Intelligent design in a big printer

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Lately, I’ve been awash in printers, calibrators, paper, and digital photo gear, most of which are queued up to be written about here in the coming weeks and months. I’ve been playing with some very cool things: the Lensbaby 3G selective-focus camera lens; ColorVision’s PrintFix Pro 2.0 (which I first wrote about from Photo Plus East in October), Epson’s Stylus Professional 3800; and a slew of new third-party papers (as part of a follow-up to the discussion about pigment and dye inks ). These products are all worthy of attention, but while I was setting up a new printer that arrived recently, I was so blown away by a few intelligent design choices made by the manufacturer that it shot straight to the top of my list.

The printer is the Designjet Z3100, one of four new wide-format photo printers from HP (I received the “smaller,” 24-inch version). I was forced to set it up almost immediately after it arrived, largely because the coffin-sized box that it arrived in took up too much room in my garage, and needed to be moved into my office post-haste.

Having unpacked a fair amount of large-format devices over the years, I’m well aware of the nuisance inherent in setting one up. HP’s packaging engineers really thought it through, however, when designing the crate the Z3100 came in. The printer was packed in reverse-order of its setup—the stand was on the top of the box as you opened it, and the printer was stored upside down at the very bottom of the box. You put the stand together, mounted it on the undercarriage of the printer, and simply rotated the printer out of the box, wheeling it to its destination. It took me far less time to get the printer out of the box and to my office than it did to pack up the materials for recycling.

Sensible color calibration
As taken as I was with the Z3100’s set-up, I was even more impressed with the way HP has implemented a key feature—color calibration. Embedded in the print carriage on each of the Z-series printers is a full Eye-One color spectrophotometer from GretagMacbeth/X-Rite. Having spent plenty of hours calibrating alternative papers for different printers, I was intrigued by HP’s approach. I’d hesitate to call the process fun, but it’s a crucial element to anyone serious about color reproduction. Companies like GretagMacbeth/X-Rite, ColorVision, and others have streamlined the process of scanning the hundreds of printed color patches required to build an accurate ICC profile, but the idea of having the printer do it for you automatically is quite ingenious.

After setting the printer up, and running a few basic prints through it with HP’s media (I really did intend only to make sure it worked before getting back to the LensBaby), I decided to give the calibration feature a try. I loaded the Designjet Z3100 with Epson’s Premium Luster photo paper. Then, I launched the HP Printer Utility on my Mac Pro, selected the Create and Install ICC Profile option, and was walked through the 30-minute process of building a profile for a paper that the printer knew nothing about. Immediately after that, I created and installed a profile for Crane’s Museo fine art paper. Within an hour I had two profiles installed on my Mac.

Add custom paper

The process is truly automatic: the Z3100 prints the test charts, keeps the paper within its grip, sucks it back in and the spectrophotometer scans the test patterns. Once that is complete, the Linux-based OS running off the printer’s 40GB hard drive goes through the calculations to build an ICC profile, and sends the profile back to the Mac, installing it not only in its proper directory, but also automatically in the Custom Paper menu in the Print dialog box.

Custom papers added

All that is cool enough, but HP’s engineers also realize that photographers might be using multiple computers to print from. So, when you print from another Mac on your network, the standard Print dialog box lets you know that there are new profiles and paper types on the printer, and walks you through the quick process to synchronize your Mac with the new profiles. That’s intelligent design in action; a little feature that enhances your productivity without getting in the way.

Sync profiles

I don’t intend this to be a wholly qualified endorsement for the printer—I’m still testing it, and have found a few issues here and there that need to be resolved before the final review—but I can tell you that nearly all the prints I have made with the Z3100 have been drop-dead gorgeous. With 12 inks, including multiple gray inks for enhanced-range black and white printing, and the capability to add papers seamlessly on the fly, the Designjet Z3100 sits very nicely in the competitive landscape alongside Canon and Epson. Based on my early results, this is a printer to be reckoned with if you are a professional photographer or printer looking to print big.

Now, back to the pile…

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