HP product strives to be everything to everyone 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #648 March 26- April 1, 2002 High Tech Office column

All-in-one devices (also known as multifunction devices, or MFDs) have found their way into many home and small offices, by conveniently combining a collection of common office tools into one, reasonably small package.

Typically built around a combination of a printer, most often a colour inkjet, and a scanner, some extra circuitry adds the features of a low-volume photocopier and plain-paper fax machine. Putting all this into a single unit saves both money and desk space.

A downside is that, as in all-in-one home entertainment units, you rarely get best-of-breed functionality in each component. As well, if one function needs repair, you lose the use of all your office tools.

HP's new PSC 950 ($599) ups the ante by including quality components and adding easy-to-use photo-processing capabilities to the standard MFD feature set. It's built on top of the same inkjet print engine found in the company's popular 900-series printers, giving high-resolution colour printing. On top, there's a flatbed scanner that, unlike the sheet-fed scanners of most MFDs and fax machines, offers higher quality scans and allows scanning of 3D objects (such as books). However, the flatbed makes it awkward to fax multi-page documents and is limited to a maximum 8.5" x 11" original.

A well-designed front panel makes it easy to use as a high-resolution photocopier; place the original on the scanner tray and press a button for black and white or colour copy. You can easily set number of copies and reduction/enlargement size. Colour photocopies appear with reasonable speed and good colour fidelity, even on plain paper. Note, however, estimated ink costs of about $0.10 per page for black and white text and about $0.72 per colour (plain paper) page.

The new photo-finishing capabilities start with a trio of card-input slots: SmartMedia, Compact Flash, and Sony Memory Stick slots support the formats used by most digital cameras. Plug in a card and press the Proof Sheet button to print a sheet of photo thumbnails.

However, this is a contact sheet with a difference. Beneath each thumbnail, you'll find a little bubble. At the bottom of the page, there are bubbles for number of prints, image size and paper quality. Darken the bubbles to indicate images you want printed and your desired photos print, again with good quality, even on plain paper. No computer needed! While this is exceptionally easy and convenient, it doesn't allow you to digitally enhance your picture quality.

For that, you still need to store your photos on your hard drive, and open them in an image-editing program. HP includes basic PhotoView Center software for people who don't already have an image-editing program. (Also included is ReadIris, a not particularly good optical character recognition program, for converting text on a scanned image into digital text that can be edited in a word processor.)

The PSC 950 uses USB and works with both Windows and Macs. Windows XP setup is easy -- XP simply finds the unit and installs basic printer and scanner drivers without user intervention. Unfortunately, until HP releases its own XP drivers, these built-in drivers don't allow use of some of the advanced features when using the 950.

Also in the family is HP's PSC 750 (about $400). Though looking like its higher-priced sibling, it lacks both the fax and photo-processing features. While both models can be found locally, be prepared to search store shelves. Some retailers stock MFDs with their printers, others with the scanners, still others with the fax machines. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan