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HP B8550 --
Bring It On Home

miniphotokina-logo.jpg By MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter

Review Date: September 2008

We are not fans of the 4x6 print. A card full of images and a 4x6 printer make us wish we had a lawn to mow. You know, get out in the sunshine and get some exercise. Making a stack of 4x6 prints strikes us a drudgery.


The Big Home Printer

Design Tradeoffs




Unboxing the B8550 Gallery

In fact, we almost never do it (we have this thing about drudgery). If we want to see photos from our latest event, we just run a slide show on our laptop. If other people want to see them, we put them on the Apple TV. If they aren't here, we send them a CD so they can run their own slide show.

But we do make prints. Lots of prints, in fact. We have a big fat stack of them in the corner of the bunker. And on special occasions, we even frame one to give it away.

But they're all 13x19 inch prints.

OK, so we have a 13x19 inch ego instead of a 4x6 ego, but really, how many of your images are really so cool they deserve wall space? Isn't the 4x6 thing a throwback to the Instant Print Age?

And look around your place right now (this goes for your office, too). What's on your walls? Some decorator print from Target? A handful of 8x10 oak frames? Nothing at all?

We've got a cure for that.

THE BIG HOME PRINTER | Back to Contents

HP had a bright idea one day. There's really nothing different about a big printer except the carriage length. Everything in a big printer has to be in a small 4x6 printer, too: the printhead, the inks, the firmware, the control panel, maybe a card reader, the inputs, the whole ball of wax.

Attractive. We didn't notice at first, unboxing the printer, but when we finally had it set up, we really liked the design. The chiseled edges and the wrap-around recessed area are unusually bold moves.

It's just that the printer that can do 13x19 inch prints has to be able to feed 13-inch wide paper, not just 8.5 inch paper. How big of a deal is that.

Not too big, HP thought.

All you have to do is overcome a few prejudices against big printing. Like the one about printing everything you shoot as a 4x6. Or being happy with just a 4x6. Or that a big printer won't fit anywhere. Or thinking homework is always going to work at letter size. Or thinking it's just too expensive to make anything larger than an 8x10. Especially if you want to frame it.

All of those statements are false, as readers of the Imaging Resource Newsletter know. We've discussed 13x19 printing and framing for years now, with lots of tips on how to do it right and inexpensively.

But even wiping away all the misconceptions isn't quite the same thing as whipping up a little enthusiasm. For that you have to see it for yourself.

Which is what happened to us. The minute we saw our vacation landscape as a 13x19 print, we cleared the table and installed a big printer.

Today's digital cameras can all deliver enough resolution for a 13x19 print (which fits nicely in a 20x25 inch matted frame) and when you see one, you'll go nuts. You won't want to print everything that size, of course, but you'll be able to cover your walls with images that mean something to you -- and that look great.

With the B8550, HP has engineered the smallest 13x19 inch printer we've seen, cutting just the right corners to keep the cost a penny below $300 (but watch for deals) and providing a surprising number of features at the same time.

Let's take a look.

DESIGN TRADEOFFS | Back to Contents

When we say the B8500 is small we don't mean it will fit in a corner of your kitchen. We mean it takes up a little space at the end of your table instead of the whole table.

Take a look at our Unboxing the B8550 gallery to see how it fits on a typing table and at the end of one of our work tables.

Trays. Fully extending the output tray on top, you can see how it angles back down into the printer. Below it is a photo tray (4x6 and 5x7) and under that is the main tray (up to 13-inches wide). You can see a 13x19 sheet resting in the pull-out drawer.

And despite its light weight (compared to other 13x19 printers) and small size (roughly 23x7x15), it doesn't rock the room when the printhead bangs back and forth. It's rather well behaved, in fact. And yet, it prints pretty quickly too. Fast, in fact. It can print 30 color letter-sized pages in a minute, perfect for that school project you just heard about 10 minutes before everybody piles into the car.

Inks. It uses three color dye Vivera inks -- magenta, yellow and cyan -- plus a photo black that's a dye not a pigment. And it additionally has a big black cartridge for text that's pigment (there goes your carbon footprint).

We're at that stage of life where the difference in how many years it takes dyes to fade versus pigments is of no consequence. There are issues (exposure to the sun, cheap paper, etc.) but you can put these on the refrigerator until the kids go to college.

No, three color inks is not a high-fidelity ink set. If that matters to you, look at the HP B8850, which has eight pigment-based inks, prints 13x19 and costs $549. The ink set is a corner that can be cut.

Card Reader. What can't be cut is conveniences like the built-in card reader with three card slots. It can handle Compact Flash, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Duo, Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital High Capacity Card and xD-Picture Card formats.

And, if our experience is any guide, the card reader also works like any USB card reader attached to your computer. You don't need both. You can transfer your images through the printer to your computer.

LCD. The color LCD is pretty small with tiny type so this isn't something a grandparent will enjoy using. It's main function is really to navigate any card you insert into the printer. For most other interaction with the computer, the driver lets you know what you need to know.

Fully Extended. That's as big as it has to get. Nothing extends behind the printer, though.

But there is a lot of help available on the LCD (just press the ? button) and the Tools menu lets you see how your ink levels are holding up. You can also print school paper from the LCD menu (blue-lined papers of all sorts).

Ports. And to connect to your computer, there's a USB 2.0 Hi-Speed port (the fastest USB available right now). HP didn't cut a corner on the USB port but it did cut a corner on connectivity. No WiFi. We're seeing more and more printers (particularly all-in-ones) include WiFi on the theory that if they can get that one WiFi printer into your home, you won't need anything else for anybody. They whole family can use it (and you'll be buying ink like milk every week).

