HP's General-Purpose Printer

By Eric Grevstad | Posted March 07, 2005

Here's something we haven't seen in a while: The HP Deskjet 6540 is a home-office color inkjet printer priced at $130. And that's all it is.

By that we mean that, despite the surge in affordable, desk-space-saving multifunction peripherals, the 6540 isn't also a copier, scanner or fax machine — it's just a printer. It doesn't have a second paper tray for first-page letterhead or duplexer for double-sided printing (although both are options).

Nor is it a specialized photo printer with flash-memory-card slots and a preview LCD for digital camera buffs, although the 6540 is capable of printing borderless photos and can switch from everyday four-color to finer six-color imaging with an optional photo ink cartridge.

It's not priced under $100 or even under $50, though the abovementioned product trends are pushing general-purpose inkjets toward disposable prices. Even though most of us remember comparable inkjets selling for $300 to $400 just a few years ago, why would anyone want to spend $130 for a printer without today's most popular bells and whistles?

Here's why. The Deskjet 6540 delivers very good to excellent output at impressive speeds, matching — and in some cases beating — the current crop of $400 to $800 color laser printers. Like all inkjets, its long-term consumable costs will be higher. We're left with somewhat mixed feelings, because we're big fans of printer/scanner/copiers, but if you're serious about good-looking printouts, the 6540 is a pleasure to work with.

The Kitchen-Appliance Look
A bit bigger than many desktop inkjets at 17.8 by 14.5 by 5.7 inches, the HP is a handsome silver-and-black slab with a front-protruding paper tray. The input tray holds 150 legal-sized or smaller sheets; its top, with a pullout tongue, doubles as the 50-sheet, face-up output tray. (HP's software driver defaults to last-page-first printing so page one appears on top of the stack.)

A slot on top of the tray lid handles manual feed for envelopes, though printing a small item such as a 4 by 6-inch photo involves removing the lid and reaching awkwardly into the printer to load the media. A 250-sheet second tray, designed to fit beneath the Deskjet, costs $80, the same price as an optional automatic duplexer that snaps onto the back. For $100, you can buy a combination duplexer and small, vertical second input tray for 4- by 6-inch photos, postcards or envelopes.


HP Deskjet 6540
HP's Deskjet Deskjet 6540 focuses on doing one thing — printing — and doing it very well indeed.

In addition to the USB 2.0 port alongside its AC adapter plug at the rear, the HP has another up front, so you can plug in and print a document from your notebook PC without disconnecting the printer from your desktop. It's a trivial convenience, seeing as how it's just a duplicate USB connector — not a PictBridge port for current digital cameras — and neither USB cable is included.

Lights below the left-front on/off button indicate whether either of the two ink cartridges is running low, while three buttons with backlit icons let you switch among the print modes HP calls Fast Normal, Normal and Best. Another button cancels a print job in progress.

The driver normally uses the mode you choose here, but overrides it if you specify a different mode via software and adds two more choices at opposite ends of the speed-versus-quality spectrum — FastDraft, at 300 instead of the usual 600 dots per inch and Maximum DPI, which forces 1,200 dpi for text and 4,800 by 1,200 dpi for high-resolution images. The latter is much slower than HP's PhotoRET-enhanced 600-dpi printing, and it doesn't really look any better

Picked First in the Draft
To load or replace ink/printhead cartridges, simply lift the printer's hood and snap the gadgets into their carriers. HP's parts list includes smaller color and black cartridges with half the capacity of the ones in the box, but unless you use cash for kindling we assume you'll buy the economy-size replacements — a black cartridge, rated for approximately 800 pages, is $30, while a cyan/magenta/yellow cartridge, rated for about 450 pages, is $35.

Clearly, you'll spend a lot if you try to fulfill the Deskjet's maximum duty cycle of 5,000 pages per month, but the cartridges' capacities yield lower costs per page than most consumer inkjets. Photo buffs can replace the black cartridge with either a color or black-and-white photo ink cartridge ($25 apiece).

The paper feed follows a fairly tight U path, but produced no jams or snags in our testing. An automatic media sensor knows when you're printing on plain, coated inkjet or glossy photo paper, though you can specify a type via the software driver. The latter offers a good variety of booklet, watermark, resizing, and other printing options, as well as a pop-up window during print jobs that shows ink levels but doesn't show the progress or estimated time to completion of a job.

The Deskjet 6540 operates fairly quietly and more than fairly quickly, even if its advertised speeds of up to 30 pages per minute in black and 20 ppm in color are typically exaggerated. Using the FastDraft mode and plain (copier) paper, it spit out our one-page business letter with spot-color company logo in seven seconds, with 20 pages of Microsoft Word text taking one minute and 18 seconds.

Moreover, while graphics were predictably pale and banded, FastDraft text wasn't half bad — no threat to laser quality, but darker and less shaky than the draft mode of any other inkjet we've seen lately.

Better and Better
Fast Normal and Normal modes on plain paper were slower — and very similar to one another — with the one-page letter taking 10 seconds in Fast Normal versus 12 in normal; the 20-page document 132 seconds versus 164; and a six-page Adobe Acrobat PDF file 67 seconds versus 87. Normal mode delivered slightly richer colors and sharper edges than Fast Normal, but even on plain paper, both looked impressive, with crisp text and just a trace of banding in solid-color areas.

Both Normal and Best modes were downright dazzling on coated inkjet paper, the latter yielding slightly darker colors in return for the extra wait — respective Normal and Best times for the one-page letter were 65 and 94 seconds, and for the six-page PDF six minutes and 3 seconds versus nine minutes and four seconds. Text was drop-dead gorgeous and solid colors were beautiful and banding-free.

If the Deskjet 6540 has a minor flaw, it's photo printing — which, besides the hassles already mentioned of lacking memory-card slots and having to painstakingly load photo paper, yields merely very good instead of spectacular results. Using glossy paper, our 8- by 10-inch images (about four and a quarter minutes) and 4- by 6-inch (about one and three-quarters minutes) were more than attractive enough for display. But even with the six- instead of four-color cartridge set, they looked just a touch grainier or dimmer than the best inkjet prints we've seen. HP provides partial compensation by bundling above-average image touch-up and printing software.

Still, if you're looking for a even small-office workhorse rather than photo lab, it's hard not to admire the 6540. It's just a printer, but it's an outstanding one.

Pros: Laser-beating speed and laser-like quality for text- and graphics-intensive documents and proposals; higher duty cycle and lower consumable costs than consumer inkjets

Cons: No photo-card slots and not the greatest photo printing; duplexer and second paper tray are costly options

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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