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HP Photosmart Pro B9180

And Then There Were Three

A Brief Industry History

The photo-quality inkjet printer marketplace went though a revolution in the year 2000 when Epson brought out the Stylus 2000P. This was the first affordable printer to use pigment-based inks. It was a flawed product, but it paved the way for subsequent generations of Epson pigment ink printers, currently culminating in the R2400, Stylus Pro 4800, 7800 and 9800, all of which use Epson's K3 third generation pigment ink set.

Pigment inks offer a level of permanence not seen from printers which use dye-based inks. These actually exceed that of any colour reproduction process yet seen. Prints made using pigment based inks even rival silver gelatin based prints, (unless selenium or gold toned and archivally processed). Nevertheless, dye based inks have continued to improve, and when used with some specialty papers offer archival ratings of 30 – 70 years. But none can match the 80 – 200 year ratings of pigment inks on quality paper.

Through several generations of printers, from consumer models to high end commercial versions, Epson has almost had the pigment ink market to itself for a number of years. But in 2006 that landscape changed, and both Canon with its iPF 5000 and now HP with the Pro B9180 are challenging Epson's hegemony.

While Epson is to be commended for almost single-handedly inventing the fine-art photo printer market, it has stumbled badly from time to time. For example, the Stylus Pro 4000 (and its larger siblings) allowed both matte and glossy black inks to be loaded simultaneously. But then after a very brief market life these were replaced by the 4800, 7800 and 9800 which require the user to switch black inks when alternating between glossy and matte papers, at a cost of more than $75 each time in wasted ink. The addition of light-light black (which used the second main black ink slot) was the reason for dropping the ability to have both matte and glossy black simultaneously. And, while the new Ultrachrome K3 inks were an improvement, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth by photographers and printers whose 4000s had been quickly obsoleted, and by everyone that needs to use both types of papers on a regular basis. Even the smaller R2400 requires cartridge swapping, though without the high cost of lost inks.

Both Canon and HP, on deciding to enter the pigment ink market saw this as an opportunity, and both have made sure that their new competitive pigment-ink-based printer lines hold both glossy and matte inks simultaneously. Canon's offerings use 12 inks, while HP's currently use 8.

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The Basics

The HP B9180 is an Super A3+ sized printer. This means that it takes paper up to 13X19" in its feeder tray, and 13" by almost any length via its specialty media feed slot. There is no provided roll paper holder, and no provision for one to be attached – something which marks the printer down a notch when compared with the competition.

As described above, it is an 8 ink printer: Photo Black, Matte Black, Light Gray, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Light Magenta and Light Cyan. HP's name for these inks is Vivera.

Like the Canon iPF 5000, but unlike any Epson printer, the HP's (4) printing heads are user replaceable. They are reported to last for over 4 years with average use – (approx 30 to 40 mixed sizes per month), are self correcting, and eventually very inexpensive and easy to replace (about $45 each).

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Unpacking & Installation

The B9180 comes almost completely assembled, including the paper tray. Initial set-up takes about 15-20 minutes to unpack, install the 8 ink cartridges, and 4 print heads. The provided 12 page large-format installation and Quick Start guide is a model of clarity, making this process about as easy as one could wish.

The second stage of installation is to let the printer complete a totally automatic self calibration process. This is needed just once, when first set up, or whenever heads are changed (which as will be seen, is not all that often). The process takes between 30-60 minutes, and requires no user intervention other than to load 5 sheets of HP's Advanced Photo Paper – provided, into the paper tray. This calibration process will be discussed in greater detail further in this review.

I installed on a 17" Macbook Pro under OS X 10.4.7, and installation went completely without a hitch. I've installed literally dozens of printers over the years, and though it took longer than any prior printer, the process itself was the easiest that I've encountered. I did not try a Windows installation, but other than asking that you not attach the printer before the software is installed, the procedure looks essentially identical between the two.

