HP Photosmart 8250 Photo Printer

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Most printers today cost far less than $200, but that's a price point I like to watch since it's where most of the cool new technology gets introduced. Generally, $200 printers can generate borderless 4x6s and 5x7s, and have color LCD screens and card readers so you can turn a shot into a print without turning on your computer. HP just delivered a new player at the $200 mark, and as expected at this price, it delivers a lot of performance. It's also a huge step forward for HP.

Late last year I spent several days testing printers, making 4x6 glossies on eight or ten printers from all of the manufacturers you've heard of. After some blind "taste testing" of my printouts, I concluded that Epson made great printers. I also determined that HP printers had two problems: the HP prints were not water resistant like Epson's and Canon's, so any gooey hand could smear the ink, and that the HP's blues printed in an unnatural glow.

When I received the 8250, heralded by the company as a revolution in printing technology, I was eager to see what they'd done to address my beefs. Using special "Advanced Photo Paper," I was able to create smear-free prints, and in a new round of blind taste tests, most of the 8250's prints ended up in the "good" pile.

The catch is that I printed images on both the HP Advanced Photo Paper and the HP Premium Plus Glossy Photo Paper. While the Premium Plus images came out best in the image-quality testing, they were not smudge resistant like those printed on Advanced paper. But the Advanced paper has other benefits too: when you use it, you cut printing time down dramatically. A 4x6 on Premium Plus paper takes about a minute and a half to print, while prints made on Advanced paper take, according to my experience, just 18 to 20 seconds. In the business, we call that "durned fast."

You get fast, smudge-free images that, generally speaking, pass the picture-quality test. What more could you ask for? How about built in red-eye removal? Print from a memory card and any shot with red-eye will be fixed on the fly. It really works. HP also boasts some other internal technologies. One is SmartFocus, which sharpens up duller images; another is Adaptive Lighting. A hallmark of HP's imaging products, this mainly lightens faces that have been darkened by light flooding in from behind. Some people call that a "fill flash."

Techier still, there's printing from video, where you put a memory card with video into the slot, pick a frame then print. Only trouble is, it only does Motion JPEG and MPEG-1 files, not the more common MPEG-2, QuickTime MOV and Windows Media Video formats. The only thing that hung me up about the printer was that it never seemed to know, automatically, where its paper was coming from. If you print directly without a PC, you have to choose the paper tray you want, even if you're clearly printing 4x6 photographs.

Is this the right printer to spend $200 on? It's a tough question. I like Epson printers, but I value image quality and versatility (Epson's Stylus Photo R320 can print onto CDs) over speed. The bottom line: Epson may make a prettier picture, but now it's only slightly prettier, and it doesn't come out anywhere near as fast.