The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 (around $510 US street price) is a thermal inkjet printer capable of handling paper up to 13 by 19 inches at 4800 optimized dpi. The B9180 uses eight cartridges that hold a hefty 28cc (each) of pigment ink. Three black cartridges and five color cartridges combine to produce water-resistant prints that have been tested for 200+ years of longevity. HP's densitometric closed loop color calibration system produced consistent color over the 3-month period that I tested the unit. Combined with the convenience of never having to swap cartridges regardless of the paper stock I used, the HP B9180 proved to be a reliable, affordable, pro-caliber printer.

In this report, you'll learn the ins and outs of this unit and how to avoid its occasional quirks. I'll even share with you some tips I've learned through regular use. I find the HP B9180 comparable to the Epson R2400, even though the HP costs less. The bulk of my experience with the HP unit has been printing via a Mac using the Mac driver supplied by HP with Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop CS2. HP also produces a Windows driver for the B9180, but I haven't used it enough to comment about it.

Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

Printer Set Up

Give yourself an hour or so to set up the B9180. After unpacking the main unit, you have to install printheads (4 of them--each handles 2 inks) and eight ink cartridges. There's lots of packaging (everything is individually wrapped), and you have to make sure you put the right thing in the right place. Don't try to do this in a hurry. I recommend playing some of your favorite music during this process.

Once everything is set up, load the paper and let the B9180 run through a self-printing calibration process. It's a good time to grab a bite to eat or take a coffee break. (We all know a watched printer never calibrates.)

Once you return, loading the printer software is a snap. You can use the included CD or go to the Support and Drivers page on the HP site and download the software. One of the features included is the HP Photosmart Pro print plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. The plug-in is accessed through Photoshop's Automate menu (File > Automate), and it really simplifies setting up print jobs. I recommend that you try it when making your first few prints with the B9180.

The HP Photosmart Pro print plug-in for Adobe Photoshop simplifies print setup with the HP B9180.

To help you get off on the right foot, here are a couple of HP support documents for setting up print jobs:

Paper Tray Tips

There are two options for sending paper through the B9180 printer--the main tray and the specialty media tray. Unless you're using heavy fine art paper, the main tray is the most convenient. You can load it up with stock that's between 4 by 6 and 13 by 19 inches and begin printing. As long as you remember to put your paper face down in the tray, not much can go wrong. That is, unless you specify the wrong tray in the print dialog box.

If you specify the specialty media tray when you really wanted the main tray (or the other way around), you're probably in for a printer reboot. This is the thing you most want to avoid, because the wait can run as long as 5 agonizing minutes. So be sure you have the proper media tray selected in the dialog box before initiating the launch sequence.

Be sure you have the correct paper tray selected in the dialog box.

When you need to use the specialty media tray, such as for the excellent Hahnemuhle Watercolor paper, double check your dialog box to ensure the specialty tray is selected. You can load only a sheet at a time, with the side you want to print on facing up. There's a bit of a knack to loading the paper. You have to get it in position on the tray that drops down, then hope you have it loaded perfectly straight so when the printer grabs the page, it stays straight. You also have to allow room behind the printer so it can pull the paper all the way through as it prepares the job. I lost a few sheets to misloading. The printer pulled them through at an angle, and it creased the paper. Ack!

Once I got the knack of loading single sheets, my losses diminished. As long as I didn't think I'd mastered the technique, I was OK. The minute I got cocky, I'd lose a sheet to misfeeding.

Moral of the story is, use the main tray when you can. It allows you to push the printer up against the wall (saving space) and doesn't misfeed as easily. But when you want to swing for the fences with the heavier fine art paper, be prepared to lose a sheet or two along the way.

Black and White Printing

When you look at the ink configuration for the B9180, you may think it can't print in B&W like some of the other printers in its class, such as the Epson R2400. The HP holds only three black ink cartridges (as opposed to the four that you often see). You'll see photo black, matte black, and gray. That's it. Yet it produces wildly attractive B&W prints.

Here are a few tips that will help you get the best, longest lasting grayscale images. The first thing to understand is the difference between composite B&W printing vs. using gray inks only. This option is presented to you in HP's print dialog box.

If you print B&W using composite, some colored inks are used. The primary reason for this is to control the bronzing effect on coated photo paper. If you were to print gray inks only on glossy stock, for example, the bronzing might be very noticeable.