There are two ways of connecting the printer – via USB 2 or by connecting it to your network. An Ethernet port is provided. There is no Firewire port.

The B9180 installs just like any other printer. But, it also comes with a special Photoshop compatible driver that combines the OS and printer components into one user interface, making the use of profiles as well as efficient printing simple and straightforward.

In addition to a comprehensive Quick Start guide, the printer comes with a 70 page printer manual that is straightforward, and a model of clarity regarding the printer's components and functions. Compare this with the recently reviewed Canon iPF 5000, which came with virtually no printed documentation at all, and whose electronic help file doesn't even have an index. Thumbs up to HP for both its ease of installation and comprehensiveness and clarity of documentation.

My only complaint is that the above window pops up from time to time while access the printer. Why HP thinks I need to be reminded of this redundant information escapes me. Very annoying!

The printer's Utility program though is a model of clarity and straightforward communication. Below are two of the windows provided. Cleverly, there are links provided to the HP web store where inks, paper and heads may be ordered online. At the time of this writing, in early September '06, the store does not yet show B9180 supplies in stock, but this should be addressed as printers become generally available.

The ink level readings shown immediately above are from a screen shot taken right after the printer was first installed. It show an average remaining ink level of about 70% once the ink lines are filled and the heads are charged. The cartridges that ship with the printer are standard size – holding 27ml of ink each. This compares to 17 ml on the Epson R2400's carts, which will likely mean less frequent need to change inks. (Cartridges for the larger Canon iPF 5000 are 130 ml, and the Epson 4800 110 ml or 220 ml.

With its smaller paper size handling capability as well as smaller ink cartridges this makes the new HP a direct competitor to the Epson R2400, not the larger Canon 5000 and Epson 4800. So why offer them up by way of comparison here? Simple. The Canon is the first pigment ink competitor to Epson, and therefore from an ink perspective, at least, it is relevant. The Epson 4800 then, as a direct competitor to the Canon 5000, needs to be mentioned as well.

It is no secret that both Canon and HP will be bringing out larger as well as smaller printers in their pigment ink series, so while each company has decided to launch with a model targeted at a specific market niche, we can expect there to be competition by all three companies in all market segments before too long.

I was interested to note that HP recommends leaving the printer on continuously. This allows the printer to continuously monitor its own status, cleaning heads and otherwise maintaining itself on a daily basis. They caution that if turned off the printer may take some time to reindorborate (a made-up word – but I like it) itself when turned back on. Power consumption when idle is about 10 watts, so leaving the printer on continuously does have an electrical cost, but it isn't that high. (About CDN $10 / year, for example, for someone living in Toronto). More problematic is that the power On light is a very bright blue. So bright that in a dark room it actually costs a shadow. Could we tone it down a bit HP? I don't need a night-light. Just an indicator.

NB: From time to time, especially if the printer has been unused for a few days, sending a print job to it does not wake it up. I have not found any pattern to this as yet, but have noted this behaviour on occasion.

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The Plug-in Driver

Like Canon with the iPF 5000, HP provides the B9180 with an all-in-one plug-in printer driver for Photoshop. It is an Automation plug-in while Canon's is an Export plug-in, but otherwise they are quite similar.

If you're going to be printing from within Photoshop this is the preferred way to work. In avoids the confusion of mixed menus between the printer driver and the OS, placing everything that you need on one screen. Otherwise, printing with the B9180 from any other application, or Photoshop for that matter, is similar to what is done with any other printer. Again, the HP manual is a model of clarity, and even people who are new to printing should have no problem in getting up and running, and staying that way.

It may not be immediately obvious how to access non-HP profiles from within the printing plug-on. It turns out though that HP has made it quite easy. At the lower left corner of the plug-in screen is a dialog titled HP Color Center. Within that is Add Custom Paper, which produces the dialog seen above. This allows you to indicate the type of HP paper that your new paper is similar to, and then point to its profile (one that you've made or otherwise acquired).

