First Look: HP Designjet Z3200 Photo printer

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from Printerville, a Web site that provides information about photo printers and papers.

At Photokina in Germany Tuesday, HP announced the Designjet Z3200 Photo, a wide-format inkjet printer for professional photographers and designers, with a new ink formulation, speed and paper-handling improvements and other enhancements over previous models.

The Z3200 is the successor to HP’s Designjet Z3100 Photo, which, when it first shipped late in 2006, was one of the most innovative photo printers we had seen in a long time. The Z3100 utilized 12 pigment-based inks (including a gloss optimizer) to produce high-quality, gallery-ready prints, but it was the printer’s embedded spectrophotometer (from X-Rite) and seamless integration with networked Macs and PCs that set it apart from competitors like Epson and Canon. HP spent considerable effort streamlining the process of printing: everything from unboxing the device to profiling and adding new paper types had been thought through by HP’s hardware and software engineers. The result was a printer that created top-quality prints and was a joy to use, day in and day out.

We’ve had a production version of the 24-inch PostScript model, the Z3200ps, for about three weeks, and have tested it fairly thoroughly with a variety of papers and applications. Overall, we’re very impressed with the printer’s performance: HP is obviously determined to keep the pressure on Epson—the market leader—in the pro photo space. As was the case with the Z3100, we think that the Z3200 should be looked at by anyone seriously evaluating a wide-format device to create salable prints.

Seeing Red

The HPDesignJet Z3200 Photo printer comes in 24- and 44-inch models.

Not wanting to make too many changes in an already solid product, HP kept most of the Z3100’s feature set when designing the Z3200, keeping (for the most part) the 12-ink Vivera inkset, the same paper-handling options, spectrophotometer, and on-board OS. Most of the Z3200’s enhancements are inside the printer. In fact, aside from the nameplate on the front of the printer, you would be hard-pressed to find a cosmetic difference with the Z3100. The biggest change is in the ink: to expand the printer’s color gamut, HP has swapped out the red ink found in the Z3100, replacing it with a newly formulated red ink, called Chromatic Red. According to HP, this new ink significantly widens the printable gamut, producing much richer color that is more true to life.

For designers, the ink change is also important. With the Z3200ps, the model with Adobe PostScript 3 built-in, HP claims that it can reproduce nearly 95 percent of the Pantone color library, and the printer includes a number of features for dealing with Pantone spot colors in layouts, as well as a utility for creating Pantone swatch books directly from the printer’s front panel.

In our comparison testing, the Z3200’s output was very similar to that of the Z3100; the reds were definitely more pronounced with some images, while other prints showed little differentiation. This isn’t surprising; we are now in an age where the generational changes in print quality are truly incremental. Prints made with desktop inkjets are of such high quality that the average consumer is more than satisfied. Professionals, however, continue to look for even the smallest improvements that will realize their artistic vision, and changes like those in the Z3200 ink set are the things that they’re looking for.

To us, the ink change in the Z3200 mirrors Epson’s change to the Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta inks last year. As was the case with HP, Epson claimed that the two new inks increased the color gamut of their Stylus Pro printers, but they also admitted that many customers wouldn’t be able to detect the changes between the old inks. We’ve seen a number of test prints from the Stylus Pro 7880 that show similar sorts of improvements in color rendition and fidelity to those we’ve seen in the Z3200.

Other improvements

While HP hasn’t done much to the paper-handling features with the Z3200, it has made some small usability enhancements throughout. Loading cut sheet media is a bit easier than before, thanks to some adjustments to the feeder. (We do wish, however, that HP would add a paper guide for feeding sheets.) And, when creating paper profiles with the integrated spectrophotometer, among the parameters you can now set is the height of the “starwheels” that hold the paper in place while the printhead is laying down ink. This is another intelligent solution to a problem that can come up when you’re using thick fine-art papers.

Speedwise, the Z3200 was significantly faster than its predecessor in our testing, showing more than 20 percent faster print speeds at times. For example, a 24-by-36-inch image took only 16 minutes to print on the Z3200, while the same image took more than 22 minutes on the Z3100. For high-production shops, this alone will help sell the Z3200.

The whole process of adding a new paper type to the Z3200 print driver is (thankfully) identical to that of the Z3100. You simply put the paper in the printer, and, via the HP Print Center utility, tell the device to print and scan calibration and profiling charts. Depending upon how much time you want to wait for paper drying times, you can be up and printing with your new paper in as little as 30 minutes (we generally dry our papers overnight and profile them the following day). In the Z3200, HP has added the capability to export paper presets, which include hardware settings, profiles, gloss enhancer settings and more.

HP is also announcing new media types with the Z3200, including a fiber-based paper called HP Baryte Satin Art Paper, and two lower-priced photo papers, HP Everyday Pigment Gloss and Everyday Pigment Semigloss. The Baryte paper is especially nice, and initially will be available only in roll format. (It reminded us of Canon’s Polished Rag—another of our favorite fiber papers—in feel and weight.)

How will it play?

As we’ve indicated, the Designjet Z3200 is more of an incremental upgrade than a ground-breaking new model, but that’s not a bad thing. HP is playing the game the way that it needs to be played. With Epson’s well-deserved hegemony at the top of the pro-printer market, HP has to continue to innovate and make substantive changes to be perceived as a true competitor, and we think that the Z3200 does just that.

The Z3200 has some strong attributes that should appeal to the pro photographer, but its best attribute is its print quality, which—for both color and black and white images—rival those made by Epson’s Stylus Pro wide format printers. When you add the advanced paper-profiling and usability features, the Z3200 becomes a very compelling printer for this key market segment.

While we think HP has the goods, it still needs to execute, and, in the U.S. at least, it’s been a tough road for the company. In addition to Epson’s well-earned reputation for products, Epson is firmly entrenched in the professional photo retail channel, and has a much greater mindshare among professional photographers and artists than HP and Canon combined.

In the coming months, we expect that Epson will make a U.S. announcement of the Stylus Pro x900 series, which include the Vivid Magenta inks, a 9-channel printhead that eliminates the matte- and photo-black ink swapping, printhead improvements and—like HP—an optional spectrophotometer. Given Epson’s position in the market, we have high expectations for those models, and HP needs to use any lead time it has to push the Z3200 hard in the market.

As we repeatedly say, competition and change is a very good thing, especially at the high end of the market. As print quality becomes less and less the differentiator between products, other factors—usability, price, ink efficiency, and so on—enter into the equation, which help drive innovation. And, as innovation sticks, key features move on down the line to the consumer space, where an even greater group benefits.

The Designjet Z3200 will ship in October, priced at $3,395 for a 24-inch model ($4,695 with Adobe PostScript 3) and $5,595 for a 44-inch model ($6,795 with PostScript).

Updated at 9:45 a.m. PT to add images of the HP Designjet Z3200.
Updated at 1:21 p.m. PT to add the now-live link to HP’s product page.

[Former Macworld editor-at-large Rick LePage runs the photo printer site Printerville.]

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