Test Drive: HP DeskJet 5550

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 03, 2002

Those of us who wear animal skins and live in caves remember being awestruck by the first laser printers, with their 300 dots per inch of black-and-white resolution for unbelievably sharp, razor-fine text and images compared to contemporary dot-matrix printers' 72 dpi. Now the cheap inkjet printer on your desk not only prints in color, but with clarity formerly reserved for photo-developing equipment. Last month, we tested Lexmark's Z65, capable of 4,800 by 1,200 dpi and priced at $199, and now Hewlett-Packard has reached that resolution for $149 with the DeskJet 5550.

The first thing to say about the DeskJet's 4,800 by 1,200 mode is that it's only available when printing high-resolution photos (source images of at least 1,200 dpi) on photo paper; for other jobs and paper types, the HP is a 1,200 by 1,200 dpi printer. The second thing is that it doesn't really matter - just as today's PC graphics cards can display more colors than the human eye can see, today's inkjets' variable droplet sizes and resolution-enhancement schemes make the numbers race rather meaningless once past the four-figure resolution mark.

For that matter, we've learned to ignore inkjets' advertised speeds, too - the DeskJet 5550 is rated at up to 17 pages per minute for black text and 12 ppm for color printing, but (like every inkjet we've ever seen) falls short of claimed speed even for draft mode, let alone for high-quality output.

The important thing to say about the 5550 is that it's a relatively fast and sharp printer for both plain text and business- or school-report graphics, as well as a good stand-in for a special-purpose photo printer - though it lacks the latter's digital-camera memory-card slots, it can produce borderless 4 by 6-inch prints, and switch from the usual four- to a six-color mode when outfitted with an optional photo ink cartridge. Its drawbacks are that it hogs desk space and guzzles ink cartridges; your consumables budget will run out before its 3,000-page duty cycle each month.

Swoopy Sci-Fi Style
The 5550 looks like a Klingon warship, or maybe a big silver crab holding a paper tray in its claws; like the Z65, it seems decidedly bulky (18 by 17.4 by 6.2 inches) compared to many desktop inkjets. On/off, job-cancel, and resume (after a paper jam or outage) buttons flank an ink-cartridge-maintenance warning light on the right flank. Both USB and parallel ports (no cables included) are at the rear, next to the socket for the AC power adapter, whose brick-sized plug end can monopolize an outlet or power strip.

The printer has a 100-sheet input and 50-sheet output tray. Its horizontal loading (you lift the output tray and slide paper into the narrow input-tray slot) and sharp-U-turn paper path are less convenient than the vertical-loading Lexmark's, but seem less prone to skewing or crooked feeding. A snap-in duplexer or automatic two-sided printing feeder is an $80 option.

While you can click the usual pull-down menu in the DeskJet driver to specify plain, coated, or photo paper (with emphasis on HP's own rather than generic offerings), the 5550 can also automatically detect the paper type, taking an extra three or four seconds at the start of each print job to do so. This media sensing is a big convenience, though we preferred the Z65's on-screen confirmation ("Paper type detected: Inkjet paper") to the HP's (merely "Paper type: Automatic").

Setup was the smoothest and easiest we've experienced with our Windows XP desktop, thanks to an "insert me first" CD that guides you through everything from connecting printer cables and inserting the ink cartridges to installing a "printer assistant" utility that combines a detailed user's guide with project and troubleshooting suggestions and links to HP's shopping site for ink refills.

(By contrast, when we tried plugging the 5550 into our Windows 2000 PC, we ran into an appalling endless loop of the Found New Hardware wizard starting, stopping with an "An error occurred during installation - Access is denied" message, then starting again. Even after we scoured the CD for and manually installed the driver, the wizard popped up once at each startup. HP's online support site lists a similar complaint about the 970cse, so Win 2000 users may want to be wary.)

Our main complaint about the DeskJet is that, though the printer is big, its ink cartridges are tiny: HP estimates the 19ml black cartridge will last for just 450 pages (with minimal 5-percent coverage) before you'll need a $20 replacement.

The tricolor cartridge holds even less ink (17ml), is rated for fewer pages (400, with 15-percent coverage), and costs more ($35; the photo cartridge, which replaces the black to deliver six-color printing, is $25).