My only complaint with this otherwise very well executed capability is that it would be much simpler if HP simply provided choices, such as Glossy or Matte, Paper Thickness, and the like. Knowing which paper type to choose from their provided list is an exercise in frustration and likely wrong choices. For example, which would you choose for a medium weight matte paper?

Notwithstanding, HP is to be congratulated for recognizing that we don't just use their own branded papers. The other manufacturers have thus far had their marketing heads up their respective butts in this regard when it comes to us being able to easily configure their drivers for third-party or custom papers and profiles.

There is a quirk though with the plug-in and custom profiles. Be sure that the Borderless selection is unchecked, otherwise your new profile will not show up in the list. Weird.

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Papers

Like all printer makers HP likely makes most of its money from ink and paper rather than from the printers themselves. To this end HP has developed a fairly comprehensive line of papers, including HP Advanced Photo Paper in several finishes, and some OEM'd Hahnemuhle fine art papers. Profiles for f these papers are installed automatically when the printer's software is installed.

I tested both Glossy and Satin finishes of APP and both were very attractive versions of this type of paper. I particularly liked the Satin version, which is a sort of semi-gloss, and which looks very similar to Epson's Semi-Matte.

The Hahnemuhle papers are claimed by HP to be versions created to specifically compliment HP's Vivera inks, but I haven't done any rigorous testing to determine if there are indeed any noticeable differences.

During the several weeks that I worked with the B9180 I tried a wide variety of RC, fiber, matte and glossy papers, and had no problems in either creating my own profiles for them, or otherwise in making extremely attractive prints.

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Paper Handling

The B9180 has two paper feeds; a standard paper cassette which holds various types of paper up to 13X19" in size, and a single sheet at-a-time Specialty Media tray. The cassette is straightforward – easy to load and without gimmicks or gotchas. The media tray is very clever. It is a door which swings open and allows any paper to be loaded through the front of the printer. The end of the paper is lined up with clearly marked position markers, and then the OK button on the control panel is pressed. The paper is then "sucked into" the printer (actually out the back), and when you're ready to print this is performed in the normal way.

The benefits of this approach are that you can load thick media in a straight paper path. You do have to allow enough room behind the printer for the paper to exit without hitting an obstruction, but even a printer on a shelf will likely not have too much trouble with this.

I did have some concerns about naming conventions. Whereas Canon has decided to call the common American paper of 11X17" ANSI-B, HP calls it Tabloid. Come on folks – stop confusing us. This is a common and popular paper size in North America. Simply call it 11X17" and stop the nonsense.

I also was frustrated by the fact that paper type and paper location settings in both the regular driver and the plug-in driver are linked. If previously set to one location, when you change to that paper type again its corresponding setting is reverted. What I mean by this is if you change from one type of paper to, say, glossy, and glossy was loaded in the cassette last time, but this time you're going to be feeding it from the single sheet Special Media tray, the settings in that dialog are automatically changed to what it was the last time. If you're not aware of this behaviour, or fail to notice it, you'll end up printing from the wrong feed with the wrong paper.

It should be mentioned on the plus side of the ledger that when you place a single sheet of paper, of whatever size, in the Specialty Media tray, there is no need to unload the cassette. Just flip down a door, position the paper and press "OK". But, afterward when you want to switch back to using the cassette you need to remember to reposition the door. Simple enough.

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Self Calibration

The HP B9180 is, to my knowledge unique in consumer-grade printers in providing a closed-loop self calibration capability. This process is initiated automatically when the printer is first installed, and can be ran any time the user wishes, or if one detects banding or other issues. It should also be run whenever heads are changed.

This is a completely automatic process that requires nothing more than a few sheets of A4 paper and some patience.

The way it works is that the light from four coloured LEDS is reflected off a test pattern that the printer makes. Densitometric sensors then measures the color density of the inks laid down by measuring the reflection of each color and then compares it to the internally coded target color density. Using a closed loop process this then calibrates the printer as needed to lock in consistency.

