches the top line of the tank. With care, you shouldn’t get ink anywhere other than its tank (Epson’s primary caution is that you don’t squeeze the bottles during the filling process). When I filled my printer’s tanks for the first time, there was a small amount of ink left in each bottle, and I ended up topping off the tanks with the remainder after approximately 400 prints.
Unlike the ink cartridges found in most classic inkjets, the EcoTank printers’ ink levels are visible from the front of the printer. Each tank is marked in 25-percent increments, which makes it easy to get a sense of your ink usage, and when you might need to add more ink. If you’ve ever been frustrated at trying to figure out how much ink there really is in that ink cartridge, you’ll love the EcoTank setup.
As they did with the SureColor P700 and P900 printers, Epson put a large, 4.3-inch touchscreen display on the front of the ET-8500, and it’s a joy to use. The display can be tilted up for a better viewing angle, and is quite bright. Some controls (like setting paper thickness) can only be accessed through the touchscreen, but the menu system is clean and uncluttered.
EcoTank Photo Inks
The Claria ET Premium inks used in the ET-8500 and the ET-8550 are a hybrid dye/pigment inkset, of which only five inks print at any one time. There are five dye inks—Photo Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Gray—and a single pigmented Black ink. The print driver determines which black ink will get used, based on the paper type. The pigmented Black is used when plain paper, matte-finish/art papers or card stock is selected; Photo Black is used when printing on any photo paper type.
The ET-8500 has four options for loading paper:
- A full-size front tray that can hold up to 100 sheets of plain paper (or approximately 10-20 sheets of photo paper), and supports automatic duplexing of plain paper documents.
- A smaller front tray for up to 20 sheets of 4×6 or 5×7 photo paper.
- A rear-feed slot that can hold up to 50 sheets of plain paper or 5 sheets of standard-thickness photo paper.
- An additional rear-feed mechanism with a straight printing path for handling media up to 1.3mm thick.
Overall, the paper handling options are quite good. I love being able to have one tray with 5×7 semigloss paper while loading the main tray with plain paper, and the top rear-feed slot works very well for printing on beefier papers. Epson made a point when announcing the EcoTank Photo printers that they would support many of the company’s Signature Worthy line of papers, including Premium Luster and Velvet Fine Art, and the top rear slot is perfect for both those papers.
When testing the printer, I successfully printed on most of Epson’s recommended photo papers, including Premium Glossy, Premium Luster, Semigloss Photo Paper, Premium Matte and Velvet Fine Art. I also profiled a number of Epson higher-end papers, including Exhibition Fiber and Legacy Fibre, as well as quite a few third-party papers from Red River, Canson, and others. Most papers printed fine from the top rear-feed slot, although some of the heavier papers had faint roller indentations on them, which necessitated my using the straight path feed (and which printed those papers without any indentations).
Setting up the rear-feed mechanism with the straight paper path was initially quite confusing. You have to pull the paper feed unit from the back of the printer, and then remove a small plastic guide and snap that piece inside the printer. It sounds simple, but the first time I tried to set up the straight path, I couldn’t tell at all what I was supposed to do. There was a set of very small graphics indicating what you need to do to set up the straight path, but my poor eyesight really couldn’t discern what I was supposed to do, now that I had the paper feed unit removed. The online manual and the help screens on the touchscreen display weren’t much help either, but I noticed a small QR code to the left of the row of graphics, which led me to a languid YouTube video3I’m not joking; check it out. from Epson Japan, where I was able to tell how exactly to set the mechanism so that it would accept paper, which turns out to be quite simple.
When you’re using the straight path, you can only use that option for printing; with the paper feed unit removed, any attempts to print from another source will toss the paper out the back of the printer. Also, the straight path only supports paper sizes of 8×10 and up.
For the most part, I found the paper handling of the ET-8500 to be excellent. If I had one complaint, it would be that you can’t set the option for thick papers from the print driver, only from the touchscreen, and when you change that setting, it is reset once you power down the printer.
