TMO Review - Testing the HP Way
by , 1:15 PM EDT, June 20th, 2005
For a while, at least while Carly Fiorina was at the helm, the mainstream media occasionally would draw parallels between Apple Computer and HP. Both companies had charismatic CEOs, fabled histories, and troubled '90s. Both companies touted their prowess at product innovation, both in hardware and software. So the press would remind us, over and over.
In the real world, though, the companies couldn't be more different. Apple is the renegade of its industry, cutting out niches in search of iPod-like revolutions. HP, by contrast, largely competes under the rules of the Microsoft-Intel dominated PC industry. It is a monstrous organization with immeasurably more clout in corporate circles. So what about HP could interest a Mac Observer?
We began to look into the HP story when we realized the company wanted to become a one-stop shop for consumers' digital tasks. Want to take pictures? Scan documents? Print, copy, fax? Share your pictures? Make your own photo printouts? If Apple is building the digital hub, HP wants to build the spokes and the rim of the wheel.
Of course, it doesn't take much to throw together any old printer or a digital camera. As any Mac user knows, the magic of a gadget lies in the touch and response of a device, in the consumer's "Oh, they thought of that, too!" reaction. So we decided to put HP to the test: Does the company understand the consumer like Apple does? What's it like to have the HP experience?
From our recent experience with HP products, we can report that HP is beating the rest of the electronics industry and ahead of our expectations, yet still sometimes missing those "ah-ha" moments. Sometimes, the user experience is inelegant and tedious; but sometimes HP delivers even as well as Apple at its best.
A Preponderance of Products
HP's first problem is that it sells too many products. Just choosing which we would review was a lengthy chore -- and at the fabled TMO Labs we do this for a living. How is Grandma supposed to choose from the dozens of printer models (including deskjets, photo printers, all-in-ones, and laser printers) that HP offers? Ditto that for HP's digital camera profusion. It's much like the Bad Old Days at Apple when Mac users were awash in a sea of Performas and Quadras. At the risk of insulting someone, we feel HP would do well to eliminate many of its products. It's simply not helpful to sell half a dozen printers at each price point.
To be fair, HP's online store does permit easy comparison of products and includes a great product recommendation assistant. But these features would be a lot less necessary if there weren't so many products in the first place.
The Digital Darkroom + HP
Eventually we decided to examine two new HP imaging products, the US$300, 6 megapixel Photosmart R717 digital camera and the $500 Photosmart 8750 inkjet printer. With this combo we set out for a few weeks of taking pictures, making scrapbook pages, and printing frameable shots. We should note that this piece will gloss over many of the points of a standard product review.
HP's Photosmart R717 Digital Camera is supremely well-designed.
The printer is physically huge, mostly because it handles page sizes up to 13x19 inches. The print quality is fantastic and easily rivals that of prints ordered online (e.g., through the Kodak service in iPhoto).
In fact, for those that love hard-copy prints, the 8750 makes home developing an economically attractive option. If you look for deals (you can check TMO's partner DealsOnTheWeb) photo paper can be had for $0.20 per letter-size sheet.
In our tests, ink cost $1.16 per print.* That's $1.36 for an 8x10 print; through iPhoto, ordering 3-print batches you'd pay an outrageous $5 per shot (including shipping and tax). At that rate you'd make back the price of the printer before 140 letter-sized prints, and much faster making larger prints. Beyond the money, you also get the freedom to print what you want when you want it.
That Ever-Elusive Ease-of-Use
Unfortunately, while the 8750 printer is a solid workhorse, the user experience could be more pleasant. The labeling of HP's ink cartridges, for example, can be confusing. The printed pages land in a position that obstructs the manual paper feed. The output tray also obstructs the main paper tray in an inconvenient fashion. The printer occasionally destroyed a perfectly good piece of photo paper by spitting it out half-printed, complaining of a phantom paper jam.
