Snapshot printers, beware: Hewlett-Packard's new inkjet-based Photosmart A636 Compact Photo Printer sets a high standard-and rewards impatient users in the process.
Unlike its similarly portable sibling, the Photosmart A526, this midpriced model is fast: The 4-by-6-inch photos we printed came out in less than a minute each; other snapshot printers we've tested have taken almost twice as long. Most colors looked realistic, with good detail except in dark areas. My only gripes: Fleshtones seemed a little orangey, and monochrome photos had a slight pinkish tinge.
Connecting this squat, black machine to a computer requires you to provide your own USB cable (HP doesn't provide one), but the driver, stored in the printer's firmware, automatically installs itself. No computer, no problem: Just insert a media card into one of A636's many slots to start. The printer's 4.8-inch, touch-sensitive color LCD responds to your finger or to a stylus (HP includes one). The backlit navigation icons flanking the central display area are easy to understand, as are the images and messages on screen. The A636 comes with a carrying handle for road trips; a $25 battery is optional.
Printing options include captions, clip art, frames, and effects such as sepia toning and cartooning; you also get simple editing tools. The printer takes an unusually wide range of media sizes, from 4-by-6-inch photos to panoramic (4-by-12-inch) to 5-by-7-inch. The high-yield replacement ink cartridge ($35) lasts for approximately 120 prints, or 29 cents per print. A lower-capacity cartridge ($20) lasts for about 55 prints, or 36 cents per print.
A few of the Photosmart A636's controls perplexed me (for example, lowering the LCD is unusually difficult), but overall it was easy to use. And ultimately, this versatile photo printer made its mark on me: I actually missed it after testing it.