HP Photosmart Pro B9180 [Mac] full review

HP’s Photosmart Pro B9180 inkjet is the successor to the company’s popular A3+ Designjet 30, featuring new pigment-based inks for gallery-quality colour and monochrome prints on a wide variety of media up to 13 x 19in.

Looking nothing like its predecessor in design or size, the USB 2.0 and Ethernet-equipped B9180 is well made, although it’s large and heavy even for a pro-spec printer. Furthermore, in spite of the Photosmart moniker, it’s totally bereft of non-essential features such as memory card slots, PictBridge ports and large colour screens. Mimicking its forerunner somewhat, ink cartridges are located in a discrete compartment away from the vulnerable print-heads but are now situated to the left of the 200-sheet input tray.

Although there aren’t many extras, the B9180 does feature HP’s Scalable Printing Technology, an incredibly precise and durable print head design with 1,200 nozzles per inch, promising long-life print heads and fast print times on a wide range of media up to 1.5mm thick. And it has sophisticated built-in print and colour management systems for consistent and reliable output.

Colour schemes
Of particular interest to professional photographers will be the new eight-colour Vivera inkset. When matched with certain HP media it is claimed, by independent testing, to offer unrivalled display permanence upwards of 200 years.

The sophisticated print management system monitors all 8,448 nozzles and can detect when a nozzle is blocked or fails. Even more surprising is the ability for adjacent nozzles to automatically compensate and prevent image degradation. If the nozzles can’t be unblocked from the driver, the B9180 allows the print heads to be replaced by the user, which is welcome news as having a printer returned for head replacement is a costly exercise.

Along with the expected diluted cyan and magenta, the B9180 adds a neutral grey-coloured ink to matte and photo black inks. Unlike rival systems, though – such as Epson’s K3 nine-cartridge inkset with its two grey inks and interchangeable matte and photo black inks used in the £599 Stylus Photo R2400 – all eight inks are installed simultaneously. Not only does this prevent cross-contamination when swapping matte and photo black inks but it also helps prevent costly mistakes when matching custom papers and finishes.

Although the accompanying documentation is clear and helpful, the initial setup is complicated, involving careful cleaning and installation of four dual-colour print heads that are installed, unusually, after the inkset. Print-head alignment and closed-loop colour calibration adds another 35 minutes or so.

Time management
As well as the usual printer driver and ICC profiles for a wide range of proprietary Photo and Hahnemuhle Fine-art papers, HP include Photosmart Pro, a print plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. This groups printer driver settings and Photoshop’s colour handling options into a single, unified screen. We found ourselves returning to it repeatedly for the large preview, clarity of layout and simplification of workflow. Also included as a component of the Printer utility, HP’s Colour Centre greatly simplifies the addition and deletion of custom paper profiles within the printer driver.

Using a colour-managed workflow, test prints were made from Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom on an Intel Mac, as well as a PowerBook with Photoshop handling colour management. Print times using Photoshop and HP’s Advanced photo paper were respectable at 80 seconds for a touch-dry, borderless 6 x 4in print, and 3 minutes 30 seconds for a borderless A4 print, using the printer’s Best quality option. At close to 12 minutes for a borderless A3+ print, the B9180 is less impressive. What’s more, there’s no draft option in the driver for that particular media, and at the Maximum resolution setting (presumably 4,800 x 1,200 dpi) print times doubled, with no appreciable increase in quality.

Fine prints
Print quality was top-notch though, with only the very faintest hint of banding and grain visible under close scrutiny in our A3+ test prints. Both gloss and matte-finish prints displayed exceptionally fine gradation and colours were generally neutral, though reds shifted slightly towards orange. Although free of colour casts, mono prints were a bit dull and lacking contrast. Like most of its rivals, it’s well worth producing custom profiles for your most-used media at least. Despite an improvement, we couldn’t get our mono prints to equal the dynamic range or match the overall quality of output of the Epson Stylus Photo R2400.

Compared with the Designjet 30, mono prints were superior but colour prints failed to match the vibrancy of the dye and pigment-based inkset. Although this isn’t entirely surprising, given the closed-loop calibration and colour rendition of previous Vivera inks we had hoped for better all-round performance out of the box.

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