The entry level of the archival-quality photo printer market is heating up right now, with the simultaneous release of Epson's Stylus Photo R1900 and HP's Photosmart Pro B8850. HP's entry is a lower-priced version of the Photosmart Pro B9180, offering that model's very good print quality and strong features (with a few intelligent omissions) at a lower price.
The B8850 is a large printer, weighing nearly 40 pounds. It has a 200-sheet paper tray and a single-sheet, manual-feed tray with a straight paper path, both of which are capable of handling paper from 3.5 by 5 inches up to 13 by 19 inches. It uses eight individual high-capacity ink cartridges, with separate black inks for photo and matte paper types, a light gray ink for black-and-white printing, and the standard complement of cyan, yellow, magenta, light cyan, and light magenta inks.
In addition to the ink cartridges, the B8850 also requires installation of four printheads; but, under normal usage, the printheads should last the life of the printer.
The B8850 uses the Vivera inks and cartridges found in the B9180; as a result, prints made with the newer model are as good as those from the original. On all media types--glossy, semigloss, matte, and fine-art papers--the B8850 produces high-quality prints that have broad tonal range and look true to life. When comparing prints on similar paper types with the R1900, some viewers felt that the B8850 prints were a bit cooler than those of the R1900, but the differences were minimal, and easily correctable.
On glossy papers, the B8850 exhibits some bronzing, especially on images with large areas of little or no ink on the page. On HP's Advanced Glossy paper--the company's preferred glossy media--this can be a bit unsightly. If we hadn't seen the glossy output from the R1900, we would have said that the B8850's glossy output was quite good, but the Epson printer does a much better job in this category.
Where the B8850 does have it over the R1900 is in black-and-white printing. The HP model produces great black-and-white photos that are rich and detailed, with no visible color cast on most paper types. They're close to the quality you get with Epson's US$800 Stylus Photo R2400 or $1,200 Stylus Pro 3800, although those printers use two gray inks in addition to the photo or matte black inks, which gives you slightly more tonal range and shadow detail than you'll get with the B8850 (or the B9180).
The B8850's print life should also be quite good. According to Wilhelm Imaging Research, prints using the B8850 and many of HP's glossy and fine art papers should last for nearly 275 years when framed under glass, and approximately 200 years unframed. This is among the longest lifespans of any of the printer-ink combinations Wilhelm has tested.
As the archival printer market has grown, so have the choices for alternative papers from different manufacturers (see Printing on unusual surfaces), and HP wisely recognizes this by letting you automatically add new paper types--and their associated ICC color profiles--directly to the Settings menu in the Print dialog box. This feature debuted with the B9180, and nearly three years later, no other printer manufacturer makes it as easy to print on alternative paper types without jumping through hoops.
The B8850 also comes with a nice suite of utilities for managing the printer, including a Dashboard widget that displays the current ink levels in each cartridge and a basic application for printing photos (although most people who purchase the printer will probably have a photo program such as Photoshop CS3, Lightroom, Aperture, or iPhoto that they will use for their printing needs).
HP print utilities
HP includes a number of smart utilities for managing the B8850, including a Dashboard widget that displays the current ink levels.
While the B8850 shares a lot of features with the B9180, there are a few missing items in the lower-priced model. The B9180 has an Ethernet port, which is handy for using the printer in small workgroups; a front-panel LCD that lets you manage the printer without a Mac; support for HP's Postscript RIP; and a higher thickness threshold--1.5mm vs. 0.7mm--with media in the manual feed slot. Few of these omissions will matter to the B8850's target audience of amateur digital photographers, who we think will much prefer spending less money to get the same print quality as the B9180.
There's a lot to like with the B8850, but it's not the speediest printer in its class. In the standard print mode, the B8850 printed a 4-by-6-inch photo in 75 seconds, an 8-by-10-inch photo in 156 seconds, and a 12-by-18-inch photo in 309 seconds. Printing at the maximum print quality resulted in speed decreases of 30 to 42 percent on average, but the only printer in this class that is slower than the B8850 is its predecessor, the B9180. Both Canon's Pixma Pro9000 and Epson's R1900 were at least twice as fast as the B8850 in default print mode, and on average 70 to 90 percent faster at maximum print quality.
The B8850 comes with high-capacity ink cartridges, which means more printing before you run out of ink. In our tests, we printed more than 200 photos--mostly 8-by-10-inch prints and larger--before we ran out of any ink. That's great, but it's also worth noting that the HP cartridges also cost more, so you don't get a great price break with the larger capacities. (You will pay roughly similar amounts per milliliter for ink from any of the other major printer manufacturers.)
Macworld's buying advice
The Photosmart Pro B8850 isn't a radical shift from HP's initial entry into the pigment ink printer market. HP wisely chose to whittle the right features from the B9180 to create an affordable, entry-level printer for photographers looking for archival-quality prints. While it lacks some of the glitz of Epson's Stylus Photo R1900, the B8850 is a strong offering with very good print quality on most paper types and the best black-and-white printing capabilities of any printer under $800 that I've tested. If the R1900 were not available, the B8850 would without question be the printer to buy. The R1900's glossy photo quality definitely outshines the B8850's, but if you want black and white, the B8850 is the better choice at this price.
[Rick LePage runs the photo printing site Printerville.]