HP’s Mostly-Marvelous Multifunction

The HP Photosmart 3310 is almost the greatest multifunction peripheral we’ve ever seen.

We were practically grinning during our first hours with the color inkjet printer/copier/scanner/fax, enjoying its straightforward control panel and almost startlingly above-average print quality — whether making a routine copy of a color page or shrinking it to a razor-sharp 4- by 6-inch glossy. And when we inserted a strip of old 35mm negatives and got borderless color print positives, we were like, “Whee! Look at us, we’re a photo lab!” Seriously, it was way cool.

Then we considered the Photosmart’s $400 price — not outrageous, but likely to give shoppers pause in this age of impressively affordable all-in-one machines (such as HP’s new Officejet 5610, priced at $150). Then we caught ourselves grumbling, “What’s up with this skinny slot of an input tray? Printing only 100 sheets before running out of paper is Okay for family projects, but not for small-office workers.”

Then came the deal-breaker: It might be fine in the printer/scanner/copier category, but any multifunction that adds the fourth feature — faxing — is crippled without an automatic document feeder that saves you from having to open and close the lid and place and remove pages from the scanner glass one sheet at a time. Fax machines need sheet feeders because faxes have at least two pages, the content and a cover sheet, and a feeder is essential for optical character recognition (OCR) scanning of multiage documents too.

In other words, we discovered that the 3310 is exactly what HP says it is — a multifunction with the emphasis on photo printing, positioned on the home/hobby side of the consumer/office divide. There’s no shame in that, but there’s also a good argument for its Photosmart 3210 sibling, which offers the same great hardware and software minus fax and wireless networking (and, to pick nits, a 2.5- instead of 3.6-inch front-panel LCD) for $100 less.

Branding Run Amok
To be fair, HP is ready to court small-office shoppers as well as digital photo fans; the company’s Web site has separate “All-in-ones for your home” and “for your home office” pages, and $400 on the latter will buy you HP’s Officejet 7310, which offers both a fax with document feeder and double-sided printing.

Still, we don’t envy the consumer trying to make sense of HP’s inkjet printing brands — there’s PSC, Photosmart, Officejet, Officejet Pro, Deskjet, and Business Inkjet, and that’s even before you get to the model numbers.

To get back to the Photosmart 3310, its photo-printing aptitude is obvious when you open its top cover. Instead of Officejets’ black and tricolor ink cartridges, or black and tricolor with the former replaceable by a photo cartridge for six-color printing, the 3310 has six separate ink cartridges: a large black tank plus smaller yellow, cyan, light cyan, magenta and light magenta modules.

Compared to tricolor ink tanks, HP’s half dozen make for more economical replacements as various print jobs drain one color faster than another. A new black cartridge costs $18, and the five colors $10 apiece. HP offers a bundle of all six with 150 sheets of 4- by 6-inch photo paper for $36, boasting that the combo pack reduces cost to a drugstore-beating 24 cents per print.

If you’re printing letters and reports instead of photos, HP says a set of ink cartridges will last for 300-to-400 pages, which seems to fit with what we observed from our test unit’s on-screen ink gauges (seen on both the front-panel LCD and the PC monitor at the start of each print job).

If you’re still doubting the 3310’s predilection for photos, the 100-sheet main paper tray is beneath — a little squished beneath, as we said — a second, 20-sheet tray especially for 4-by 6-inch photo paper, so switching from general to imaging work is a cinch. A snap-on automatic duplexer is an $80 option.

The Photosmart also matches dedicated photo printers by providing four slots for digital camera flash-memory cards (CompactFlash, Secure Digital/MultiMedia Card, xD-Picture and Memory Stick/Pro), as well as a PictBridge USB port for loading images and videos directly from a camera. You can select images or video frames for printing by creating a proof sheet of thumbnail images, then running it through the scanner after marking your desired images and page layout; by using the front-panel LCD and control buttons; or with HP’s supplied Image Zone software.

Spectacular Printing, Even With Pauses
The 3310 uses the company’s new Vivera inks, which promise longer life without fading (longer still in a dark, sealed archive instead of on display in sunlight or artificial light). The printer also has what HP calls an active air management system to reduce the need for periodic print head cleaning and priming, removing air from the ink and re-circulating it for printing. It sounds like a nifty feature, though it repeatedly interrupted the printing of lengthy documents — including a few of our stopwatch speed tests — by idling for 10 or 15 seconds while displaying a “Device maintenance occurring, do not interrupt” message on the LCD.

