HP didn't invent the laser printer but -- along with Apple -- it helped popularize it with its highly acclaimed LaserJet series. And, along with Canon, Lexmark and Epson, HP brought inkjet printing to the masses. Now, anyone with as little as $40 can purchase an inkjet printer such as the Apollo P2200 (made by HP), capable of producing reasonably high-quality photos.
HP, along with its competitors, also has a line of multifunction devices (MFD) that combine the features of a printer, a scanner, a copier and -- on some models -- a fax machine. When these devices first hit the market about a decade ago, I warned consumers to stay away because, even though they saved space and cost over separate devices, they were never as good as stand-alone machines. Besides, if one function of such a device stopped working, you would be without all the functions until it was fixed or replaced.
Things have changed. Today's multifunction devices represent few if any compromises, and though there is still that risk of all your functions going away if your machine needs servicing, these machines are a lot less likely to break down than earlier models.
For the last few weeks, I've been testing HP's PSC 950, which combines a printer, a scanner, a copier and a fax machine into a single $399 device that is 17.8 inches wide, 14.1 inches deep and 10.7 inches high. But this system has one extra feature that lets you print digital photos without having to even use your PC. On the front of the unit are slots for three different types of digital camera memory cards: CompactFlash, SmartMedia and Sony's Memory Stick. The only missing format is secure digital media, which is starting to show up on some digital cameras.
I'll get to using these slots in a moment, but first let's concentrate on printing -- the task that you'll probably do every day. In this area, HP made no compromises. In fact, it's one of the best inkjet photo printers I've used and it's also excellent for printing regular text. HP rates the printer at up to 6.5 pages per minute for normal black printing and 12 pages a minute for draft mode. This is by no means the fastest printer on the market, but it turns out the draft mode is actually good enough for everyday use.
What's important about speed for black printing isn't the number of pages per minute but how long it takes for the first one or two pages, since that's what people typically print. Fact is, the PSC 950 prints a single page in draft mode in less than 10 seconds -- faster than most laser printers -- because there is no warm-up time. HP, like all printer manufacturers, also publishes speed ratings for color, but I pay no attention to those because color-printing speeds vary greatly depending on the density of the page and the quality of the print. Most people want the best possible quality from their color printers, which means they print slowly, no matter what brand or model you use.
The quality of color prints on the PSC 950 is superb when printed on high-quality glossy photo paper. My wife constantly complains about the graininess of my digital photos, but ever since I've been using this device, the complaints have gone away. No, it's still not as good as what you get from a photo lab, but it's getting close.
As with all devices that use inkjet cartridges, the real cost is in the consumables. I haven't had the unit long enough to go through an entire set of ink cartridges, but ZDLabs estimates the cost to be 7.3 cents per page of text and 45 cents per page in color.
Like many modern scanners, you can initiate a scan by pushing a button on the front of the unit or by using software on your PC. Either way, you quickly get a color or monochrome image of whatever is on the glass scanner bed on your PC screen.
The same scanner bed is also used for copying and faxing, but there is a limitation here. There is no document feeder, so you have to feed your sheets in one at a time. That's not necessarily so bad for copying but it's a hassle if you have a multi-page fax. For that reason, I would not recommend this system for anyone who sends a lot of faxes of paper originals. The device also serves as a fax modem, which allows you to fax documents directly from your PC.
The copier is certainly a bit slower than your typical office copier, but it's fine for home or small-business use. Having a color copier can be handy, especially if you have kids in school. I copied a couple of color photos and was reasonably impressed by the quality.
The unique feature of this machine is the way it handles photos on the memory cards inserted into one of its three slots. I took some pictures on my Kodak digital camera and, instead of uploading them to my PC as I normally do, I simply removed the CompactFlash memory card from the camera and inserted it into the PSC 950. An LCD display on the unit tells you how many pictures are on the memory card and asks you whether you want to save the pictures to your PC or print them.
If you choose print, you then get to select the pictures to print or you can print a proof sheet of all the pictures. But get this: Once the proof sheet has printed, you can then use a ballpoint pen to fill in a bubble to indicate which pictures you want to print. You use the pen to choose the size as well as the type of paper you're printing on. You then put the proof sheet on the scanner, press a button and the machine carries out your instructions. With other machines, you would do this using the PC, which can be confusing and time consuming.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book." Got a PC question? Visit www.PCAnswer.com.