The Canon Pixma iP90, like its predecessors, looks like a laptop computer cut longitudinally in half. Made of eye-catching, aluminum-coloured plastic, the iP90 weighs a mere 1.8kg and measures just 310mm by 175mm by 51mm -- comfortable for a roomy laptop bag or a jumbo purse.
Turned off, the iP90 snaps shut into a tight, seamless capsule. When open, the front cover becomes an input tray for plain paper or glossy photo media, from legal to credit card size. You can fill the paper tray with either 30 plain pages, five envelopes, or 10 sheets of 4x6-inch photo paper. If you're printing 8x10-inch glossy photos, you'll have to feed them into the machine one at a time. Save your magnum opus for the office laser and make sure to leave empty space in front of the iP90 when it's in use, because it provides an outgoing slot, yet there's no tray to hold a stack of pages.
The iP90 has a simple, semicircular control panel with buttons for power and to resume printing, plus an LED that glows green and flashes in green and orange to communicate everything from normal printing to a major meltdown. The USB 2.0 and power ports are conveniently located on the left side near the back of the printer, and the infrared (IrDA) and PictBridge ports line the machine's right edge.
We like the Canon Pixma iP90's small size, especially the way it folds up neatly for travelling. The PictBridge and the relatively unusual built-in infrared (IrDA) ports are handy for those who travel superlight and want to print from compatible PDAs, mobile phones, and cameras. If you want more hardware features for your iP90, you'll have to buy them yourself as add-ons or look for another printer.
The Canon Pixma iP90 introduces two features: Save Black Ink, similar to the Draft mode on other printers, it reduces that colour's use by the printer; and Use Composite, which you can find in the drivers' Maintenance section under Ink Usage Control. Save Black Ink reduces that colour's use by the printer, and Use Composite instructs the device to fashion black out of colour ink when the noir runs dry.
We can't tell you how much ink we spared using Save Black Ink mode -- though Canon estimates you'll get 66 percent more yield -- but we can report that text quality literally paled in our tests, appearing battleship grey rather than black. We also drained the black ink tank completely and gave Use Composite mode a whirl. The result? The hue of the text gave new meaning to the term "purple prose." Still, in a pinch, you'd probably prefer these violet-toned letters to either illegible prints or none at all.
You might enjoy these new tweaks if you print a lot with the iP90, which will likely sap the ink in a snap. The cartridges are so small that they're sold in twin packs. Canon estimates that a black cartridge will be good for 185 text pages, while the colour tank will last a mere 100 estimated pages.
The Canon Pixma iP90 comes with a well laid out and clearly illustrated setup poster. Once you've connected the power and the USB cable, it takes less than three minutes and less than 300MB of hard drive space to install the CD-ROM onto your computer. The iP90 comes with an onscreen manual, a setup utility, a printer driver, and a slimmed-down suite that includes Easy-WebPrint, Photo Record, and Easy-PhotoPrint. Missing from earlier versions of the suite are ZoomBrowserEX and PhotoStitch. Will anyone miss them? Maybe not ZoomBrowserEX, but PhotoStitch was fun for making panoramic shots and montages. The iP90's printer drivers are compatible with Mac OS X 10.2.1 to 10.3x and Windows 98 through XP, but Easy-PhotoPrint is the only Mac-compatible software.
Like the i80 before it, the Canon Pixma iP90 dangles several optional features to tempt you to enhance its mobility and plump up its price. A Portable Kit, basically a lithium-ion battery, attaches at the back of the printer. Or you can get the same battery with a desktop charging cradle. If you want to charge your new battery from the cigarette lighter in your rental car, you can tack on the Automobile Power Unit. The battery is estimated to last 450 pages for every two hours of charging.
If you're into remote wireless printing, Canon sells an Bluetooth adapter. But without buying anything extra, you can send cord-free print jobs to the iP90 from your IrDA 1.1 (Infrared Data Association protocol)-enabled portable phone, PDA or laptop from 20cm away or closer.
On CNET Labs' inkjet racetrack, the Canon iP90 bested the portable HP Deskjet 450wbt's lackadaisical 1.5 pages per minute (ppm). An 8x10-inch photo on photo paper took the iP90 slightly more than a minute, almost three times as fast as its predecessor's 2.81 minutes and nearly four times faster than the HP Deskjet 450wbt's 4.07 minutes to print one photo.
Like the HP 450wbt, the Canon Pixma iP90's text on inkjet paper was only fair: legible but fuzzy around the edges. The iP90 printed colour graphics better; it reproduced our text document with a pale tone but nice details, smooth gradients, and fair colour matching. This printer did a similarly good job with our test photo, rendering nearly accurate flesh tones and preserving much of the detail. But we also saw some worse-than-average colour shifts in what should have been neutral greys, and the overall low-contrast rendering resulted in washed-out, desaturated colours.