It isn't quite the same thing but the B8550 will support Bluetooth through its PictBridge port with a Bluetooth dongle. We used our trusty D-Link dongle (rather than a proprietary one) and it worked just fine. That limits wireless printing to the room you're in instead of the whole house, but that (or HP's WiFi kit) is something to think about, especially if you like printing small prints from your cell phone.

And even more especially if you don't have a spare USB cable laying around because HP doesn't spring for one.

Paper Trays. In the unboxing gallery, we called the paper trays archeological because they are layered on top of one another. At the very bottom is a drawer that supports the rear end of any big sheets (13x19) you load in the tray above it, which alternately houses lettersize sheets. That 13-inch wide media, by the way, can go well beyond 19 inches in length to 44 inches. On top of the lettersize tray is the output tray, which extends in several parts to catch those big sheets.

Like other recent HP printers, the B8550 uses HP's Auto Sense technology to identify photo papers from the bar code on the back, automatically adjusting print quality settings so you don't have to fiddle with them.

Worth noting is that the sheets are all loaded upside down but in the photo tray you should load tabbed sheets with the tab at the rear.

Also worth noting is a little engineering detail. We put a level on the top of the printer to confirm our installation was level (well, not really but). Then we moved the level to the paper trays. They are not level, let's say. They point down toward the printer. We're not sure if this is an efficiency for feeding the paper into the printer or a way to keep the output from sliding away onto the floor, but it seems like a good idea to us.

Extras. HP includes ArcSoft Print Creations software for Windows, which includes a lot of templates for things like calendars, greeting cards and album pages. Mac users have iPhoto, we suppose, although like Windows users, you also get HP Photosmart Create (plus Print, Share, Stitch and Studio), which includes templates for all that plus iron-ons and banners.

We'll refer you to HP's site for the full specifications for the B8550.

PERFORMANCE | Back to Contents

So how does this inexpensive big home printer actually perform?

Well, we had a few little glitches getting going. For some reason, the printer wanted to realign the cartridges again the second time we started it up. And the Bluetooth connection (which reported itself as an A620 at first) couldn't quite handle the data for a 13x19 image (although it did just fine with lettersize images).

An Enlargement. Here you can see the 13x19 enlargement coming out of the printer over the 5x7 original. No comparison.

We also ran the photo black cartridge dry after just two 13x19 and one lettersize print. That's too fast and deserves some investigation. The lettersize image was mostly black and took longer to print than the 13x19, so that's a clue. With just the three colors, black plays an important role in balancing the color. But that's a bit much.

In a regular review, we'd investigate those things more thoroughly. But we just made another cup of coffee and pressed on.

The way we pressed on was to scan a 5x7 family photo taken over the summer. We used the Microtek M1 scanner and Photoshop CS4 to acquire the image and we used Nik Output Sharpener 3.0 (which immediately won us over for its slick interface and extensive options including U Points for creative sharpening) to help the greatly enlarged image.

Seven minutes later we had a gorgeous 13x19 print of the family. Did we say gorgeous? Enough times?

The beautiful thing about it is that you really have to squint to see everyone's face in the 5x7. And some of these characters have small heads, being children still. But blown up to 13x19, they are close enough to yell at. "Hey, George, nice socks!"

Not everything merits a 13x19, of course. But that's the beauty of it, too. There's certainly one image or another every time you use your camera that's worth it, but not 30 images. And when you fill your walls, they make great gifts.

And not every 13x19 has to be a photograph, either, as HP points out. Tired of squinting at those lettersized calendars you made? How about a nice big, colorful calendar?

We think this would make an excellent homework helper, too. How many projects get the 1960s graphic arts treatment because they have to large? Now that preschoolers know PowerPoint they can bring their assignments into this century with some large printouts.

And we probably don't have to suggest any idea to the scrapbooking crowd. Just imagine your layouts using two pages instead of just one. An 11x17 spread fits neatly on the 13x19 sheet.

We also printed some of our images from the recent Chihuly glass exhibit at the de Young Museum, which we discussed in the last newsletter.

CONSUMABLES | Back to Contents

It's beyond the scope of this review to work out a cost per page for consumables, but we can get you in the ballpark.

HP bundles paper and ink into what it calls Photo Value Packs. Those are worth looking into. The Vivera inkset you're looking for is numbered 564 for this printer. The CG491AN pack goes for $36 and includes photo black, cyan, magenta and yellow inks plus 150 sheets of 4x6 HP Advanced Photo Paper. Let's see that's 24 cents a print.

A pack of 25 sheets of 13x19 inch HP Advanced Glossy Photo Paper runs $50 (that's $2 a sheet). And there are large sheets in fine art finishes like canvas and watercolor that cost a bit more.

No question, printing large costs more. But we've always found it worth it -- and a great deal more satisfying than buying out enlargements.

HP devotes a full page to the full line of compatible consumables.

CONCLUSION | Back to Contents

The exciting thing about the lightweight, compact HP B8550 13x19 printer is that it makes large prints a reality in your home or small office for just $300 (and probably a good deal less once it hits the street). It makes compromises to get there, but we found them all reasonable ones -- and they really didn't affect the quality of the images we printed. Which were stunning.

So the B8550 passes muster. And that's good news for a 13x19 printer that retails for $300.