When it comes to the small stuff, the R717 camera proves to be a much finer specimen. It is, in short, a great compact consumer camera. From the tightly nestled packaging to the stylish and grippy backing on the camera's body, the device is full of superb design elements. HP has learned, for example, that a photographer wants to push as few buttons as possible before snapping a shot. There is a convenient but unobtrusive auxiliary shutter button for shooting video. Even the swanky curvature in the camera's front casing acts as a groove for a finger to stabilize the camera during one-handed shooting.
This camera leads the pack in the software department as well. The R717 has several shooting modes -- a common feature on consumer cameras -- but the mode selector explains itself in uncommonly plain language. The menus are easy to navigate and changing settings is unusually fast. The R717 makes clever and efficient use of the compact screen during manual focusing. The camera assists in lining up serial shots to be used in making panoramic pictures. Pictures appear and disappear from the screen with fades and swipes, a trick Apple uses often in OS X. The camera can offer suggestions on how to improve an image when re-shooting, and can automatically remove red-eye from pictures without the aid of a computer.
Automatic panoramic image stitching during download is one of HP's slickest achievements.
The process of transferring photos to the computer is similarly pleasant. HP includes its own "Image Zone" software, which is really a collection of several photo-related utilities. By default, HP relies on iPhoto to organize pictures -- a wise decision, because Image Zone's alternative, "HP Gallery," is clunky by comparison. Perhaps the camera's slickest feature is its automatic image stitching: pictures taken in the R717's panorama mode are automatically stitched together during their download to iPhoto. (The original pictures are downloaded as well, and you can preview the panoramic image in-camera, before download.)
When Less is More
It's worth taking a moment to recognize just how much credit HP deserves for this little feature. Imagine if iPhoto performed automatic image stitching. Then imagine how much mileage Steve Jobs would get out of such a "simple trick." After a keynote demonstration and special mention of the feature from a dozen big media outlets (that includes you, Walt Mossberg), such a feat of automagic would become another feather in Apple's cap of user-friendliness.
HP Image Print lets you do some things iPhoto doesn't...but it's nothing particularly special.
Some users may find they prefer the HP software to Apple's, and it's great that HP includes solid, free software with their cameras -- but Image Zone is no killer app. In fact, we've come to believe that HP could improve its reputation by simply shifting its marketing emphasis from all of this me-too software -- including Instant Share, Image Zone, Image Print, Image Edit, and HP Gallery -- to the few true "gee whiz" features that set their products apart. Indeed, this may be why the Apple brand is pure gold, while HP might as well stand for Stodgy McStodgenstein.
So can there be any hope for HP? Absolutely. While the company's brand is weak in both the consumer electronics and digital photography arenas, many of its products are superb. The R717 camera didn't fall out of the sky, and it wasn't a fluke formation from some Fiorinian dream. Hard working engineers, programmers, and designers had to sweat to create the R717. The results are impressive.
It appears that two things need to happen for the HP experience and image to change. First, the company needs to latch on to what's going right in the more successful development teams, then apply the same design philosophies throughout the ranks. The digicam designers seem to know what the user wants, so why not put some of them in charge of other departments?
Second, HP needs to reconsider what features it wants to market most fiercely. Instant Share's approach to automatically emailing photos to the grandkids isn't revolutionary. Simple, pushbutton red-eye removal, in-camera photographic advice, or effortless, automatic panoramic image stitching during photo download -- now that's slick and useful, and it differentiates HP from both the CE pack (Cannon, Nikon, Kodak), and the PC pack (Microsoft, Apple).
The hard part is in place: HP clearly has at least some innovative, customer-focused R&D groups. With the right leadership in development and marketing, the company could soar again, on the back of a revived brand.
*We replaced the Gray cartridge (which has an MSRP of $30) after 60 8x10" prints, for a cost of 50 cents per print. The Tri-color cartridge ($35) ran out after 85 prints for a cost of 41 cents per print. The Blue photo cartridge ($25) ran out after 100, for 25 cents per print. Total ink cost per print: $1.16
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