Equipment Review - The Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart System

by Clayton Kessler - February 19,1998

I am fairly new to this interest in Amateur Astronomy but I have a long standing interest in both photography and computers. It was only a matter of time before I wanted to take astrophotos "just like those in the magazines"! And so, I started down that slippery slope towards sleeplessness and a second mortgage.

Actually, the piggyback photography that I started with was relatively inexpensive. After all - I had a camera and a telescope with a clock drive - what else did I need? I was pretty happy with my first efforts. This was the peak of Hale-Bopp and if I could make out a comet I was happy. Of course - I tried scanning my photos with my flatbed scanner and printing them on my venerable HP 560C inkjet - with mixed results. That’s when I started to read the Astrophotography Mailing List Archives on the internet. I found that most of the "big boys" scanned their negatives for best results. Holy Cow! Those negative scanners cost 1000 to 2000 bucks! Add a photo quality Tektronix dye sub printer to the tune of an additional $4000 and we are talking some serious money - you can buy a BIG telescope for that kind of cash.

Enter Hewlett Packard -

Last fall I started seeing a nifty display in the local computer stores. The display featured a small digital camera, a negative scanner and a rather bulky printer. These were collectively labeled the HP PhotoSmart System. On one of my trips I was fortunate enough to talk to a Hewlett Packard representative. I gave him one of my astrophoto negative strips (Doesn’t everyone travel with their negatives?) and he scanned and printed a picture. WOW - what a difference from my scans of the prints! I walked out of the store with the scanner part of the system.

PhotoSmart Scanner -

The scanner part of the system is a relatively small box approximately 8" wide, 11" deep and 4" high. It uses a SCSI interface and comes with it’s own interface card. The scanner will scan 35mm negatives, 35mm slides and up to 5X7" photos. The changeover between scanning modes consists of a single button to toggle between selections shown on the front panel. The front of the scanner changes - Transformer like (ask your kids!) - to accommodate the different media. This single button and the on/off button comprise all of the external controls on the scanner. Pretty simple so far!

The included software was typical of HP - slide in the CD-ROM, answer a few questions and you are in business. The scanner is activated simply by inserting an object to be scanned. When a negative strip is inserted the software pops up on the computer screen and allows you to flip and rotate, crop, set exposure and balance color. On screen previews let you see the effects of your adjustments as they are made. Once you are satisfied a click of the mouse and you are scanning. A typical scan is about 1 minute. The scanner software lets you save the image in several formats including the popular TIFF and JPEG formats.

These file sizes can get large, the scanner is capable of 2400 DPI optical resolution and 30 bits of color. This means a full 35mm negative is about 23 megabytes in TIFF format. JPEG format reduces this by quite a bit but the storage space for this data should be considered.

Needless to say I am delighted with the scanner! But I was painfully aware that I had only half of the system and my 560C inkjet printer just couldn’t match the quality of the scans. Oh well - back to the computer store!.


PhotoSmart Photo Printer -

I waited until I just couldn’t stand it any more and after the Christmas rush I went out and brought home the printer. This thing is huge compared to most inkjet printers on the market. It measures about 18 ˝" wide, 18 ˝" deep and 6 ˝" high - close to the size of the old LaserJet Series II I keep in my office. Fortunately it is not nearly as heavy as the old LJ II.

Hewlett Packard says that this printer "prints real photos….. on photographic paper comparable to what photo labs use". We shall see about that! The printer is an inkjet, or more accurately a "Multi-dye load thermal inkjet printer". It has "Photographic" resolution, no "dots per inch" resolution rating is given. The printer uses two "tri-chamber photo cartridges". Each has three colors and is designated by a star or moon - maybe they knew amateur astronomers would try this thing!

It was a typical Hewlett Packard installation. Everything went just as the instructions said it should. The problem that I faced was how to hook both printers to my single printer port? A Bitronics electronic parallel port switch solved that problem nicely. Software installation was smooth and I was ready to print.

I should mention that my old flat bed scanner came with Adobe Photoshop V3.0 and Corel draw V4.0. I used Photoshop to print my first images. The prints on "premium inkjet paper" were less than impressive - they looked like I made them on my old 560C. I loaded in the HP PhotoSmart photo paper and told the system to print. HOLY COW!! The image was outstanding, it looked BETTER than the Meijer 1 hour photo print. Several experienced amateur photographers thought my prints were custom enlargements - not do it yourself inkjet output.

One word of caution - make sure that the proper printer driver is selected. Every time I send the PhotoSmart printer an image that should go to my 560C, Windows 95 and my printers get all confused! Fortunately a shut down and re-start clears everything up.

Software -

the scanner and printer software from HP are both excellent packages that installed the first time and run with no problems. Each of these units came bundled with Microsoft Picture It! software. I was very disappointed in this package. I experienced numerous hang up problems while attempting to run this stuff. Because I have other photo manipulation software I have not spent much time debugging Picture It! Perhaps I have an installation problem.

The Best Part -

The best part about the PhotoSmart System is the cost. The Scanner and the Printer are each $499.95 - no second mortgage required. This is a long way under the $5000 to $6000 of a Nikon scanner and a Tektronix printer. Quite a cost savings - hmmmm………how much was that Takahashi astrograph???

Hewlett Packard has done it again - this PhotoSmart system is the real deal. They have transformed my computer into a darkroom and allow me to get the most from my modest astrophotographic efforts. No stinky chemicals, no fussy time limits and no fumbling around in the dark! A digital darkroom is the way to go for me.