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September 23, 2006

HP: We can do photos too!

So HP has gotten serious about the photographic printing market, and has thrown their hat into the ring (for real this time) with the HP PhotoSmart Pro B9180. I ordered print samples as soon as they became available. They arrived today. And, despite the number of people with pre-release B9180s claiming their Epsons are now collecting dust, I'll be buying an Epson over an HP based on the samples. In my opinion, Epson's 4-year-old original UltraChrome ink technology surpasses HP's brand new ink technology. Why? Here we go. **Image 1: Mother and child. Black-and-white. Matte canvas.** HP undeniably has nailed subtlety and transitions in black-and-white printing. It's an area that's long been a shortcoming with inkjet photographic prints, and they're bringing it. That said, their black has issues. It's not very permanent; it rubs off fairly easily (it is, after all, a heavily carbon pigment), smudging into areas around it. This is not a problem with the colored inks, such as the magenta and blue HP uses for the ad copy. And in the blackest of the blacks on this sample, the image takes on a ever-so-slightly different sheen that may catch some people's attention. The canvas' coating also has the delectable aroma of latex paint, which may affect some people's desire to use it. **Image 2: Phone booth along forest road. Color. Glossy.** Pretty typical for a glossy inkjet print. Exhibits gloss differential—that is, a rather obvious difference in "dimension" between inked and white or light areas. Bronzing, on the other hand, seems to be dealt with well (there is none that I can see). HP's glossy paper is also probably the single most fragile glossy paper I've ever seen. Handled very carefully, it has probably a dozen creases in it now (and it was pristine when I pulled it from the packaging). **Image 3: Pagoda. Color. Aquarelle (Watercolor).** The black comes back for a second bad showing here. Remember how I said there was something just barely off on the black-and-white? It's back with a vengeance when you dare to combine colors and anything approaching black in one image. Black areas recede into the paper; the colors they are interlaced and intermingled with leap forward off the page. The blacks in this matte print as much flatter than everything else, which results in a weird disconnect between the shadows and everything else. And again, as with the other matte paper (canvas), the blacks readily transfer to other portions of the image while the colors stay put on the paper. I have not had identical problems with black smudging on prints from an Epson Stylus Photo 2200. (In fact, I just sat here with two prints and tried to reproduce it.) On the other side of things, the 2200 can't produce black-and-whites of the quality the B9180 can out of the box (the newer R2400, on the other hand...). None of this is to say that the B9180 isn't an improvement. Over past HP printers, it is. I have print samples from the last generation of HP's professional photo printers, and they were miserable. But all the hullaballoo that Epson suddenly has two serious competitors in Canon and HP is a little generous at this point. Beyond that, Epson is still the de facto standard at this point and all your third-party papers and inks are designed or profiled for Epson printers. You can't, for example, go buy a roll of Moab paper for your HP—both because HP decided nobody wanted roll paper support in a $700 printer and because all of Moab's current ICC profiles are for the Epson printers everybody uses today.

Posted by Colin at September 23, 2006 12:24 PM

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