When you consider that the ET-8500 is essentially a five-ink photo printer (one of the blacks plus CMY/Gray), the prints that come from this printer are pretty amazing. I think that most of this comes from Epson’s deep, decades-long expertise with screening algorithms and ink technology; in the case of the ET-8500/ET-8550, Epson’s engineers have been able—quite remarkably—to maximize quality while using a seemingly limited inkset.
The key appears to be due to the inclusion of Gray in the inkset in the EcoTank Photo models. Much like older Epson Pro printers4Like the Stylus Photo 2880 and the Stylus Pro 3800, both of which were reviewed here, long ago in a printerverse far, far away. [You can find them all in our reviews gulag.], which used “Light” inks to help with subtle gradations of tones throughout the color spectrum, the Gray ink in the EcoTank Photo printers seems to handle most of this work with regards to improving print quality. Gray helps with full color images, as well as with grayscale photo prints (more on this below), and when printing on plain paper.5This also means that the Gray ink is apparently used much more than the other inks. More on that below.
One of the strengths of dye-based photo printers is their quality on glossy and semigloss paper types, and the ET-8500 more than held its own with dedicated dye-based photo printers like Epson’s six-ink Expression XP-15000 and Canon’s eight-ink Pixma Pro-200. Prints on glossy paper looked great, with that continuous tone look that only glossy papers can provide, displaying bright, vibrant colors and true-to-life skin tones. On my calibrated system, prints looked as they appeared on-screen, even when using Epson’s built-in paper profiles.
While the ET-8500 excels when printing on glossy and luster papers, my results with matte or fine art papers were quite good as well. Epson’s Velvet Fine Art, for example, produced lovely prints with fine detail, as did Epson’s Premium Matte paper. I also got great prints with Red River’s Aurora Art White and Palo Duro Smooth Rag art papers.
Other than for Velvet Fine Art and Premium Luster, Epson doesn’t include profiles for other papers in their Signature Worthy line of media. I did profile their Exhibition Fiber paper, a soft gloss fiber-based paper that I use quite frequently, as well as their Legacy Fibre, an ultra-high-end cotton fiber paper with a matte finish. Despite these papers being designed for pigment prints, I was delighted with the few prints I made on them. Given the price per sheet of these papers, it’s not something most people will go to, but I do think that there are many third-party paper manufacturers with excellent paper types—matte or photo—that will work with the EcoTank Photo printers.6Currently, only Red River had posted color profiles for the ET-8500/ET-8550.
Regarding black-and-white prints: in the print driver, Epson has a dedicated Black and White photo mode that lets you print with Neutral, Warm, Cool, and Sepia toning. For the most part, the Neutral option does a very good job of producing neutral prints. When comparing ET-8500 black-and-white prints with those from Canon’s Pro-200, some reviewers felt that there were some images where Canon produced a more truly neutral print, noting that the ET-8500’s print had a very slight cool tint to it, but it depended upon the photo, the lighting, and the media used7In general, when producing black-and-white prints, dye inks tend to display much more variability under different lighting conditions than pigments. It’s one reason why most fine-art black-and-white work is printed on pigment printers..
How good are the prints, really?
How close is the print quality of the ET-8500 to pricier dye-based inkjets, like the Canon Pro-200 or pigment printers like Epson’s own SureColor P700 or Canon’s imagePROGRAF Pro-300? To my eye, the wider gamut of the eight- to 10-ink printers is an advantage, but it’s slight, and I honestly don’t think most amateur photographers would notice the difference in prints from one printer to another.
When I displayed glossy and luster comparison prints made on the ET-8500, the XP-15000, and the Pro-200, most viewers said that there wasn’t a bad print in the group, and no one could reliably pick out one model’s prints as better than others. When comparing the ET-8500 output with glossy and luster pigment prints from the P900 and the Pro-300, many viewers sensed a difference, but generally picked the ET-8500 as their favorite; there was just something about the vibrancy of the photos from the ET-8500, especially on glossy media.
