Two or three years ago, the market was awash with new portable photo printers. HP alone now makes five portable (or, in some cases, “pocket”) photo printers, including the Sprocket Studio, the model closest in design and functionality to the $129.99 Liene 4×6″ Instant Photo Printer (Amber Series). A close competitor to the Editors’ Choice-winning Canon Selphy CP1300 Wireless Compact Photo Printer, Liene’s Instant Photo Printer is a dye-sublimation device that prints terrific-looking photos at a reasonable cost per print, making it a viable alternative to the Selphy, the Sprocket Studio, and several other snapshot and wallet-size photo printers.
Measuring 3.4 by 8.1 by 4.9 inches and weighing 4.2 pounds, the Instant Photo Printer is somewhat larger and heavier than most of its competitors, which, among many others, includes the aforementioned HP Sprocket Studio and Canon Selphy CP1300, as well as the HP Sprocket Select, the Kodak Photo Printer Dock, and the Lifeprint 3×4.5. Among these devices, the Selphy, the Sprocket Studio, and the Photo Printer Dock are the most similar. All three are dye-sub printers and store photo paper in detachable trays that extend out from the chassis, rather than within the machine.
The waxy, dry dye-sub ink comes in cartridges that transfer to paper at specific (hot) temperatures. (I’ll get into consumables, paper, and the general economics of using this printer a little further down.) Smaller “pocket” machines, such as the Sprocket Select, the Canon Ivy Mini, and Lifeprint’s photo printers, are based on an inkless technology called Zero Ink (Zink), which embeds little deposits of color into the paper.
Zink photos tend to run smaller than the 4-by-6-inch format used by the Instant Photo Printer and other dye-sub devices. The Sprocket Select, for instance, prints on 2.3-by-3.4-inch Zink media, and both Lifeprint models, the 2×3 Hyperphoto Printer and 3×4.5 Hyperphoto Printer, announce their supported media sizes in their names.
When the Instant Photo Printer is out of service and packed up ready for travel in your backpack or computer bag, its 20-sheet paper tray resides in a recessed area on top of the printer’s chassis. A magnet on the underside of the tray holds it in place.
The ink cartridge slides into a hatch that opens on the right side of the printer. Each cartridge is good for 40 4-by-6-inch prints. You have limited operation options from a sparse control panel on the front of the device, where you’ll find only a Power button and three status LEDs (Power, Service, and Wi-Fi). The machine is optimized for operating from handheld mobile devices and Liene’s mobile app.
On the back of the printer, you’ll find (from left to right) a paper exit slot that facilitates the four-pass printing process, in which the photo travels back and forth over the printhead to pick up three layers of color (cyan, magenta, and yellow, or CMY) and a clear coat that protects the image and helps colors pop on glossy paper. To the right of the slot is a USB 3.0 Type-C port for connecting to a PC, smartphone, or tablet, and next to that is a barrel-style power port. You can power the printer from AC power with the bundled adapter or over USB.
On the right side is the hatch that houses the ink cartridge. This photo also shows the paper tray resting snugly on top of the printer.
Making It Go
The Instant Photo Printer supports both USB and Wi-Fi connections. You can connect up to five computing devices (Android, iOS, macOS, or Windows) directly to the printer itself, or a multitude over a Wi-Fi network.
The Liene Photo Printer app, available for both Android and iOS, lets you edit and enhance your photos, add text and borders, and apply simple filters. You can also print directly from your phone’s photo gallery, or from any app on your computer.
Performance and Image Quality
For these little photo printers, print speed probably shouldn’t top your list of criteria; that four-pass process takes a while. For testing, I connected the Instant Photo Printer to the USB Type-C port on our Intel Core i5 testbed PC running Windows Professional. (I also ran some tests over a wireless connection and got similar results.)
For the most part, the Instant Photo Printer averaged around one 4-by-6-inch print per minute, as did the Canon Selphy. The HP Sprocket Studio averaged 2 minutes 5 seconds. The Zink machines, even though their prints are notably smaller than 4-by-6-inches, typically take longer than their dye-sub counterparts. The HP Sprocket Select, for example, prints 2.3-by-3.4-inch images in 1 minute 16 seconds, and the Lifeprint models took 1 minute 16 seconds (for 2 by 3 inches) and 1 minute 30 seconds (for 3 by 4.5 inches) to print.
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Not only are the larger-format dye-sub models faster than their Zink counterparts, but print quality is also notably better. On prints from the Instant Photo Printer, colors are bright and detail is clear. The premium glossy paper feels and looks much nicer than the thinner and less substantial Zink media. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these photos are up to the quality you would get from five- and six-ink consumer-grade photo printers from Epson or Canon, but for a relatively fast, no-hassle, reasonably priced compact photo printer, print quality is better than acceptable.
Cost Per Photo
As for running costs, among the dye-sub devices discussed here, the Instant Photo Printer’s 42 cents per print sits between the Canon Selphy’s 35 cents per and the HP Sprocket Studio’s 44 cents. The good news is that those numbers include both ink and photo paper.
The smaller Zink models, the HP Sprocket Select and Lifeprint 3×4.5, require only paper, yet their paper packs sell for $0.65 and $1.25 per sheet, respectively. At one time, dye-sub printers were expensive to buy and expensive to use; compared to mainstream inkjet photo printers, that’s still true, but among portable photo printers, dye-sub is the lower-cost option. In any case, $0.42 per photo isn’t bad at all.
No-Frills Quality Photos
The Liene 6×4” Instant Photo Printer is one of those no-nonsense devices that is easy to recommend, if not a standout. It’s easy to set up and use, and it has versatile connectivity options and good print quality. That’s plenty to warrant its place among our current favorite 4-by-6-inch portable photo printers. On the other hand, it’s not notably better than similar and similarly priced competitors, and the Canon Selphy CP1300’s built-in screen gives it the edge to remain our Editors’ Choice.