Please note that this is not profiling. This is calibration. In other words, the printer is returning itself to a known and desirable state in the event that it changes for any reason.

Sounds great. But, one has to ask, why is this necessary?

First though, a small digression. Epson has claimed that one of the things that differentiates their Pro series printers (like the Pro 4800) from their consumer grade printers (such as the R2400), is that the Pro printers are individually calibrated at the factory. Consumer grade printers are claimed by Epson to have heads which are consistent enough in manufacture that calibration isn't required for typical users, especially at this price point. (One of the mysteries of life is why Epson Pro printers when they are unpacked therefore don't have ink in the lines or heads, but that's the subject for another day).

Apparently this calibration only has to be done once, because the Epson heads are permanent, purportedly lasting for the life of the printer – however long that may be. But with the HP B9180 printer and its user replaceable heads, the approach taken is that the printer should be able to calibrate itself when set up for the first time, or when heads are changed, or whenever the user wishes.

One can obviously argue the merits of permanent vs replaceable heads, but if you're going to have replaceable heads that having this type of built-in closed-loop calibration capability would seem to be a plus.

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Print Evaluation

This is the part that's hardest about doing online or magazine reviews of printers, paper ,and ink. Other than showing gamut plots (which only tell part of the story) there really is no way to show how a printer performs, other than to quote printing speed. The subjective factors of image quality are just that – subjective. And, even if there were some way of demonstrating what a print looks like via a web page, what about paper choices? There are a myriad of papers, surfaces, types and thicknesses. So, with all of this as caveats, here goes.

When it comes to colour reproduction, as judged visually, I'm going to compare the B9180 to the Canon iPF5000 – simply because it is the printer which, thus far, I have found to have the widest gamut. I also show a comparison with the Epson Pro 4800 using K3 inks, which shows results roughly comparable to the HP's primary competitor, the similarly priced Epson R2400. (If you have not already seen it, you may wish to refer to my Canon iPF5000 review for a comparison between it and the Epson Pro 4800).


HP B9180 = Solid. Canon iPF5000 = wire frame

Gamut

What the gamut plot above shows (based on profiles which I made on Moab Kayenta paper with a Gretag Macbeth Eye One and Eye One Match profiling software), is that the HP has a somewhat smaller gamut in comparison with the canon iPF5000. This is especially so in the greens and blues.

The colour ramps below tell us a bit more, but there is a caution. What we see here is not just a matter of gamut, but the way in which the profiling process has interacted with it, the printer's dithering algorithms, and for all I know the phases of the moon as well. So, please read this as one man's test results with his particular printers, profiling tools and techniques, and therefore not necessarily indicative of more broad based results which might be produced by others. (These are screen grabs of test charts displayed using Soft Proofing in Photoshop and the described profiles. The monitor was a Sony Artisan). Remember as well – you're looking at an image that has been converted to sRGB for the web.

HP B9180 on Moab Kayenta
Canon iPF5000 on Moab Kayenta

What is seen above is that the Magenta ramp is a bit more accurate (subjectively) than the Canon, though the ramp show a couple of more steps on the Canon. Yellow is also more saturated on the HP, and the ramp seems to go further, but there is a strange jump in the middle which is likely; a profiling artifact – meaning I need more targets.

The Canon's blues are more saturated, while the Canon's green ramp shows more steps. The HP shows more steps in the Red ramp, though the Canon's red appears cleaner. The HP's gray scale ramp shows a fraction more differentiation in the darkest tones.


HP B9180 = Solid. Epson Pro 4800 = wire frame

In this comparison what we see is that the HP has a slightly wider gamut than the Epson in the greens and magentas. The HP and the Epson are closer in their gamuts than are the HP and the Canon, but then this is to be expected when comparing 8 ink vs 12 ink printers.

