All-in-ones are great for multitasking, but if you don't have a home office, a dedicated photo printer might be all you need--and will definitely take up less space. Although the speeds and photo quality are both less than stellar, the $149 HP Photosmart A636 Compact Photo Printer offers good-enough performance for the money and for casual family use. And the intuitive touchscreen and in-camera editing and effects sweeten the deal.
The A636 prints 4 x 6 and 5 x 7 photos, along with 4 x 12 panorama shots and 4 x 8 photo cards. Not being able to print glossy 8x10s is the trade-off for this tiny printer. At 9.9 inches wide and 4.6 inches deep, it won't take up much room on your desk, and for those who want to take it with them, the 3.4-pound printer sports a carrying handle attached at the top. Its rounded edges and all-black design give it a sleek look, and the glossy finish on the front and back sides are a nice touch.
On top of the printer is the tilting 4.8-inch touchscreen. When you pop open the front lid, the screen automatically pops up, too, if it had been lying flat. Opening that front lid reveals a USB port and four memory card slots (the printer supports SD/MMC, CF, MS, MS PRO, MG, and xD cards). This is also where finished prints come out. Built into the top is a gray stylus pen, which can be used to draw on photos (see below).
The back panel opens slightly, revealing a paper tray. In addition to connecting your camera or plugging in a memory card, you can print via Bluetooth, using an optional adapter ($39.99).
Ease of Use
Setting up our A636 took just a few minutes and was made easier thanks to the animated on-screen instructions. Conveniently, the printer takes only one tricolor cartridge. The touchscreen is bright and tactile, but there's a wide margin on each side, so pictures don't nearly fill the 4.8 inches. The menus are a cinch to follow: From the home screen you can view and print photos, create projects, arrange a slideshow, or save edited photos. Bright scroll arrows help you move through options; you'll also find a back button and a home icon for returning to the main screen.
Editing and Effects
The A636 offers a basic editing feature that lets you crop photos and adjust brightness, touch up photos, and fix pet eyes. Kids, in particular, will love the options under the Create menu, which include adding frames, drawing on photos, and writing captions, all using the included stylus. You can also add clip art and effects. The stylus was easy to use; we were able to write normally with it and the screen responded the way we wanted it to. More specialized projects include passport photos, video-frame layouts, photo layouts, photo stickers, and greeting cards.
Compared with theCanon Pixma iP100,which recently won our Editors' Choice, the A636 is slow. Whereas the iP100 took an average of 49 seconds to print high-resolution 4 x 6 photos, the A636 took an average of 1 minute and 27 seconds. Priting 5 x 7 photos (a size we did not test with the iP100) needed an average of 1:51. That shouldn't be a deal breaker for people who aren't in a rush, however, or who don't print large volumes of photos at a time. Conveniently, the screen shows an estimate for the remaining printing time.
Good--but Not Great--Print Quality
Across the board, our photos looked sharp but a bit overexposed, to the point that an overcast sky looked more white than gray. Although we love the way A636 reproduces skin tones, many of the more subtle colors in our photos--deep red flower petals, dewy post-rain grass, and green flower petals--appeared oversaturated. Our pictures never smudged off the press but still felt slightly sticky. The cost per print with HP's Custom 110 Series 120-Sheet Photo Value Pack (at normal image quality) works out to about 29 cents.
For $149, the HP Photosmart A636 offers pretty-good print quality, and we like the built-in touchscreen and editing capabilities. If you're on a budget, we recommend this standalone photo printer.