Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Product review: HP Photosmart Compact Photo Printer

Once upon a time we took pictures with our cameras. We looked through the viewfinder, located our loved ones and snapped a photo. We didn't know what the picture looked like until we'd finished a whole roll of film (35mm or disc--remember those?), packaged it up in a York mailer and waited for the pictures to arrive in the mail ("Didja get doubles?").

How things have changed. My 3-year-old daughter knows to look on the back of a camera to see a photo immediately after it's snapped, and she loves watching our desktop computer's photo slideshow screen saver. She's familiar with Apple's iPhoto books since I've ordered half a dozen since her birth, but actual photo prints? Not so much.

I'm typically too busy to stop at Wolf Camera or Walgreens to print out photos and it isn't worth the ink to print pictures out on our regular print only to screw them up while trying to trim them into standard print sizes.

Which means too many adorable pictures are hidden away on our hard drive, safe from toddler fingerprints but too rarely enjoyed. But hey, at least they make it to the computer. I've got friends with hundreds of shots still stored on their camera's SD card! So while I'm a pretty savvy amateur digital photographer and a flickr photo-sharing fiend, too often I've neglected to make prints to glue into baby books and share with older, less digitally-inclined relatives.

Enter the HP Photosmart A636 Compact Photo Printer. You don't need it, but let me tell you why you want it (and will get more use out of it than you might think).
  • It's idiot-proof. Plug it in. Slide ink cartridge into place. Then insert your camera's memory card and you're in business. The large color touch-screen is as intuitive as any photo kiosk's. I haven't cracked open the manual yet.
  • The prints are surprisingly good. While probably not heirloom quality, they stand up to drugstore photos and are only a hair worse than Wolf camera's pricey prints. You can print onto standard 4x6 or 5x7 photo paper (both widely available), so you won't need to mess around with scissors or an X-acto blade.
  • Instant gratification, baby. My sister was in town, and while our cameras' USB cables weren't compatible, I could print my favorite photos right off of her camera's memory card with the HP. When I returned to work I wanted some snapshots of the kiddies for my office. Three minutes later, they were ready to hang in my cubicle.
The printer comes with stylus and a very basic suite of photo editing tools. The cropping and red-eye reduction were easy to use and worked well, but beyond that I'd rather edit my photos with iPhoto and print from my computer. HP's also included some really basic scrapbook-inspired functions. I liked the frames since they let me group two or three related shots on one print, but the caption fonts and clip art are cheesy with a capital C.

HP also sent me a couple of their photo books, which consist of a hard cover album and photo paper. You can create an album directly from the printer by selecting all the photos you'd like to include and an appropriate theme, but the software is far too limiting for even the modestly creative type. You can't even change the order of the photos within the book! And unlike all the other photo books available out there, this one only has images on the right hand side.

So the HP photo books are a bust, but I still like the HP Photosmart compact photo printer a lot. It's tiny (about the size of loaf of bread); it's easy to use. The prints look great and the ink lasts a relatively long time (you can further stretch your dollars by getting the cartridge refilled). My only complaint is that it doesn't come with a USB cable. After a nudge from Parent Bloggers Network, HP mailed me one and I was able to print directly from my iMac with no trouble, but I think it should be included in the box. That said, while USB cord-less I came up with an easy work-around. I saved photos I'd edited with iPhoto to a memory stick and printed directly from it.

Amazon sells the HP Photosmart A636 Compact Photo Printer for around $150 with free shipping. Save 20% on HP photo books at the HP store with coupon code AC8595.
Read more parent-tested reviews here.