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Hewlett-Packard's Photosmart printer first to do a creditable job

WATCHING the 8- by 10-inch print emerge from the new color printer brought back memories of seeing my first photo magically spring to life in a darkroom's developer tray.

Now, for the first time in my experience, a picture was coming out of a computer printer looking for all the world like a traditional photograph.

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The printer in question is the Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Photosmart model, a $500 unit designed to do one thing well: print photographs on paper.

It does work decently with text, but units half the price do every bit as good a job.

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Most can also print envelopes, handle papers longer than letter size and hold more than 20 sheets; the Photosmart does not. And it works only with Windows 95.

But it does print photos very well indeed. Wallet-size pictures scanned in from negatives or slides and printed on special 4- by 6-inch glossy paper are virtually indistinguishable from the ones you get from photo finishers.

Sometimes they even look better, because you can use software to enhance and control the image.

With good source material, even 8- by 10-inch glossies look sharp and clear, with rich, sumptuous colors.

Like most of its so-called "photo quality" predecessors, the Photosmart uses a six-color process to improve the appearance of continuous tones.

The modest occasional stippling that remains seems far less objectionable than it was with the earlier models, in part because the photo effect makes you tend to take the dots for photographic grain rather than artifacts of computerization.

The unit cannot make prints without borders; it leaves an old-fashioned white border around the edges.

Figuring both paper and ink, the company estimates that a 4-by-6 print should cost a bit over 70 cents (significantly more than standard prints), an 8-by-10 around $2 (significantly less).

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The glossy paper I tried has the heft of photographic paper and even has "watermarks" on the back; similar-quality matte paper should be available by fall.

Hewlett-Packard says that prints can be displayed in daylight for about three years without noticeable fading, compared with about seven years for traditional photos, but adds that with dark storage, as in an album, the shelf life should approach that of standard prints. But do not get these prints wet; the ink will run.

The paper is part of the system. The printer does work with cheaper papers, but the images are nowhere nearly as good, in part because the software drivers are specifically designed only for plain paper and a few, but not all, of Hewlett-Packard's more expensive papers.

Unfortunately, significant color shifts keep plain-paper output from being much good for proofing photo-paper prints.

From the time you push the application's "print" button to the time a finished 8-by-10 photo appears takes roughly 8 minutes.

But a print emerges quite wet, so the printer must allow 10 minutes more for drying time before beginning another.

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To hurry things along, you can remove each print yourself and click an on-screen button to tell the printer that you did.

Each time you print, the software asks you what sort of paper you plan to use.

You can turn off the nagging, but I found it a useful money-saving reminder in a world where fancy paper costs nearly a dollar a page.

The printer is big and boxy, occupying a square of desk space roughly 1 1/2 feet on each side, not counting an output tray that sticks out the front.

You can set a smaller inkjet printer on the not-quite-flat top, but doing so will cover a hatch you need to open if paper jams inside the Photosmart.

If you do run the Photosmart as an auxiliary printer, consider the complexities of hooking up two printers at once. You can install a second printer port, but a switch box is probably a better answer.

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In a welcome break with industry tradition, the Photosmart printer comes with a cable of its own.

Less welcome is the fact that the printer software gobbles 80 to 120 megabytes of your hard disk, not counting the bulky Microsoft Picture-It photo editing software that comes in the box. When working with digital images, it seems, no computer is ever fast or capacious enough.

Pub Date: 5/12/97


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