The Good: Uniquely styled printer produces rich, clear photo prints right from your digital camera
The Bad: Pricey prints; printer cable not included, so connecting to a PC will cost extra
The Bottom Line: If you're armed with the right ink and paper, printing vivid snapshots is a breeze
So many digital snapshots, so few to stick to the fridge. Many consumers still print only a fraction of their digital images (BusinessWeek.com, 6/9/08), largely because of the hassle and iffy quality of photos from a home computer and printer. The Digital Age has made it elementary to take scads of high-quality photos, yet done so little to help us print them off.
But things are changing.
Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) $200 Photosmart A826 printer yields some of the best reproductions of digital photos I've seen, and its touchscreen operation lets users take the PC out of the equation entirely if they choose. The egg-shaped device, meant to look as comfortable in a kitchen as an office, produces clear, bright, richly colored photos. Users control the printer by touching a finger or stylus to its screen to print or add special effects, and it worked nearly flawlessly. A series of sockets on the printer's face makes plugging in a camera or sliding in a memory card a breeze.
The A826 is the first I've tested for a new review series of stylish and feature-packed printers for homes and small offices. I have a few quibbles, including dismay over the need to buy a separate cable to hook the printer up to my PC, and the crash that froze the touchscreen the first time I tried printing from a camera's memory card. But I'd recommend the product for parents, grandparents, and other consumers who want a convenient way to jazz up and print out family snapshots or vacation mementos.
Style and Ease
HP designed the A826 to sit on a kitchen counter or in another part of the house where a PC doesn't usually reside, and for the most part, it's up to the job. The squat device is just 10.5-in. wide and nearly 11-in. tall, and weighs about 5.5 lb. Still, flipping down a front panel that has to be open during printing means you'll need an additional 14 in. of counter space.
Scrolling through functions is straightforward. You switch the printer on with a button on the side, and control the action by touching a finger or the printer's stylus (or even the butt end of a pen) to the printer's 7-in. diagonal screen. Slots in front let users print right from a camera or memory card without bringing a PC into the mix. That alone could nix a lot of the headaches that often lead to pictures sitting unprinted inside consumers' cameras. Leaving a memory card in the slot also prompts the printer to display a slide show of your photos on its screen.
The Photosmart's style would make it a welcome addition to most homes. Done up in a color scheme of light blue and white, it looks like a cross between a robin's egg and a 1990s vintage iMac, reflecting HP's renewed emphasis on stylish products. Flipping up the white panel in front hides the guts—ink cartridge door, memory card slots, and the paper feed—when the printer isn't being used. Printing photos took a minute or two in my tests, depending on size and resolution.
Setting the printer takes just a few minutes. I plugged it in, opened the front panel, popped in an ink cartridge, and loaded some glossy 5x7-in. photo paper under a door on top. The A826 comes with an "introductory" ink cartridge HP says can print about 10 to 20 5x7's (I got 14) and a few sheets of 5x7 photo paper. After that, you'll need to buy your own supplies.
The Photosmart lets users print photos in three ways: directly from a camera, through a memory card that plugs into the printer, or by way of a PC. Each has its rewards and drawbacks. In my first test, I connected an 8-megapixel HP touchscreen camera to the A826, then used the camera's screen to select photos to print. The results looked great, but I didn't have much control over them.
Printing from a PC can be hit or miss until you figure out a few tricks. For one, HP doesn't include a USB printer cable in the box, though the set-up software prompts users to attach one. So add $15 to $20 for a cable if you want to print this way. It's also best to print using Windows' photo-printing tool, which you can access by right-clicking on a photo's icon, or double-clicking on it to preview the shot. That provides finer control over the layout and borders of digital photos when they're printed; I found simply dragging and dropping pictures from my PC desktop to the A826's icon produced lopsided borders on my photos.
I had greatest success printing from a memory card, which furnishes full access to the printer's built-in special effects, such as adding themed frames, clip art, typed-in captions, or freehand writing or drawing to photos. Granted, the first time I inserted my camera's memory card into a slot on the printer's face, the printer went awry and returned a blue screen with an error code that required me to reboot it. But that was the only technical problem I encountered in three days of testing.
A Couple Shortcomings
As convenient as it may be to edit and print photos from home, especially on a printer as user-friendly as the A826, I still question the economics. HP's glossy 4x6-in. photo paper costs $15 for 60 sheets, and a replacement ink cartridge, good for about 55 4x6-in. photos, according to HP, costs $20. So you're looking at paying about 60¢ a print, not including the up-front cost of the printer. The corner Walgreens (WAG) will charge you 12¢ to 19¢ a print, while HP's own Snapfish site charges 9¢ per 4x6 photo. Buying packages of HP ink and paper together would lower the cost of printing at home, HP says.
There are other small problems with this printer. It doesn't print true blacks—instead forging them by mixing three colors. That would probably disqualify it for anyone doing even serious amateur photography. I also found it easy to lose track of the stylus, and the printer's on-screen instructions should make it clearer which way to load the expensive photo paper, so users don't waste it, as I did, by initially printing on the wrong side.
Those are nits though. Overall, the Photosmart A826 is fun to use, and affordable at $200. That's twice as much as a general purpose HP inkjet costs, but for anyone who prints even a fair amount of photos at home—or is looking to stop making drugstore runs or waiting for mail-order prints, the results could soon offset the difference. That could help get a lot of snapshots out of computer memory and onto refrigerator doors.