HP photo printer outsmarts

HP photo printer outsmarts

It's rare to come across a product so well thought out and so perfectly integrated with both Mac and Windows PC that you wonder how you lived without it. HP has done just that with the HP Photosmart Pro B9180, a high-end photo inkjet printer that brings the feature set and print quality of a $2000+ printer to the desktop of any serious digital photographer or graphic artist.

HP has been the dominant presence in the consumer and business printer markets, but it hasn't been as successful in the high-end photo market. Photographers, graphic artists, and imaging specialists want consistent colour, print longevity, efficient ink usage, and support for many different types of papers, and Epson has long been the market leader in this category.

The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 is substantially built, and has a heft and feel that conveys the seriousness of its purpose. The output tray, for example, is made of metal, which is almost unheard of. It is a large unit, however, weighing nearly 18kg.

Setting up the Pro B9180 is a snap - users can be printing 30 minutes after getting it out of the box. The first step is to install the print cartridges and printheads, plug the printer in, let it do its initial calibration, and hook it to the computer directly via a USB cable. Users can optionally use its Ethernet port to plug it into the network.

The printer can handle paper from 3-inch x 5-inch index cards up to 13-inch x 19-inch sheets, and it supports borderless printing for all paper types and sizes.

It has two paper paths - a paper tray that holds about 100 sheets of photo paper or 200 sheets of plain paper, and a manual-feed, straight-through path for handling media types up to 1.5mm thick. The manual feed slot is a simple tray that folds down from the front of the printer, and includes silk-screened guides for aligning the paper.

True colour

The B9180 has two features under the hood that may appeal to photographers and artists who are serious about their printed images: a colour calibrator and pigment-based inks. The most important of the two features is the closed-loop calibration system. This is a simple densitometer built into the printhead mechanism that measures the colour values of a self-printed target. This process takes approximately 15 minutes: as it prints, the densitometer compares the newly printed target with the original colour values, which were stored in the printer at the factory.

If it detects any differences, the printer automatically recalibrates. What this means is that users get predictable, reproducible colour from print to print. Epson has been providing this for years in their high-end photo printers, but this is a first for a printer at this price.

To produce calibrated images, it uses eight pigment inks - cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, light grey, and matte and photo black - each with its own dedicated cartridge. Like most pigment-based printers, the B9180 uses one less ink colour when printing. For papers with glossy and semi-gloss finish, it automatically uses the photo black ink; when printing on non-glossy and fine-art paper, it switches to the matte black ink. Thankfully, users don't have to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges out of the B9180 when changing paper types.

Strong software

HP has supplemented the printer hardware with an excellent suite of printing and maintenance software tools. At the top of the list is a plug-in for printing directly from within Adobe Photoshop.

The plug-in offers a real-time preview of images and lets users choose paper type, colour profi le, print size, borderless options, and more from within a single window. This is the way photo printing should be, and it's a joy to use.

HP also includes an application, HP Printer Utility, that is the dashboard for working with the B9180. The program includes realistic indicators of remaining ink capacity and useful help screens, as well as facilities for cleaning the printheads (which we never needed), printing test pages, and applying the closed-loop calibration test. The HP Printer Utility also lets users install custom paper profi les directly into its driver.

There is also an application for printing photos, HP Photosmart Edit, but, given the printer's target customer base, we think most people will use Photoshop or a similar program to print. One nice feature of HP Photosmart Edit is for converting colour images to greyscale - it offers a set of black-and-white transformations that mimic traditional camera filters.

Print output

HP's efforts wouldn't amount to much if the output wasn't great. The prints we got from the B9180 were the best we've ever seen out of an HP printer. In addition to providing an excellent tonal range, it was extremely hard to see any dots on most prints, and even then they were only visible with certain paper types and under close scrutiny with a loupe.

Its print speeds are good. In our tests a 4-inch x 6-inch photo printed in 1 min 23 sec; an 8-inch x 10-inch in 3 min 11 sec; and a 13-inch x 19-inch print took 6 min 51 sec. All of these times were done in the Best mode, although there is a Maximum DPI setting that wasn't really needed for most of the images we printed; it only took more time and used up additional ink.

Ink use was quite good. It does cost almost a third of the printer's price to fill it with ink, but we were impressed with its efficiency. Our light grey ink ran out after 107 prints of varying size (all letter size or larger), and we were doing quite a bit of monochrome printing. We didn't need to replace any other ink cartridges until after 200 prints ran through, and even then, it was a single ink colour.

This was quite a bit more ink life than we got out of the HP Photosmart Pro B9180's primary competitor, the Epson Stylus Photo R2400, which has smaller ink cartridges, but a slightly lower cost per millilitre of ink.

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