The words "early adopter" tend to conjure up images of 3-D televisions and high-end graphics cards, not printers. And yet this was the precise phrase used by the Lexmark representative I spoke with when I inquired about the target demographic for the $399 Genesis S815, a new all-in-one printer the American company is planning to release in Canada come February. What's more, he was right to invoke it.
The Genesis is a different species of printer. For starters, it's oriented vertically and sports an intuitive touch screen interface not unlike that of today's smartphones. The upshot is that it requires up to 40 per cent less desk space (that's according to Lexmark - it was about an inch smaller on all sides compared to the bulky Canon printer I use at home).
But this unusual, space-saving orientation doesn't seem to be one of Genesis' chief missions so much as a consequence of its primary innovation: Flash scan technology.
Traditional desktop scanners employ a bar of light that moves along the body of a document capturing optical data bit by bit. Scanning times for a letter-sized document typically range between 15 and 45 seconds. The Genesis eschews this aging technology for a 10-megapixel image sensor. In other words, it's basically a camera designed to take pictures of documents. And, like any camera, it captures images almost instantly. It can grab an image of a business card-sized document just as quickly as it can a full 8.5-by-11-inch photo - no more than three seconds, including processing time. In fact, when you close the lid with a document inside, the Genesis automatically captures a preview of the document which - assuming you choose not to alter any settings - will end up being the final scanned image. Hence, why Lexmark is advertising the Genesis as the world's first "now-in-one" printer.
Why does flash scan technology require vertical orientation? It doesn't, but vertical makes the most sense. The larger the document, the further back the image sensor needs to be in order to capture its full dimensions. Lexmark's engineers have come up with a clever mirror system that roughly halves the distance required, but a good deal of space is still needed. When you pull down the front panel and look through the scanner glass you can see a hollow space that stretches back several centimetres. Clearly, this space can't be occupied by paper rollers and ink cartridges, which means it has to sit atop the rest of the printer assembly. Hence, the opportunity for vertical orientation.
As with most technological innovations, the benefits of flash scanning come with a price. Ten-megapixel image sensing equates to about 300 dots-per-inch (DPI), according to the Lexmark spokesman with whom I chatted. By comparison, even cheap home scanners offer 600 DPI. Fancier models deliver even higher resolutions.
Of course, 300 DPI is fine for the vast majority of common scanning tasks. I personally never go beyond this resolution when scanning business documents, and it's sufficient for scanning a photo to post online. However, I tried scanning and then printing a few family snapshots, and the results were noticeably inferior to what I was able to achieve with my traditional flatbed scanner. Digital artifacts were evident and I was unable to maintain crispness and clarity at larger sizes.
On the flip side, flash scanning can actually deliver better results in a few select circumstances, such as when a greater level of scanning depth is required. Try scanning a thick magazine or book and the valley between pages that leads down to the spine will appear as a dark hole. Text caught in this space melts into blackness. The Genesis, on the other hand, captures full detail in these crevices.
Look beyond the flash scanning technology and the Genesis starts to become a more traditional all-in-one. It offers lots of little perks - including duplex printing, wireless networking for multiple PC environments, and PictBridge for printing directly from cameras - and speedily prints documents and pictures of average quality using a simple three-colour-plus-black ink cartridge system.
It functions as a copier and fax machine as well, but keep in mind that each sheet must be loaded manually when working with multiple page documents. The process is simple - flash scanning means you need not wait long between each scan - but people who have grown used to setting a pile of documents in their fax machines and walking away might see this as a step backward.
In keeping with current trends in the world of printers, the Genesis also has its own set of custom apps, found in the SmartSolutions menu in the printer's firmware. Preloaded apps make it easy to scan an image directly to e-mail or online services like Evernote, and scores more are available for download. You can even create your own saved shortcuts for common tasks. Plus, it can connect directly to specific devices. Lexmark's free LexPrint app for iPad makes it possible to print web pages, photos, e-mails, and attachments directly from Apple's tablet.
The Genesis might offer much of the same functionality as other all-in-one printers, but Lexmark is justified in categorizing it as an early adopter product. It's got an innovative differentiator in the form of flash scan technology, which leads to significant benefits - almost instantaneous scans - as well as a couple of disadvantages, including lower DPI and manual document loading. With some engineering tweaks and a little support from bleeding-edge technology enthusiasts, future Geneses could become popular, mainstream printers.