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-- by Cynthia Morgan
Until recently, photographic images were the last refuge of the old-fashioned print shop. Even with electronic publishing, a small business either had to pay the pros to manipulate color slides, photographs and negatives, or do without. Today's low-cost digital cameras and photo printers won't put professional graphic artists out of business, but they do make it possible to use color photography in print and Web literature easily and relatively inexpensively.
Hewlett-Packard has joined other vendors in the electronic imaging arena with its PhotoSmart PC photography system for Windows 95. This suite of products-a digital camera, a film/slide/photo scanner and a photographic-quality color ink jet printer-not only lets you shoot and print color photographs via PC, but also lets you store and electronically manipulate images taken using conventional film cameras. Although the three devices work together, they can be purchased separately for use with other imaging products. In combination, they're strong enough to warrant a spot on our WinList.
The system could be a boon to small-to- midsized operations doing business on the Web that need an easy way to put product images online. The products would also be extremely handy for field auditors, surveyors, health care professionals, attorneys, appraisers and real estate agents, all of whom need hard-copy illustrations of electronic information. And while PhotoSmart's prints aren't exactly cheap-about $1.43 for an 8-by-10 glossy-they're less expensive and easier to obtain than conventional photographic prints, which can cost $2 or more per copy.
Like its main rival, Epson's $499 PhotoPC 500 (see WinLab Reviews, April), HP's $399 PhotoSmart Digital Camera offers 24-bit color, 640x480 dots-per-inch resolution and TWAIN compatibility. The unit runs on four AA batteries (an AC adapter is optional) and has a built-in automatic or manual flash. The camera's standard, fixed, seven-element glass lens is equivalent to a 43mm, f/2.8 lens in 35mm photography. It also accepts 37mm camcorder lenses.
Pictures are stored on HP's Photo Memory Cards, available in 2MB and 4MB sizes. A 2MB card, about $50 and roughly the size of a large postage stamp, can hold anywhere from four to 32 pictures, depending on the resolution-either normal, fine or superfine. By contrast, the Epson's 2MB film card is about $149.
The camera proved remarkably easy to set up and use. Within 10 minutes of opening the box, we were able to obtain good images. HP's software, on an included CD-ROM, featured an informative video tutorial and provided plenty of help. The camera's image-editing tools (Microsoft's PictureIt and Wang's Imaging utility) were simple and effective. The Wang Imaging software automatically downloads thumbnails of images in your camera when you select Scan, presenting six small images at a time on your PC screen. You can select only one image at a time for full-screen viewing from the Wang utility, however, and you'll have to re-download everything to select another thumbnail when you're finished-an inconvenience that was enough to make us stick to PictureIt, despite an interface that sometimes got in the way.
Image quality is a matter of optics, not bytes, and the images produced by HP's camera are a bit above snapshot level and about equal to the Epson's.
You'll pay $300 more for the PhotoSmart slide, photo and negative scanner than for our current WinList pick, the $199 Spot InnoScan FotoTak-6, but it's worth it in terms of quality and versatility. The PhotoSmart Photo Scanner can handle 2400dpi for slides but is limited to the photo printer's 600dpi range, which is adequate for most purposes. It handles 35mm negatives and slides, and up to 5-by-7-inch photographic prints. The scanner will also accept slides from Advanced Photo System film cameras. The TWAIN-compliant device works in color or black and white and offers better fine-tuning control and faster scanning than the InnoScan.
The scanner comes with a CD-ROM containing an impressive video tutorial and even more impressive installation routine. It first runs the video, then shuts down the computer so you can plug in the scanner adapter card, an oddly shaped Symbios Logic SCSI-2 ISA half-card. When you repower your PC, the software relaunches to look for the scanner. If something's gone wrong and the scanner is undetectable, the software automatically enters troubleshooter mode. You won't be allowed to proceed until the current step is completed.
The scanner offers three settings: 35mm negatives, 35mm slides and photos from 2 by 2 inches to 5 by 7 inches. Scanned-in images were slightly washed out but easily adjusted with HP's image-manipulation tools. (You can also link to your favorite photo editor.) Once adjusted, the images appeared fine-grained and more than adequate for use online or in informal documents.
The PhotoSmart Photo Printer isn't blazingly fast, but it does a good job printing photos, as well as standard graphics and text, on plain paper. We tested print quality using our PowerPoint graphics test, a 14-page collection of hard-to-reproduce images, text and line art. The PhotoSmart did a superior job on its own glossy, photographic paper, and it also did fine with 24-pound laser/ink jet plain paper. Colors were clear and reasonably true. On our color ramp test, the HP made smooth graduations from one color to the next, even printing difficult red-brown-green combinations evenly and with minimal spottiness. Black areas were solidly filled in, and the printer did a fair job of differentiating among neutral tones-beiges, whites, grays. It did a superb job on flesh tones. Reproduction is sharp enough that you'll begin to see the limits of electronic images very quickly.
HP keeps costs down on the $499 printer by "borrowing" resources from the PC for image processing. This technique will definitely make inroads on both performance and hard drive space during use. HP recommends you keep 120MB free on your hard drive when printing images; our experience shows you may want to allocate a bit more. Our 14-page, 10MB PowerPoint presentation required a little over 425MB of spooling space on the hard drive for optimal printing; our 1.3MB bitmapped Microsoft Photo Editor graphic needed 36MB of disk space. The printer releases bytes as it prints, but for large jobs you'll either need to allot enough space for the entire job (30MB per page is a good rule of thumb for slides) or break your print sequence into several separate, smaller jobs.
You'll also notice a slowdown when the PhotoSmart printer tackles especially tough jobs. On average, our test computer, with a 166MHz Intel Pentium and 40MB of RAM, lost about 33 percent of its application performance while images printed. But the printer itself turned in reasonably good times for a photo printer. An 8-by-10 photo took 5 minutes, 17 seconds to print in Draft mode and 8 minutes, 28 seconds in Best mode; Draft mode appeared to be nearly as good as the more saturated Best mode. Our 20-page text document took 21 minutes, 50 seconds to print; it's on the slow side even for ink jet printers but about 14 percent faster than the rival Epson Stylus Photo on our WinList.
A welcome development
The HP PhotoSmart PC photography system would be an asset to anyone who needs to transfer photographic images from paper to computer and back again quickly and easily. It won't take the place of professional graphics tools and talent anytime soon, but it still warrants a spot on our WinList.