Pigment printers do have a slight advantage with fine art and matte media types, and viewers were a bit more discerning, picking the pigment printers as generally better than those on the ET-8500. There, the wider gamut of printers like the P900 and the Pro-300 will produce more nuanced prints on uncoated media. But, as is the case with the glossy output, unless you’re a fine-art photographer, you’re not going to feel that the ET-8500 is holding you back, at least with respect to the quality of the prints.
In addition to quality, the other primary reason to consider the EcoTank Photo twins is the ludicrously low ink costs, and the expansive tank capacities for the six inks. At 70ml per bottle of ink, and with a cost per ml of 25 cents (28 cents for the pigmented Black ink), these printers are built to keep you from constantly buying replacement inks. Just compare the costs of the ET-8500/ET-8850 inks to that of its peers in the dedicated photo printer market:
- Epson Photo ET-8500/ET-8550: 70ml ink bottles, priced at $0.25 per ml (dyes); $0.28 per ml (Black)
- Epson SureColor P700: 25ml cartridges, $1.52 per ml
- Epson SureColor P900: 50ml cartridges, $0.84 per ml
- Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-300: 14.4 ml cartridges, $0.90 per ml8One of my long-standing complaints about the Canon desktop inkjets has been their low-capacity ink cartridges. Not only do you go through more of them if you print with any regularity, but they’re also wasteful.
- Canon Pixma Pro-200: 12.6ml cartridges, $1.11 per ml
When you break down the ink costs into comparable numbers (cost per ml), they are quite startling. It’s not completely comparable; you’ll spend more on ink with a 10-ink printer than a six- or eight-color one, but it gives you a good idea about roughly how much you’ll spend to print.
Epson’s materials boast that ET-8500’s Claria inks give you “enough ink to print 6,200 color pages,” but that is for basic ISO ratings in the default printing mode, not for photos.9For more on Epson’s specifics, see epson.com/ink-yield-cartridge-info. It is a decent indicator of how little ink you’ll use for document printing, however.
Printing photos will use more ink, and Epson claims that it is the per-print cost that is more important with the EcoTank Photo printers. Their literature states that you can print “4×6 photos for about 4 cents vs. 40 cents with traditional ink cartridges,” which feels like a more helpful calculation when thinking about the ET-8500/ET-8550 as photo printers. When you look at these models’ lower costs per ml of replacement ink, it is clear that you’ll be spending far less than you would with a dedicated photo printer, at least one in the sub-$1,000 range.10The $1,300 Epson SureColor P900 can print 4×6 photos at roughly 17 cents per page, according to Red River’s Cost of Inkjet Printing resource. While it’s not 4 cents, it’s quite reasonable, given the print quality and flexibility of that printer, which has 50ml ink cartridges.
With cartridge-based photo printers, most users will be lucky to get 100 to 200 prints before they start having to replace inks.11This, of course depends upon the capacities of the ink cartridges used. During the review process, I produced more than 600 prints on the ET-8500—of various sizes from 4×6 to 8.5×11—and had yet to run out of any ink at all. I wasn’t even close, to be honest. At 500 prints, I checked the ink levels, and this is where my printer’s ink levels were (roughly):
- Black (pigment) 90%
- Photo Black 75%
- Cyan 55%
- Yellow 65%
- Magenta 55%
- Gray 25%
As noted in the print quality section, Epson is clearly using gray to carry a lot of the heavy lifting in the print engine, but the fact that I was barely to the halfway level for the other inks was startling. To think that I could get to between 650 and 700 prints before having to replace a single ink color12I added additional Gray ink from a new bottle at 750 prints., and over 1,000 prints before I would have to replace any of the CMY inks is a game changer.
Of course, your mileage will vary, depending upon how many photos you print, and their size. ET-8550 users who will print more at 11″x14″ or 13″x19″ will obviously need to replace inks earlier than users of the ET-8500. Even with those approximate calculations, however, the lower ink costs will save considerable money (and waste) in the long run.
