The HP Designjet Z3100 is a wide-format, fine-art printer that offers great prints, updated technology features.

For the past decade, Epson printers have sat at the pinnacle of the professional photo market, their hallmark being top-notch print quality, solid performance, and archival print life. In the past year, however, Epson's two primary rivals - Canon and Hewlett-Packard - have released competitive printers in an attempt to challenge Epson's leadership.

One of those printers, HP's Designjet Z3100 Photo Printer, has, in our opinion, surpassed any offering Epson has shipped to date. It rolls high-quality, long-lasting prints and a smartly designed feature set into one of the most innovative and easy-to-use printers to come our way in a long time.

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Out of the box, into the room

The Designjet Z3100 is a wide-format printer, coming in 24in and 44in versions, and, as such, it's a large unit. But from the moment you open the Z3100's crate, it's obvious that HP's engineers were thinking about usability. The printer is packed upside down in the box: you first build the stand, which is at the top of the box, then affix it to the underside of the printer, and roll the printer out of the box and onto the floor. The process takes about 30 minutes.

The rest of the setup is similarly simple. The cartridges snap easily into place. You connect the printer to your ethernet network or to your PC via USB, and then install the driver software, which is as well thought out as rest of the package.

The driver is integrated with a utility that manages all aspects of the printer, from adding custom paper types to checking supply levels and more. As was the case with HP's Photosmart Pro B9180, the Z3100 print driver lets you automatically add custom paper types - the Z3100 can accept roll and cut-sheet media up to 1.5mm thick.

The printer uses 11 pigment-based inks: magenta, light magenta, light cyan, yellow, red, blue, green, photo black, matte black, gray, and light gray. An additional cartridge contains a gloss enhancer, which is used for printing on glossy or semi-glossy photo papers. The enhancer helps reduce the unsightly gloss differential effect, where areas of an image with no ink applied have a different reflectivity than areas with ink (this is often referred to as bronzing ).

Like most pigment-based printers, the Designjet Z3100 uses photo black ink when printing on glossy papers, and matte black when printing on smooth-finish and fine art papers; the printer automatically uses the black ink appropriate for the paper chosen. The Z3100, however, goes one better than most of its competitors when printing black-and-white photos on matte-finish paper: it uses both black inks and both gray inks, giving you, in essence, a quad-tone print with an expanded tonal range. On a paper such as Hahnemühle's Photo Rag, for example, we got some of the best black-and-white prints we've ever produced with an inkjet printer.

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