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DIGITAL PHOTOS JUST GOT SMARTER

Hewlett-Packard's new scanner and printer take a big step forward

I've been excited about PC photography ever since digital cameras, desktop scanners, and simple editing software hit consumer markets about 18 months ago. But while the process is fun, the results have been disappointing. The systems are great at creating images for a Web site or pictures of the family to be E-mailed to relatives, but results on paper fall far short of the humblest conventional snapshot.

The low-cost scanners and cameras just can't produce enough of the tiny dots, or pixels, to match the smooth blending of the even tinier grain in a photograph. The results are pictures that look fine on the screen, where the resolution never tops 100 dots per inch, but appear coarse and mottled when printed.

SOLUTION. That's about to change dramatically. Hewlett-Packard will make it possible for amateurs to achieve near-professional results when it ships, in mid-May, its PhotoSmart scanner and printer for Windows 95 at about $500 apiece. (The companion $400 PhotoSmart digital camera went on sale in March.)

By getting high-quality digital images into the computer, the scanner solves the biggest single problem confronting photo enthusiasts who want to go digital. The new HP camera, while attractively priced, offers top resolution of only 640x480 pixels, or roughly 80 dots per inch on an 8x10 picture. While typical of digital cameras costing less than $1,000, that's not enough for good prints. To make things worse, the image quality of digital cameras is also hurt by the methods for compressing the data for storage. And these digital cameras are simple point-and-shoot models, lacking the flexibility of even the most modest single-lens reflex.

The trick is to use a scanner to capture the image produced by a conventional camera. The PhotoSmart scanner will handle prints up to 5x7 inches. But what sets it apart is the ability to scan slides and negatives, a feature until now available only in professional units costing at least twice as much. It scans film at 2,400 dots per inch. After trying out the setup, I have found that the images hold their quality in enlargements up to at least 8x10 inches.

Using the scanner could hardly be simpler. It comes with Microsoft Picture It! image-editing software, or you can use more sophisticated software, such as Micrografx Picture Publisher or Adobe PhotoShop. You insert the material to be scanned into a slot, click an on-screen button, and the scanner does a quick preliminary scan of a print, a slide, or in the case of negatives, an entire strip. You can crop and correct brightness, contrast, and color balance before the final scan, which delivers the image to your editing program.

Once you're finished editing your images, you are ready for the PhotoSmart printer. Unlike inkjet printers that allow you to use special ink cartridges for better photo results, the PhotoSmart is designed exclusively for photographic output. It is both mediocre and excruciatingly slow at printing text. And while it will print on a variety of surfaces including plain copier paper, it's a waste of this printer's abilities to use anything less than special photo paper.

This paper, which is sold by HP, Eastman Kodak, and others, looks very much like the resin-coated paper used to make photo prints. HP estimates that the combined cost of photo paper and ink will come to about $2 for an 8x10, expensive for computer output but cheap for photography. If you work from negatives, the system saves you the considerable cost of having a photofinisher make prints of every shot you take.

TOPS. At best quality, it takes the PhotoSmart about eight minutes to print out a full-page image. But it's worth the wait. The results look for all the world like photographs. Even with an 8x10 enlargement from a 35mm Kodacolor negative, I had to use a magnifying glass to find evidence that the image came from a computer printer rather than a darkroom.

One important difference between conventional photography and this new printer could be how they fade over time. HP claims its images will last indefinitely in an album or otherwise stored in the dark. Light will fade any color print, slowly turning it paler and bluer, and HP says inkjet images will suffer light damage faster than conventional photos.

If you're taking pictures to frame and hang on the wall, the greater stability of conventional photo prints still make them your best bet. But that's not the fate of most pictures. For $1,000, an amount a photo hobbyist might drop on a first-rate lens, the HP PhotoSmart scanner and printer can get you into serious digital photography.

BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM



RELATED ITEMS

PHOTO: HP PhotoSmart System

PHOTO: HP PhotoSmart Digital Camera

PHOTO: HP PhotoSmart Photo Printer

PHOTO: HP PhotoSmart Photo Scanner

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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