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It’s a rare event when a company comes out of the blue with a product that is so well thought out and so perfectly integrated with the Mac that you wonder how you lived without it. Hewlett-Packard has done just that with the Photosmart Pro B9180, a $700 photo inkjet printer that brings the feature set and print quality of $2,000 printers 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, which has more demanding users. Photographers, graphic artists, and imaging specialists want consistent color, print longevity, efficient ink usage, and support for many different types of papers, and Epson has long been the market leader in this category.
This year, however, Canon and HP have each decided to make a run at Epson’s dominance. Canon has focused on the higher end, with its imagePROGRAF iPF5000 ( ), a $2,195, 12-ink printer that is targeting Epson’s Stylus Pro 4800. HP has chosen to compete on multiple levels, releasing three printers: the entry-level B9180, which goes head-to-head against Epson’s $850 Stylus Photo R2400, and two wide-format printers, the Designjet Z2100 and Z3100 photo printers, which are comparable with Epson offerings.
Built to print
The 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 in this age of flimsy plastic designs. It is a large unit, however, weighing nearly 40 pounds; while printing, it can shake a less-than-sturdy table or stand.
Setting it up is a snap—you can be printing 30 minutes after getting it out of the box. You install the print cartridges and print heads, plug the printer in, let it do its initial calibration, and hook it to your Mac directly via a USB cable. You can optionally use the B9180’s Ethernet port to plug it into your network and select it via Bonjour in the Print Setup utility.
The printer can handle paper from 3-by-5-inch index cards up to 13-by-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.
The B9180 has two features under the hood that will appeal to photographers and artists who are serious about their printed images: a color calibrator and pigment-based inks.
The most important of the two features is the printer’s closed-loop calibration system. This is a simple densitometer built into the printhead mechanism that measures the color 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 color values, which were stored in the printer at the factory. If it detects any differences, the printer automatically recalibrates. What this means is that you’ll get predictable, reproducible color 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 under $1,000.
To produce those calibrated images, the Photosmart Pro B9180 utilizes eight pigment inks—cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, light gray, and matte and photo black—each with its own dedicated cartridge. Like most pigment-based printers, the B9180 uses one less ink color when printing. For papers with glossy and semi-gloss finish, the B9180 automatically uses the photo black ink; when printing on non-glossy and fine-art paper, it switches to the matte black ink. Thankfully, you don’t have to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges out of the B9180 when you change paper types; doing so wastes valuable ink.
HP has supplemented the B9180 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 your image and lets you choose paper type, color profile, print size, borderless options, and more from within a single window. (Canon offers a similar plug-in with the imagePROGRAF iPF5000, but HP’s is easier to use.) This is the way photo printing should be, and it’s a joy to use.
In addition to the plug-in, HP includes an application, HP Printer Utility, that is the dashboard for interacting with the printer. 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 you install custom paper profiles directly into the driver. While being able to use custom color profiles for a specific paper type is nothing new, HP takes most of the mystery out of it and makes it easy, letting you add your new profile directly to the paper-type menu.
There is also an application for printing photos, HP Photosmart Edit, but, given the B9180’s target audience, we think most people will be using Photoshop ( ), Aperture ( ), or iPhoto ( ) to print. One nice feature of the program, however, is for converting color images to grayscale—it offers a set of black-and-white transformations that mimic traditional camera filters. Photoshop’s Channel Mixer has a much more sophisticated set of tools for this process, but we got good results with Photosmart Edit.
HP’s manual is very instructive in helping you get the best out of the printer, discussing profiles, print types, and how to use the print driver’s built-in color features as opposed to using Photoshop’s color features. Anyone new to pigment-ink printers or looking to expand their Photoshop printing knowledge will find the manual very helpful.
How’s the output?
HP’s efforts wouldn’t amount to much if the output wasn’t great, and here the company succeeds. The prints we got from the Photosmart Pro 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. And for photographers interested in black-and-white images, the B9180’s prints were neutral in appearance, without any evidence of metameric failure (color casts visible under different lighting conditions).
When comparing color and black-and-white prints from the B9180, imagePROGRAF iPF5000, Stylus Photo R2400, and Stylus Pro 4800, it was hard for most observers to tell the difference between the prints. When pressed, we think Epson has a slight edge in print quality and color fidelity over both HP and Canon, but this is a subjective judgment, and the reality is that you can get a great print out of any one of these newer printers.
Performance and ink efficiency
The B9180’s print speeds were comparable to those of Epson and Canon under similar conditions. A 4-by-6-inch image printed in 1 minute, 23 seconds; an 8-by-10 inch in 3 minutes, 11 seconds; and a 13-by-19-inch print took 6 minutes, 51 seconds to come out of the printer. 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 usage was quite good. At approximately $32 per ink cartridge, it costs almost a third of the printer’s price to fill it with ink, but that said, we were very impressed with the efficiency of the B9180. Our light gray 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 the printer, and even then, it was a single ink color. At 240 prints, we had replaced four of the eight inks, and one of them was the light gray ink again. This was quite a bit more ink life than we got out of the B9180’s primary competitor, the Stylus Photo R2400, which has smaller ink cartridges, but a slightly lower cost per milliliter of ink.
Macworld’s buying advice
Try as we might, we couldn’t come up with any significant defects in the Photosmart Pro B9180. The only thing we didn’t like is how the printer can sometimes crimp one end of very thick paper when fed through the manual-feed slot. While we think there are definite reasons for purchasing some of the higher-priced Epson and Canon printers—roll support, larger paper sizes, higher-production print runs—the B9180 sits at an amazing price point for what you get. Combine the great print quality with any two of its standout features—closed-loop calibration, sturdy construction, smartly designed software, broad media support, efficient ink life, archival print quality—and you’d have a very good printer, indeed. But when you wrap them all up into the package that is the B9180, you have a great professional-quality photo printer that’s priced under $1,000.
[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor-at-large. ]HP Photosmart Pro B9180The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 comes with a Photoshop plug-in that lets you set printing parameters, including paper size, paper type, and color profile, without having to go through the Page Setup and Print dialog boxes.The HP Printer Utility contains a mechanism for easily adding custom paper types and their ICC profiles.HP’s Photosmart Edit application has a nice black-and-white conversion tool that mimics traditional camera filters.The HP Printer Utility, part of the bundled software that comes with the B9180, includes visual gauges for the ink cartridges in the printer.