Even apart from the design choice of a single cartridge, which you must throw out as soon as one color runs dry, instead of thriftier, Canon-style separate color cartridges, the DeskJet 5550 looks pricey to operate - no more so than many of its rivals, to be sure, but still a shock to any family that didn't expect its $149 printer to cost $250 a month for cartridges and quality paper. Perhaps that's why HP's given it the ability to limp along with only one cartridge (either black or color) when the other runs out. Instead of many inkjets' draft, normal, high-quality, and best-quality modes, the 5550 offers a choice of FastDraft (strictly sketchy), Everyday (sharper, but still for in-house use), Normal (suitable for all audiences), and Best printing, with resolutions ranging from 300 by 300 dpi for text (600 by 300 for graphics) to 1,200 by 1,200 dpi for both (plus the 4,800 by 1,200 deluxe-photo mode).

The driver also lets you print one, two, or four pages per sheet or blow up an image for poster printing across four, nine, or 16 sheets; HP also supplies a print-screen utility. Fancier still, you can choose manual or automatic tweaking of contrast and other settings for photo printing.

We found the FastDraft mode so faint as to make a new ink cartridge look old, but still readable and definitely fast - using plain (copier) paper, five pages of mixed-font text printed in just 49 seconds, and the DeskJet spit out a pale 7.5 by 10-inch photo in 29 seconds. Everyday mode wasn't bad, but Normal mode was only a bit slower (1 minute 36 seconds versus 1 minute 21 seconds for our five pages) and looked fine on the cheap paper, except possibly for the smallest (6-point) type and largest, blackest banner fonts. Twenty pages on plain paper took just under six minutes in Normal mode.

When we switched to coated inkjet paper, the HP's output (like all inkjet printers') sharpened considerably - and the 300 by 300 dpi Everyday text (1 minute 51 seconds) competed quite well with 600 by 600 dpi Normal (2 minutes 48 seconds) in our five-page test, the latter a hair sharper but almost too dark or blotted in a few places. The mix of Best mode and coated paper was much quicker than we expected (3 minutes 19 seconds), but not that much better-looking than its brothers - again, just one or two lines on each page struck us as just a bit smudgy or detectably inkjet- rather than laser-generated.

By contrast, the 5550 wowed us when printing PowerPoint presentations and Adobe Acrobat pages mixing text and color graphics. Everyday mode was a little washed-out, with some banding in solid areas, but printed our six-page Acrobat PDF file in a prompt two and a half minutes on plain paper (four minutes on coated stock). Normal mode showed minimal banding but was otherwise handsome on coated paper (6 minutes 47 seconds for the six-page PDF), while Best mode was nearly perfect though sluggish (almost 19 minutes).

And the HP proved both faster and sharper than the recently reviewed Lexmark Z65 in photo printing, even though we didn't have the photo ink cartridge so couldn't sample its best six- rather than four-color printing. Our 7.5 by 10-inch, two-megapixel image took just 80 seconds in Normal mode, and looked as good as any print we've ever seen on plain copier paper.

Using coated paper, the same image in Normal mode (2 minutes 11 seconds) was perfectly good enough for presentation or souvenir handouts, and in Best mode (5 minutes 19 seconds) was darn near suitable for framing - words we've used about desktop inkjets before, but in reference to prints on photo instead of inkjet paper. The good stuff (Kodak glossy photo paper) yielded an image as pretty as any four-color inkjet's we've tried, and as fast as a dedicated photo printer - 4 minutes 33 seconds. And borderless 4 by 6-inch prints, though not quite indistinguishable from genuine drugstore glossies (we wished we had the photo cartridge), were equally impressive.

Overall, the DeskJet 5550 takes an admirable shot at being all things to all printer users for $149, striding past under-$100 disposa-jets with impressive speed and photo-printing abilities. We wish it were a bit more compact and that its ink cartridges lasted a bit longer, and if we planned to print mostly text we might lean toward the $129 Lexmark Z55 (just replaced by the 4,800 by 1,200 dpi model Z55se). But the 5550 is a potent printer at a value price.

Pros: Good quality and speed for everyday jobs; good performance (even without optional six-color cartridge) as a photo printer; friendly software; optional double-sided printing.

Cons: Short-lived ink cartridges; better for photos and reports than plain text; bulky; Windows 2000 driver glitch.

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