An Office Inkjet for Photo Lovers

If you’re looking for an affordable all-purpose ink jet printer that you can share wirelessly among several PCs in your office or home, the $149 HP Deskjet 6980 is a very good choice. If you need an ink jet that delivers top-notch photos, you might think you would need a dedicated printer for that &#151 but you’d be wrong. The Deskjet 6980 can handle your office printing chores with aplomb, while also delivering stunning photographic output.

Cut the Cord
Wi-Fi networks are now ubiquitous, and we’re happy to see that printers are finally catching up. The Deskjet 6980 doesn’t need an external print server or USB dongle to accept print jobs from your wireless access point, hub or router.

HP’s excellent Setup Guide helps you choose one of three methods for entering wireless settings and getting all your Wi-Fi gear to communicate. If you’re still attached to wires, you can also connect via USB (this cable is not included) or Ethernet (this cable is). And you can load the Deskjet 6980 software on several PCs, meaning you can place the printer in a central location for all the PCs to share.

Heck, you could even put the Deskjet 6980 in a closet, but that would be a shame: This is a handsome printer. The Deskjet 6980 has a sleek, angular profile, and the high-gloss bluish-charcoal chassis is a big improvement over the textured gray or beige plastic of typical office equipment.

The 150-sheet input tray juts out the front, and its lid features a bypass slot for envelopes and 4-by-6-inch photo paper. This lets you feed those items one at a time, without having to remove the letter paper below. For higher-use environments, HP also offers a 250-sheet tray (bringing the total input to 400) as well as a duplexer for automated two-sided printing.

Easy Setup, Free Software
Setting up the Deskjet 6980 via USB (which we used for testing) is standard fare for an ink jet: Fill the paper tray, plug in the printer, pop in the ink tanks (one black and one tri-color), connect the USB cable and load the software. In 15 minutes we were up and running.

HP includes an intelligent printer driver that lets you select print options (quality setting, paper type, etc.) yourself, or choose what you’re trying to print (document, presentation, photos and so on) from a drop-down list and let the printer decide the best settings. You can also print directly from PictBridge-compatible cameras via the printer’s convenient front-mounted PictBridge port.

The installation wizard also installs HP Photosmart Essential to make working with photos a bit easier. The program searches you’re my Pictures folder and creates a database of your images. You can then add keyword tags to help you find particular images, perform basic editing functions (rotate, crop, remove red-eye, adjust brightness and contrast, add black-and-white or sepia-tone effects), and print your images. The utility also helps you create photo-album pages, cards, and other projects, as well as e-mail and share your photos online. The program isn’t as polished as, say, Adobe Photoshop Elements, but considering Photosmart Essential is free, we won’t complain.

Good Speed, but Don’t Believe the Hype
HP rates the printer engine at 36 pages per minute for black text output and 27 ppm for color. But don’t think you’re getting a laser competitor here: Those ratings are for Fast Draft mode, and your mileage will definitely vary.

To see how the printer would fare with documents you might use to present to clients, we used the highest-quality settings for our tests. Our three-page Microsoft Word document printed in one minute 44 seconds, a five-page PDF brochure (with text, graphics and photos) printed in a reasonable 6:38, and a nine-page PowerPoint deck needed nearly 16 minutes to complete (you’ll definitely want to suppress that typical PowerPoint blue background).

As a point of reference, a small-office color laser printer (admittedly, a much more expensive choice at $349) delivered our Word doc in 39 seconds, the PDF in 1:27, and the PowerPoint in 3:18. Suffice it to say the Deskjet 6980’s times are acceptable for an inkjet in this price class. But if you need a higher-volume printer that a bunch of people can share on a daily basis, you need a color laser.

HP Deskjet 6980

Handy and Handsome &#151 The sleek industrial design of the HP Deskjet 6980 doesn’t scream “boring office appliance.”

The Proof is in the Output
Where the Deskjet 6980 really shines is in its output quality. Serif and sans serif fonts are readable even at tiny sizes; we printed out text in a four-point font, and the Deskjet’s output was a close match for the laser printer’s pages. Our PDF document showed clear text and sharp photos. And our PowerPoint slides showed no bleeding edges with fields of adjacent colors. The printer even managed to maintain thin white hairlines against a dark blue background.

If the Deskjet 6980 had stopped with excellent office output, we would have been more than satisfied. But when we swapped out the black cartridge for the photo-ink cartridge (for six-color printing), we were amazed. A 4-by-6-inch snapshot (taken by a 3.1 megapixel point-and-shoot camera) showed true-to-life skin tones and good detail in both highlight and shadow areas.

The image printed in a reasonable time of 1:33. The same photo printed at 8-by-10-inches (in a very competitive time of 3:20) was frame-ready and could pass for a true photographic enlargement. And if you’re serious about photos, you’ll want to try out HP’s gray photo cartridge for black-and-white prints. Our 8-by-10 printout showed exquisite detail, as well as a depth and warmth you don’t usually get in a monochrome print.

HP has a winner with the Deskjet 6980. The convenience of wireless printing combined with the stellar output make this more than a work-a-day office printer.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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