Other items of note
While most of our focus in this review is on the photo-specific aspects of the ET-8500, here are a few other things worthy of mention.
Print speeds (photos)
Print speed is far down my list of reasons for choosing one photo printer over another, but in the interest of completeness, I’ll note that the ET-8500 is quite speedy, both when printing photos and documents.
Photo printing offers three print modes, Draft, Quality and High Quality.13The original driver versions of the ET-8500 had four levels, similar to the plain paper print modes described below. A driver update in late 2021 apparently changed it to the current set of Draft, Quality and Hight Quality. Not sure what that’s about.
Draft mode is oddly named; the label makes me think of old dot-matrix output, but it’s blazingly fast, spitting out a 5×7 bordered print in 16 seconds—and the prints look quite good. Quality is slightly slower, and High Quality the slowest. Most of the time, I printed photos at the default Quality setting, and was more than happy with them; it was quite hard to tell the difference between the top two tiers at all. My advice would be to play around with all three modes, and see if you can tell any appreciable difference in your prints. Average print speeds for various print sizes are listed in the table below:
Print speeds (documents)
For plain paper printing, the ET-8500 has four printing modes, Economy, Normal, Fine, and Best Quality, which essentially moves from super fast to super slow as the quality increases. The text in Economy prints is jagged, but readable, and graphics are ok, especially if you’re looking at printed webpages (like those from Google Maps). Normal is quite speedy, and the text and graphics are smoother, and with finer detail than Economy; for most of the time, this setting provides the best balance of quality and speed. To my eye, there wasn’t a lot of difference between Fine and Best Quality, especially with regard to black-and-white documents—Best Quality often took four times longer than Fine to print. Graphics-heavy color documents (think presentations) did look slightly better in Best Quality mode, especially on high-quality inkjet paper, but it’s hard for me to justify the print time of the Best mode.
|6-page text document (B&W)
|6-page text and graphics document (color)
The ET-8500 has a built-in duplexing capability when you’re printing on plain paper. The option only works when the printer is connected via a USB connection, and you have to jump through a few hoops in the driver to turn it on, although you can save the settings as a preset. (Oddly, you can print duplex from a phone or tablet when connecting to the printer via WiFi.)
The flatbed document scanner/copier is quite useful, albeit without a feed mechanism for copying or scanning a stack of pages. (We wouldn’t expect that, given the target audience for the printer.) The maximum page size for scanning/copying is letter size for the ET-8500, and legal (8.5 x 14 inches) for the ET-8550. The copy resolution is 600 x 600 dpi, while the maximum scanning resolution is 1200 x 4800 dpi.
If you’re using a phone or a tablet, Epson gives you nearly all of the functionality of the desktop with the Epson Smart Panel app for iOS and Android. This well-designed app lets you print photos from your camera roll, as well as edit photos for print and apply creative effects to your prints. You can also scan, copy, and print documents, access the printer help system, and much more.
In 30-plus years of reviewing photo printers, I have seen many breakthroughs, but there has been one constant throughout: the high costs of the inks used by these printers. It’s one of the primary reasons that many people shy away from buying a photo printer—or inkjets in general. When you start to look at the cost of an ink cartridge, and multiply that by the number of inks a printer has, the costs look enormous. The promise of the supertank printers has largely been relegated to standard document printing, but with the EcoTank Photo ET-8500 and ET-8550, the ink-cost equation has been changed for the better.
Will the ET-8500 and ET-8550 provide you with the best photo quality for any printer in its range? No, discerning viewers who study prints will notice the wider gamut of printers like the SureColor P700/P900 and Canon’s Pro-200/300. If you look closely, you’ll see that those printers—with their larger inksets—print with finer tonal gradations, especially in complex images. And, when compared to pigment-based printers, you won’t get 100+ years of print longevity14On some paper types, and with museum-style preservation techniques. with the ET-8500.
