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Our Printing Tests
Color Accuracy

Updated
What it is: How accurately a printer can reproduce a specified color.
When it matters: When printing photos or other types of documents in which color accuracy is important.
Score components:
Score distribution

When you’re printing casual photos at home for an art project, creative hobby, or photo wall, you want them to look good and the colors to look as accurate as possible. To achieve this, you have to make sure your printer can print well-detailed photos and properly handle color reproduction. While most people won’t notice slight color inaccuracies, it can be disappointing when you expect your printed photo to have the same vivid colors as the image you see on your monitor screen, but then discover that the printed colors have noticeably different tones.

One thing to note is that the printed image will never look identical to the image you see on your monitor or mobile device screen. This is because displays use an RGB color space, which has a much wider range of colors than the CMYK color space printers use. In other words, printed colors can never be reproduced perfectly from a digital image. Blues are especially difficult to print accurately since none of the dye combinations in CMYK can reproduce the color the way it shows up on a monitor, which can be an issue when printing a really deep blue color for a logo, or a photo of the sky and ocean. That said, it is possible to get colors that look close enough to the original to look good.

Note: With our test bench 1.0 update, we now score color accuracy very differently. Some printers which previously scored very well may now score noticeably worse, and vice-versa.

Test results

When It Matters

How well your printer can reproduce colors affects how good your color document looks. Color accuracy matters when you're printing a photo, a logo, or any kind of content in color. While you may not always need a printed color to look exactly like its digital counterpart, colors do need to be accurate enough that pinks don't look red and yellows don't look orange. Otherwise, your graphs may be confusing if some of the colors look the same, and your photos may look bad if the colors are too saturated, flat, or completely the wrong tone.

Our tests

We use our color accuracy test to measure how accurately a reproduced color compares to the intended color. We use the Macbeth ColorChecker Color Rendition Chart, which has 24 individual colors, to test how well a printer can reproduce various types of colors used in different print types. We print the color chart in PDF format, using Adobe Acrobat Reader, on a 4" x 6" sheet of glossy photo paper recommended by the printer manufacturer. If this isn't possible, we use AmazonBasics Multipurpose Copy Printer Paper at 92 GE brightness; for portable printers, we use the dedicated paper type for the model. We use the same paper and print settings for each printer we test to ensure that the results are always comparable.

We then scan each color with a calibrated NIX QC Color Control Sensor, which gives us a value we use to calculate the color variation. A lower variation scores better because the difference between the two colors isn't very significant.

Note: Our previous methodology (v0.8.1) resulted in relatively high dE scores for many printers because we used very vibrant Pantone colors. These generally didn't reflect real-world colors that could be captured using a camera, so even though some printers might print brighter colors accurately, they may not render natural scenes properly; however, they might be viable for printing logos and digital designs as intended. Alternatively, some printers that scored relatively poorly according to our previous criteria might still be able to produce accurate-looking images. The updated ColorChecker chart provides a more varied palette of six gray shades, six primary/secondary colors, six miscellaneous colors, and six natural colors, allowing us to better determine how accurately a printer can reproduce a greater variety of color sets used in different print types.

Our color accuracy test documentOur color accuracy test document
Nix QC Color Control Sensor scanning a color on our test documentNIX QC Color Control Sensor

Average Color dE

What it is: The average of the difference between the printed color and the color reference.
Delta E Perception
0 to 1 The difference isn't perceptible to the majority
1 to 3 A second glance is needed to see the difference
3 to 6 There's a slight difference
6 to 10 The difference is noticeable
10 + The colors are different
When it matters: For photo printing and graphic design when the printed color needs to be accurate.
Good value: < 5
Score distribution

The color dE (or ΔE) is a metric that shows the difference between two colors. To calculate this, we measure the difference between 24 different colors and the printed version of each corresponding one.

First, we open the ColorChecker chart in Adobe Acrobat Reader and verify that all settings are standard before printing the document. Then, we use our calibrated NIX QC Color Control Sensor to scan each color on the printed document. The color sensor gives us a CIELAB value, which we record in a spreadsheet; using the CIELAB2000 algorithm, we then calculate the deviation, or dE, for each color. We repeat this step for all 24 colors, input them into an Excel sheet, and create a bar graph that shows the color deviations of each color. Finally, we average all 24 results to give us an average color dE, and we base our overall Color Accuracy score on this value.

Below are two results from our color accuracy test. The picture on the left shows an example of a printer with good color accuracy, while the picture on the right shows an example of a printer with poor color accuracy. As previously mentioned, a printer that can produce more vibrant colors doesn't necessarily mean it can print accurate-looking images.

An example of good color accuracy, the Canon PIXMA TR8520.Canon PIXMA TR8520. Average color dE: 4.80 (Good)
An example of poorcolor accuracy, the HP DeskJet 4155e.HP DeskJet 4155e. Average color dE: 11.93 (Poor)

Below are two results of the bar graphs for the same printers above, screenshotted from our test PC. Once again, the image on the left denotes a color-accurate printer, while the image on the right denotes a printer with poor color accuracy. Notice how the magenta in particular is significantly more inaccurate, despite appearing more vibrant.

The dE bar graph for the Canon PIXMA TR8520.Canon PIXMA TR8520. Average color dE: 4.80 (Good)
The dE bar graph for the HP DeskJet 4155e.HP DeskJet 4155e. Average color dE: 11.93 (Poor)

Once we've performed our color accuracy test and inputted all of our results, we scan the image using an Epson Perfection V600 Photo scanner, then upload the scanned image to the review.

How To Get The Best Results

Color accuracy can be affected by many factors, so there are a few things to consider when you're printing color content. This includes the type of ink, the print settings, the quality, weight, and type of paper, and, most importantly, the printer itself. If you work in a professional environment where accuracy is very important, you'll especially want to purchase a printer that can produce accurate colors.

While converting a photo in an RGB color space to a CMYK color space can also help you get more accurate colors, keep in mind that this is important mostly for people in industries where color reproduction needs to be exact. The majority of people likely don't want to deal with installing fancy editing software, so the best option is to choose a printer with good enough color accuracy for your needs.

Conclusion

How accurately a printer can reproduce colors may be important to you if you want your color documents to look great, whether you're printing stickers and designs for an art project or creating a photo wall of 4" x 6" memories. While it's impossible for your printed colors to perfectly match the ones you see on a display screen, some printers are very good at coming as close as possible to the actual color. You can use our color accuracy table above to see which printers reproduce colors the best and check out the photos for a visual representation.

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