I reviewed HP's first 13" x 19" pigment ink printer, the Photosmart Pro B9180, a little over a year ago and was impressed with both its print quality and its price point.
This year HP has introduced the B9180's "little brother," the Photosmart Pro B8850, that produces the same quality 13" x 19" prints using the same eight high-capacity Vivera pigment ink #38 cartridges with a few less bells and whistles and a list price of $150 less.
HP says that it is designed for the dedicated user, pro or advanced amateur, who uses one computer and one printer in their workflow. So the 8850 does not have the Ethernet port that allows the 9180 to be networked or Third-Party RIP support. It also loses the front panel message LCD but it does have LEDs that blink to indicate low ink supply on individual ink cartridges and a nifty desktop Widget that shows all the ink levels at a glance.
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Since it uses the same cartridge size Vivera Pigment Inks as the 9180, the quality and ink usage should be the same. The following is a quote from the HP Web site's FAQ on the 8850 print costs: "In our lab tests, we printed a full 13 x 19 print using the Photosmart Pro Printer 'maximum dpi' mode. This final print cost us under $5 dollars in ink and paper."
I usually print using the "Best" mode because I have not seen enough quality difference to justify the increased print time and ink usage of the maximum setting and I figure my cost per 13" x 19" print is between $3.50 and $4.00 depending on the paper used. I made some test prints of the same image on both and I can't tell the difference without turning them over to see my notes on the back.
Speaking of backs, HP is making a new Professional Satin Matte Paper that is a heavier 300g weight with no HP markings on the back in response to requests from Pro users. It's a beautiful Luster-type finish and the additional 50g weight makes it feel much more professional.
As long as we are talking about the weight of paper, it's a good time to point out that the 8850 does not have as thick a paper path as the 9180, which can use material up to 1.5mm. The 8850 can easily handle Watercolor and Canvas papers with its .7mm capacity but it can't use the thicker Poster Board like its "big brother."
Both printers have a built-in densitometer and Closed Loop Calibration to maintain print quality and while the 8850's is a little less sophisticated, it does do its own maintenance every 24 hours to check the Print Head health. It fires each of 4884 nozzles in sequence and uses Electrostatic Drop Detection to check if they are firing correctly. If it senses a problem it does a cleaning cycle. What this means is that the user doesn't have to do a manual head cleaning cycle if he/she hasn't used the printer in a while because the printer is doing it for him. HP claims that this system uses less ink since it does the cleaning only when the printer needs it. This is a feature that was developed for the Design Jet series and has been integrated into both of the printers we are discussing.
One very interesting difference between the two printers is that HP suggests that you keep the 9180 turned on all the time so that it can do its maintenance thing because if you turn it off it goes through a much longer cycle when you turn it back on and it uses more ink. With the 8850 they have come up with a new system. When you turn it off with the power button on the front of the printer, instead of turning it off completely, it goes into a sleep mode and automatically wakes itself every 24 hours to run the print head check and then goes back to sleep again. When you turn it back on it awakens from its sleep and doesn't run the whole cleaning cycle again because it knows it's OK. If big brother is watching, I'll bet he's jealous of this feature.
So the choice between the two printers depends, as always, on what you, the photographer, feel will fit comfortably into your workflow. Here's part of HP's answer to that question from the previously mentioned FAQs:
"Do you need extreme color accuracy precision? Both printers contained HP's much-acclaimed built-in densitometer for auto color calibration. The color calibrating function in the B9180 offers a slightly higher degree of color calibration to provide an even more precise printer calibration."
"Do you require 16-bit printing capability? If so, the B9180's new print driver for Macintosh® allows true 16-bit printing capability in the 'max dpi' mode. The B8850 is an 8-bit printer on both PC and Mac."
So the good news is that if you're looking for a new 13" x 19" pigment ink printer, you now have two choices from HP to add into the mix with Canon's and Epson's offerings.