But while it, like every inkjet in history, falls short of its advertised throughput (31 or 32 pages per minute), the Photosmart is no slacker in speed. Using the Fast Draft mode on plain paper, the 3310 whisked through our 20-page Word document (printing the last page first, to finish with page one on top) in 85 seconds and our six-page Adobe Acrobat report in 69 seconds. More importantly, while close study showed a few slightly compressed or skewed lines of text and banding in solid color areas, draft-mode output was much darker and sharper than the grayish stuff we see from most inkjets.

Both the stopwatch and the eye found only minute differences between the so-called Normal and Fast Normal modes, so we mostly stuck with Normal — and saw exceptional text and virtually no banding even on cheap copier paper. In fact, we’d say the Photosmart 3310’s normal-mode output on plain paper is a match for most inkjets’ in best-quality mode or on coated inkjet paper or both.

Our one-page business letter with spot-color logo (14 seconds); 20 pages of monochrome Word text (3 minutes and 51 seconds); and six-page (82 seconds) and 55-page (12 minutes and 34 seconds) PDF files all looked good enough to show to a client. They were certainly good enough to make us forget about the slower Best mode (44 seconds for the letter, just over four minutes for the six-page Acrobat document).

And when using decent inkjet paper, the 3310’s output is gorgeous enough to shame some color laser printers: We had to squint to see the tiny improvement from Normal (22 seconds) to Best mode (29 seconds) with our one-page letter, or with the six-page PDF (two minutes and 18 seconds versus three minutes and 53 seconds, respectively). The only caution we’d add is that, as in an earlier HP inkjet test, taking a few seconds to specify plain or coated paper worked better than leaving the printer driver in auto-detect mode: The latter produced overly dark or heavy text.

Purely Photogenic
Even in draft mode we couldn’t come near HP’s claim of as little as 14 seconds to print a 4- by 6-inch photo (and who wants to print photos in draft mode anyway?), but a little patience yields first-class color prints. Even normal mode on inkjet paper produced an almost frame worthy 8- by 10-inch image (33 seconds); best mode on photo paper took just over two and a half minutes for a richly colorful, ultra-sharp scene.

Borderless 4- by 6-inch prints on glossy paper averaged about one minute and 40 seconds, and looked as good as anything from your local pharmacy’s photo counter. So did prints from 35mm negatives, once we lifted the scanner lid and removed its inside cover (to reveal a second, upper light source) and the plastic rack that holds up to six negatives or four slides for placement on the glass.

The 48-bit flatbed scanner offers 4,800 dpi optical resolution and space for up to 8.5- by 12-inch originals; it permits walk-up (PC-free) color or black-and-white copies (up to 50 of them, with 25- to 400-percent zoom). Using the walk-up defaults, it took two minutes and 17 seconds to print five couldn’t-tell-them-from-the-original copies of a black and white laser-printed page. Five prints of could-only-slightly-tell-them-from-the-original copies of a colorful magazine cover took two and a half minutes.

The 33.6Kbps color fax features a 90-page memory, up to 75 speed-dial numbers and junk-fax blocking from specified Caller ID numbers, but we’re still sulking about the lack of an automatic sheet feeder.

Setting up the 18- by 16- by 9-inch Photosmart is simple, as is connection via either 10/100Mbps Ethernet or USB, with 802.11g WiFi connectivity as a bonus. With a little patience, the front-panel LCD menus and buttons can steer you through simple cropping and rescaling of photos, but you’ll do better with HP’s driver and the Image Zone program.

The latter offers everything from managing images by date or keyword to handy retouching and choosing the layout, whether for straightforward printing or creative projects such as calendars and greeting cards. Using the USB connection to our PC, we also liked how the 3310’s help button worked — push the button, and a message on the LCD tells you that context-sensitive help has just popped up on your PC screen.

All in all, the HP Photosmart 3310 combines superb text and image quality with versatile yet reasonably intuitive and user-friendly scanning and copying. In other words, think of it as an impressive six-color photo printer with a solid bonus copier and scanner on top. The 3310 aspires to go beyond that to small-office status, but its skimpy paper capacity and feeder-less fax limit it to four stars.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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