But there's a beautiful solution to this challenge. Instead, use HP's Fine Art stock, such as the Hahnemuhle Watercolor paper. You don't have to worry about bronzing on HP's fine art paper, so you can use the gray inks-only option. Not only do you get true B&W prints this way, but your prints should be good for 230 years or longer because you don't have any colored inks in the mix. (Colored ink is more vulnerable to fading under UV exposure than black ink.)

HP engineers recommend for B&W printing that you use the sRGB color space, gray inks only, fine art paper, and choose "printer managed" for color management. Believe it or not, there's a coated side to the Hahnemuhle Watercolor paper (when I hold the paper by my fingertips in the center of the long end, the paper would curl inward toward the coated side), and that's the side you want facing up when you load the stock in the specialty media tray.

I haven't felt the urge to apply any toning to the watercolor fine art paper, because it's already fairly warm toned. Following these guidelines, my output has been outstanding. Beautiful, rich B&W prints that rival anything I could do in the chemical darkroom, and just as able to hold up for centuries. Apparently the B9180 doesn't need four black-ink cartridges. This is a great printer for B&W enthusiasts. If you want to use composite printing on regular photo paper, it looks very good but the fine art stuff is tough to beat.

Paper Stocks

HP offers a pretty good variety of printing paper. The HP Advanced Photo Paper is available in Satin-Matt and Glossy in the 13 by 19 inch sizes ($49.44 for 25 sheets). These surfaces dry quickly, are water resistant, and have substantial weight (10.5 mil thickness). Advanced Photo Paper is also available in standard sizes including 4 by 6, 5 by 7, and 8.5 by 11.

During testing, I became quite fond of the Hahnemuhle Watercolor paper. It's acid-free and contains 50 percent cotton rag. It has a nice heft at 13.4 mil thickness, and will run you about $4 for a 13 by 19 inch sheet. Expensive, yes. But for your favorite B&W images, it's worth it.

There are three other fine art stocks: Aquarella, Artist Matte Canvas, and Hahnemuhle Smooth Fine Art. All of these papers are heavy and expensive, but beautiful.

A Few Notes

The HP B9180 is designed to be left on all the time. Why? That way it can automatically service the heads and keep the unit ready for printing. When the B9180 decides to service the heads and starts thumping and banging without notice, it may catch you off guard. But over time you'll get used to it.

The low ink cartridge warning comes on about three prints (13 by 19 inches) before depletion. I kept printing after the warning, and finally the B9180 just stopped in mid-print and told me I was out of ink. I popped open the printer drawer, replaced the depleted cartridge, and the B9180 went back to work and finished my print without any noticeable effect.

The HP B9180 and its set of ink cartridges.

I mentioned at the top of the article that you must install four print heads in the B9180 when first setting it up. HP says the heads should last a few years under normal use. But if you need to replace them, you can do so for about $40 per head. With the Epson R2400, the print heads aren't designed for replacement. This means the B9180 is probably a better long-term investment than printers that don't have user-replaceable heads.

At this time, ink and paper for the B9180 is difficult to find in retail outlets where I buy my other supplies (such as ink and paper for the Epson R2400). This may change in the future, but for now you should keep a good supply on hand, because you're probably going to have to order your supplies on the web.

Bottom Line

The HP Pro B9180 Inkjet Printer is an ideal "first serious" photo printer. It produces gallery-quality output up to 13 by 19 inches, is well-designed, is very affordable (around $500 US with a set of inks and sample paper), and reasonable to maintain. Photographers ready to move up to gallery-quality output at home or in the studio should take a close look at this unit.

When I showed off prints from the B9180 and told people that it was an HP printer, some photographers looked at me curiously. Epson (and recently Canon) has been so dominant in this space that many photographers assume that's what everyone's using. But I believe that anyone with a discriminating eye and working within a budget will be pleasantly surprised by this printer. And if B&W output is important to you, try the fine art paper with gray ink only. The results can be stunning.

There are a few quirks, for sure. Paper handling could be smoother with the specialty media tray. But with a little experience, I've managed to work around most of the paper mishaps I endured early on. The main thing to keep in mind is to avoid rebooting the printer. The wait is agonizing while in the middle of a printing session.

Those nits aside, I've grown attached to the B9180. Having it alongside the Epson R2400 gives me many printing options I didn't have before. And these days, I find myself using the HP more and more. It's a real winner, and I highly recommend it.


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