It’s rare indeed to come across a product so well thought out and so perfectly integrated with both Mac and Windows PC that you wonder how you lived without it. Hewlett-Packard has done just that with the HP Photosmart Pro B9180, a £500 high-end photo inkjet printer that brings the feature set and print quality of £1,000 printers to the desktop of any serious digital photographer or graphic artist.

HP has been the dominant presence in the consumer and business printer markets, but it hasn’t been as successful in the high-end photo market, which has more demanding users. Photographers, graphic artists, and imaging specialists want consistent colour, print longevity, efficient ink usage, and support for many different types of papers, and Epson has long been the market leader in this category.

HP has chosen to compete on multiple levels, however, releasing three printers: the entry-level HP Photosmart Pro B9180, and two wide-format printers, the Designjet Z2100 and Z3100 photo printers.

The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 is substantially built, and has a heft and feel that conveys the seriousness of its purpose. The output tray, for example, is made of metal, which is almost unheard of in this age of flimsy plastic designs. It is a large unit, however, weighing nearly 18kg; while printing, it can shake a less-than-sturdy table or stand.

Setting up the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 is a snap — you can be printing 30 minutes after getting it out of the box. You install the print cartridges and print heads, plug the printer in, let it do its initial calibration, and hook it to your computer directly via a USB cable. You can optionally use the HP Photosmart Pro B9180’s ethernet port to plug it into your network.

The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 can handle paper from 3x5in index cards up to 13x19in sheets, and it supports borderless printing for all paper types and sizes.

The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 has two paper paths — a paper tray that holds about 100 sheets of photo paper (or 200 sheets of plain paper), and a manual-feed, straight-through path for handling media types up to 1.5mm thick. The manual feed slot is a simple tray that folds down from the front of the printer, and includes silk-screened guides for aligning the paper.

True colour

The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 has two features under the hood that will appeal to photographers and artists who are serious about their printed images: a colour calibrator and pigment-based inks.

The most important of the two features is the HP Photosmart Pro B9180’s closed-loop calibration system. This is a simple densitometer built into the printhead mechanism that measures the colour values of a self-printed target. This process takes approximately 15 minutes: as it prints, the densitometer compares the newly printed target with the original colour values, which were stored in the printer at the factory.

If it detects any differences, the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 automatically recalibrates. What this means is that you'll get predictable, reproducible colour from print to print. Epson has been providing this for years in their high-end photo printers, but this is a first for a printer at this price.

To produce those calibrated images, the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 utilises eight pigment inks — cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, light gray, and matte and photo black—each with its own dedicated cartridge.

Like most pigment-based printers, the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 uses one less ink colour when printing. For papers with glossy and semi-gloss finish, the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 automatically uses the photo black ink; when printing on non-glossy and fine-art paper, it switches to the matte black ink. Thankfully, you don’t have to swap the matte and photo black ink cartridges out of the B9180 when you change paper types; doing so wastes valuable ink.

Strong software

HP has supplemented the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 hardware with an excellent suite of printing and maintenance software tools. At the top of the list is a plug-in for printing directly from within Adobe Photoshop.

The plug-in offers a real-time preview of your image and lets you choose paper type, color profile, print size, borderless options, and more from within a single window. This is the way photo printing should be, and it’s a joy to use.

In addition to the plug-in, HP includes an application, HP Printer Utility, that is the dashboard for interacting with the HP Photosmart Pro B9180. The program includes realistic indicators of remaining ink capacity and useful help screens, as well as facilities for cleaning the printheads (which we never needed), printing test pages, and applying the closed-loop calibration test.

The HP Printer Utility also lets you install custom paper profiles directly into the HP Photosmart Pro B9180's driver. While being able to use custom colour profiles for a specific paper type is nothing new, HP takes most of the mystery out of it and makes it easy, letting you add your new profile directly to the paper-type menu.

There is also an application for printing photos, HP Photosmart Edit, but, given the HP Photosmart Pro B9180’s target audience, we think most people will be using Photoshop or a similar program to print. One nice feature of HP Photosmart Edit, however, is for converting colour images to grayscale — it offers a set of black-and-white transformations that mimic traditional camera filters. Photoshop’s Channel Mixer has a much more sophisticated set of tools for this process, but we got good results with Photosmart Edit.

HP’s manual is very instructive in helping you get the best out of the HP Photosmart Pro B9180, discussing profiles, print types, and how to use the print driver’s built-in colour features as opposed to using Photoshop’s colour features. Anyone new to pigment-ink printers or looking to expand their Photoshop printing knowledge will find the manual very helpful.

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