Looking at a range of actual prints, on glossy paper as well as matte, most observers and I agree that there isn't a huge difference between Epson, Canon or HP prints when custom profiles are used with the same papers. One can quibble over small differences, but gamut isn't an area where I would say that any of these printers jumps out ahead of the others in a clearly visible way when printing and viewing a broad range of images.

Metamerism & Gloss Differential

As far as metamerism goes, I find none to be visible. I do see a bit of gloss differential on glossy papers, but not in all light conditions. It seems to be more obvious under tungsten spots than under diffused daylight or a diffused print viewing station.

Resolution

Finally, the question of resolution. To the naked eye, even peering closely through my bifocals, I can see no meaningful difference in resolution between these three manufacturer's printers. Similarly, through a 3X loupe I can see differences in dithering patterns, but that's all they are – differences. Through an 8X loupe though it appears to me that the Canon actually is putting down a bit more actual detail than the HP, or the Epson for that matter. The difference is small indeed, but can be seen under an 8X loupe. But, I repeat, I can't see any meaningful difference in resolution to the naked eye.

B&W

Selecting Grayscale printing produced very nice and neutral B&W prints. There is no special tonal adjustment capability the way there is on some competitors and especially higher end products, but this capability can be accomplished in Lightroom or Photoshop.

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Printing Speed

Manufacturer's published printing speeds are a lot like their battery life specs on cameras – totally meaningless in the real world. I didn't have an Epson R2400 to compare, but what I did have was an Epson 4800 and a Canon iPF5000. The following are the printing times, using the regular printer drivers, for a 9X11" standard test file in colour, at each printer's highest quality printing mode. The paper size was 11X17", or Tabloid as HP calls it (ANSI B as Canon calls it).

Timing started when Print was pressed and stopped when the paper was ejected from the printer.

HP B9180 = 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Canon iPF5000 = 3 minutes, 25 seconds

Epson Pro 4800 = 3 minutes, 45 seconds

As can be seen, these printers are each within a few seconds of the others in print speed.

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The Bottom Line

The MSLP of the HP B9180 in the US is $699.00. The Epson R2400, by comparison, retails for $849.99, but does come with a roll paper holder. If LAN connectivity is important, keep in mind that the HP comes with it included. This is not available for the R2400.

One final thing. Who thought that it was a good idea to call this printer the B9180? It seems like such an arbitrary number. I know that product naming and numbering rarely makes sense to outsiders, but with the exception of Pentax's incredibly stupid *isD moniker B9180 is right up there in obscurity. Why not B9810? Or B8190. Or B9801? See what I mean? Totally forgettable. Even though I've been using the printer for three weeks and writing this review on and off for two of those weeks, I still need to see what I wrote previously to make sure that I'm getting it right.

Great printer. Forgettable name.

But, if a desktop 13X19" printer is on your shopping list, the new HP B9180 is definitely one that should be looked at and considered closely. There's little wrong with it, and a great deal to like.

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September, 2006


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Concepts: Inkjet printer, Ink, Ink cartridge, Printing, Printer, Computer printers, Hewlett-Packard, Paper size

Entities: Toronto, HP, the Canon 5000, North America, HP Color Center, printer driver, selenium, OS, Ethernet, confusion, Windows, OS X, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Macbook Pro, Photoshop, R2400

Tags: paper, Epson, inks, pigment ink, glossy, media tray, HP B9180, Canon iPF, black ink, pigment ink market, paper type, calibration, profiles, printer driver, self calibration, replaceable heads, Quick Start guide, single sheet, HP B9180 printer, paper tray, specialty media, printing, plug-in, Epson printer, user, consumer grade printers, Specialty Media tray, photo-quality inkjet printer, ink printer, fine-art photo printer, Photo Paper, paper size, Epson R2400, competitive pigment-ink-based printer, affordable printer, all-in-one plug-in printer, HP paper, custom papers, ink cartridges, prior printer