January 30, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Getting printers down to iPod size

Zink wants to take the printer off your desk and put it in your pocket. The question now is whether you want it there.

The Waltham, Mass.-based start-up has created--with help from Polaroid--a way to print photographs or documents without ink or an ink cartridge. Without an ink cartridge, a printer can be reduced to the size of an iPod or smaller, said CEO Wendy Caswell. The controlling factor when it comes to printer size is whether you want 2 x 3 inch prints or 4 x 6 inch prints. Zink says it has two manufacturing partners lined up, and products based on its technology will come out later this year.

Zink systems

The Zink system "can be embedded in any device," she said. It is also more environmentally friendly, the company says. Ninety-five percent of ink cartridges never get recycled.

The first two products will likely be a standalone printer and a camera with a built-in printer. The company is showing off the technology this week at the technology conference Demo '07 in Palm Desert, Calif. (Sonny Bono and Gerald Ford territory).

The trick is the paper. In conventional printers, print heads squirt ink in a meticulous pattern onto a sheet of paper, and the ink gets affixed through heat or other means.

In Zink's system, images are created when a heated printer head comes into contact with a sheet of specialized paper. The paper--which is actually a polymer but feels like ordinary photo paper--contains three crystalline layers. The layers are clear until heated. When heated, the material de-crystallizes and changes colors: One of the crystalline layers turns yellow, the middle one goes magenta and the final one turns blue. Images are created through a mosaic of magenta, yellow and blue pixels activated in the various layers.

The layers are activated at varying temperatures and require different cooking times. To create a yellow pixel, for instance, the printer head has to be at the highest temperature, but only has to touch the paper for a brief period, explained CTO Steve Herchen. Blue requires low temperature but a long contact time. Thus, when the printer head comes in contact with the paper, only one color is created for a particular pixel.

When the paper cools, the material doesn't revert to its crystalline state, but remains amorphous. Thus, the color pixels remain. (Shifting a base material between a crystalline and amorphous state is the basic idea behind ovonics and phase change memory). The paper is also recyclable.

Printers using Zink's system are similar to other products on the market, but do differ slightly. Canon, among others, makes portable color printers that can handle different photo paper sizes. These printers, however, have ink cartridges. Pentax, meanwhile, has come out with an inkless printer, but it only does grayscale.

The first printers using Zink's technology will only produce 2 x 3 inch photographs, but other sizes may be produced in the future. The target price is $99 for the standalone printer and $199 for the camera printer. Paper for the Zink items will run around $19.95 for a pack of 100 sheets. Besides working with camera and hardware manufacturers, Zink is trying to land deals with paper producers.

Products that require specialized paper--such as some of the first electronic pens--have had a checkered history. CEO Caswell counters, however, that buying specialized paper should be no more difficult than finding the particular cartridge to refill your printer.

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7 comments

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Great idea...
...but taking a minute to print a very small photo is not exactly optimal. 4x5 would be a more realistic photo size with the print taking 15-20 seconds...tops.

If the paper pricing sticks, then per print prices are reasonably competitive, but would like to see pricing for larger sizes before passing final judgement.

Also, before people will invest in this as a Cellphone companion, the phone manufacturers have got to improve the quality of the cameras significantly.

In any case, it is promising technology that may supplant ink in the long term for photo printing.
Posted by adlyb1 (123 comments )
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Zink will revolutionize printing
The Zink printer has no moving parts, no ink reservoir, and no heaters, other than the thermal transfer print head itself. So it is a very small, low profile, print device. It can fit in the palm of your hand, or perhaps in the future even become part of the camera form factor.

The holy grail of reliable printers has been to reduce the number of moving parts. Zink has done it by moving the "ink" to the paper itself.

I wrote a blog about Zink, how it works, and how it might be used. See <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2007/01/zink_presenting.html" target="_newWindow">http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2007/01/zink_presenting.html</a>
Posted by Don_Dodge (64 comments )
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cool, but quality?
Neat idea, and at only 10 cents per photo, quite reasonably priced. But what about the image quality? With only CMY and no K, how deep are the blacks and what's the contrast ratio? How many bits per pixel? Unless the images are reasonably good, they're not going to get very good reviews and they're not going to sell very many. I mean, I can go to Walgreens and print images off a cell phone or digital camera in just a few minutes for about the same price, without buying a little printer gadget, and the quality's pretty good. They're going to have an uphill battle, no matter how cool the technology, unless the quality is comparable.
Posted by Harlan879 (130 comments )
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Print directly from MY camera?
I am a semiprofessional photographer, and I'm always getting requests for copies of photos. This would offer immediate gratification for people if I can only print directly from my own camera. I usually do some fancy processing, but this would be quick and easy for on the spot use. The price of the printer and supplies seems reasonable as well. --gk
Posted by GSKearney (3 comments )
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Performance?
A couple more performance questions not answered in the article: How fast does it print? Will I have to wait 10 minutes for a printout? 10 Seconds? How long do the pictures last? Will the image turn black on a nice 100 degree day?
Posted by reitwagen (3 comments )
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Faster than an ink jet printer
I have seen side by side comparisons of the Zink and a standard ink jet printer. The Zink is 3 to 4 times faster on small prints and up to 10 times faster on 8X10 prints.

The color quality is amazing, as good as any printer I have seen. The color will last and not fade. This isn't like the old Polaroid photos. The Zink photo paper looks and feels just like regular photo printing paper. The embedded color crystals are microscopic in size, and once activated don't revert to another color or state.

You will be amazed. I used to work in the printer business many years ago. I was amazed.
Posted by Don_Dodge (64 comments )
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COOL
I too, like previous commenter, am a semiprofessional photographer and agree completely. I do like to retouch my photos before printing, (sometimes I HAVE to, i.e. action shots), but I think this would be something wonderful for events where the many parents of the many kids I photograph just want a picture of their kid to take home. Go look at the pictures of one of these devices: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://news.cbsi.com/2300-1041-6154272.html" target="_newWindow">http://news.cbsi.com/2300-1041-6154272.html</a>

These pics inspired me - I now want to see this thing in a 5.25 inch drive bay form. Think of it-your (photo, at least) printer off your desk and inside your SWEET new full-tower case in one of those 11 drive bays!! The drive bays are actually 6 inches in width; one could easily print 5x7, 4x6, 3.5x5 or other sheets in there. Integrate this thing with a SATA-driven (or USB 3.0 ;) multi-format memory card reader and I'll climb Mt. Everest to buy it!
Posted by adot44 (19 comments )
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