All that said, the ET-8500 will give you excellent prints, that, when preserved with simple storage techniques, can last decades. And those prints will cost significantly less than those of the dedicated photo printers I’ve been reviewing for the past 30 years. Whether you’re printing snapshots of family life, travel photos, or artwork that you’d like to put on your wall (or a friend’s wall), the prints from the ET-8500 and ET-8550 are rich, vibrant and full of life.
In the end, it is important to understand that these are not printers designed for fine art photographers or pros; they’re for amateurs and enthusiasts who want to print, but have been scared off by the complexity, singular function, and high costs of traditional, cartridge-based photo printers. For that, the EcoTank Photo printers are ideal. And it makes me hopeful for a future day when we’ll have true “supertank” photo printers with wide-gamut, 8- to 12-color inksets that have much lower ink costs (and waste) than the ones we have today.
- 1To be fair, most dedicated photo printers generally have six to 12 ink colors, which provides a wider gamut than is possible with the standard cyan, magenta, yellow, black (CMYK) inksets.
- 2Canon has also announced a six-color supertank all-in-one printer, the $300 Pixma G620. I have ordered one for review, but supplies have been constrained for months. As soon as I get it in, I’ll post my findings. (UPDATE, June 2022: Don’t waste your time — this is not a printer for a serious amateur.)
- 3I’m not joking; check it out.
- 4Like the Stylus Photo 2880 and the Stylus Pro 3800, both of which were reviewed here, long ago in a printerverse far, far away. [You can find them all in our reviews gulag.]
- 5This also means that the Gray ink is apparently used much more than the other inks. More on that below.
- 6Currently, only Red River had posted color profiles for the ET-8500/ET-8550.
- 7In general, when producing black-and-white prints, dye inks tend to display much more variability under different lighting conditions than pigments. It’s one reason why most fine-art black-and-white work is printed on pigment printers.
- 8One of my long-standing complaints about the Canon desktop inkjets has been their low-capacity ink cartridges. Not only do you go through more of them if you print with any regularity, but they’re also wasteful.
- 9For more on Epson’s specifics, see epson.com/ink-yield-cartridge-info.
- 10The $1,300 Epson SureColor P900 can print 4×6 photos at roughly 17 cents per page, according to Red River’s Cost of Inkjet Printing resource. While it’s not 4 cents, it’s quite reasonable, given the print quality and flexibility of that printer, which has 50ml ink cartridges.
- 11This, of course depends upon the capacities of the ink cartridges used.
- 12I added additional Gray ink from a new bottle at 750 prints.
- 13The original driver versions of the ET-8500 had four levels, similar to the plain paper print modes described below. A driver update in late 2021 apparently changed it to the current set of Draft, Quality and Hight Quality. Not sure what that’s about.
- 14On some paper types, and with museum-style preservation techniques.
Scorecard: Epson EcoTank Photo ET-8500 and ET-8550
These two “supertank” printers offer excellent, speedy photo output at a fraction of the cost per print found in dedicated, cartridge-based photo printers. While they’re not designed to be fine-art printers, they will be darn close for most casual and serious amateur photographers who want to get into printing. The smaller ET-8500 is delightfully compact and prints anything up to letter size, while the slightly larger ET-8550 can print up to 13″ x 19″, making it perfect for photographers who want to print a bit bigger without breaking the bank.
Pros: Excellent print quality, especially on glossy and semigloss paper types; high-capacity ink tanks with ink costs that dwarf those of dedicated photo printers; flexible paper handling options, including a straight print path for papers up to 1.2mil thick; strong support for printing from phones and tablets (in addition to Mac and Windows computers); scan and copy support, as well as economical printing of standard documents.
Cons: None significant for its target audience; some small interface issues; setting up straight paper path is confusing at first.
- Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 review (Printerville)
- Epson SureColor P900 review (Printerville)
- Thoughts on choosing a photo printer (Printerville)
- Red River’s True Cost of Inkjet Printing
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