December 14, 2003
Weekly Column By
Hooray for Hewlett-Packard!
HP 7960 / 7660 First Look
Back on July 27th, 2003, I wrote a colum called "Where the HECK is Digital B&W?!?" bemoaning, rather dyspeptically I suppose, the lack of an inkjet printer with decent built-in B&W capability.
No sooner had I written that column than Hewlett-Packard announced a new printer that had just that — the World’s first. The HP 7960, which is HP’s new top-of-the-line consumer desktop printer, incorporates a single “grays” ink cartridge (Officially: “HP 59 Gray Photo Inkjet Cartridge, available separately”) that contains three inks: black, gray, and light gray. The HP 7960’s driver makes it relatively easy to make good black-and-white prints right out of the box — no long learning curve or expensive aftermarket add-ons needed.
It’s basically just what I thought had been missing from the market.
HP isn’t making much of a big deal of its new printer’s B&W capability, probably so as not to confuse the easily distractible buying public: ”But isn’t that a black-and-white printer?” is not what they want 7960 customers to be asking in the aisles of the local Comp USA. But my friend Nick Hartmann — whose “single-black” printing method was the subject of a two-part interview in this column a while back — has been printing with an HP recently, and his results are very pleasing.
More Good News
The HP 7960 is an 8-color printer. What this means is that it’s a six-color printer (C, PC, M, PM, Y, K) which then potentially adds the two lighter grays, for a total of eight inks (alternately, in place of the #59 ink cartridge you can use the #56 black cartridge, for a total of six inks). The HP 7960 sells for around $300, and its biggest limitation is paper size — it’s a letter-sized printer. HP makes heady claims for print longevity (in both color and B&W) as long as you use its relatively expensive (50-90 cents per sheet) HP Premium Plus Photo Paper, which comes in glossy (easy to find) or matte (hard to find) surfaces.
But if you already have a color printer, or your color printer is larger format and you don’t want to give that up, or you only want to print black-and-white now and then, there’s still good news: there’s a cheaper HP printer that has essentially the same black-and-white printing ability. It’s the $150 HP 7660. This printer takes six inks, meaning that it’s a standard four-color printer (C, M, Y, K) with, again, the potential to add the two extra grays by switching out the #56 black cartridge for a #59.
The nice part about the HP 7660 is that it takes the same-sized paper as the fancier HP 7960, and can use the same #59 3-ink (black, dark gray, light gray) B&W printing cartridge.
So why then do I have to say it has “essentially” the same B&W printing capability? Dr. Steve Rosenblum (who occasionally has time to e-mail me while he waits on a windswept hospital rooftop for Medevac choppers to bring him critical heart patients) has alerted me to vague and shadowy internet rumors to the effect that the $300 HP 7960’s drivers have been “slightly tweaked” to produce “slightly better” B&W prints. I’m not in a position to test, confirm, or deny this. There’s also a good chance that the $150 HP 7660’s B&W output is identical to the HP 7960’s. (Anyone from HP’s technical department reading this? I’d appreciate knowing the official scoop. If anyone reading this knows the e-mail address of anyone from HP’s tech dept., please send them the link.)
Nick Hartmann uses the HP 7660, and he uses it exclusively for B&W — in fact, he’s never even installed the color (C, M, Y) cartridge in the printer.
I’m going on meager evidence, and, even if I weren’t, you might need to take this with just a slight reservation. As usual, I’m trying to be objective about this, but I find myself wanting to like what this printer can do. Accordingly, I’m going to try to break down what I saw in Nick’s prints (which, incidentally, are made from 400-speed 35mm B&W negatives scanned on a Minolta Duo).
Dynamic range: Good to excellent. Visually, I would say as good as a good RC print. Max black is good: again just eyeballing, I’d say it’s similar to that of most conventional papers while falling short of that of the best.
Paper surface (of HP’s Premium Plus Photo Paper): Excellent. This is a very neutral, clear, glossy surface with outstanding toughness and fingerprint resistance, and it doesn’t interfere with viewing by reflecting impinging light too much.
Highlights (the Achilles’ heel of any single-black method): Excellent to good. This depends a great deal on the file source and the operator’s Photoshop skills, but the highlights appear grainless and well gradated.
Print color (the Achilles’ heel of color printers using colored inks to make B&W output): Outstanding. There’s no perceptible metamerism (color shift), which is the great failing of the Epson 2200, for one, in B&W mode. HP’s highlight, shadow, and paper-base colors are well integrated, and the print color is perfect: in formulating its #59 inks, HP seems to have deliberately mimicked the look of a neutral/cold conventional paper with light selenium toning, long the standard look for fine-art B&W prints. They did a good job on this.
Overall impression: Excellent. To me the prints look better than most RC prints, even carefully-made ones, and almost as good as well-made fiber-base ones. While it’s the world’s first out-of-the-box B&W inkjet printer and may not be the last word (well, let’s hope it isn’t), it’s certainly good enough to use now for most uses, especially for workprints, proofs, and repro.
I’m buying one. Which means, if this column continues into its third year, eventually I’ll get around to a more extensive review. Stay tuned. Until then, though, three cheers for HP.
— Mike Johnston
See Mike Johnston’s website at www.37thframe.com. Also, check out his monthly column in the British Black & White Photography magazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)
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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.