First look: Photosmart Pro B8850

b8850-small.pngHewlett-Packard’s recently announced Photosmart Pro B8850 is a $549, B-size (13″ by 19″) inkjet printer designed for amateur photographers who want the advantages of pigment inks, advanced black-and-white printing, and a larger print size, but who also aren’t sure they want the full throttle of a 17-inch powerhouse like Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800.

We’ve been playing with a final-release sample of the B8850 for a few weeks now, and have been quite impressed with the overall performance of the printer. What follows is our short take on the printer. While there might be some small details that change with shipping units, we think the tenor of our review will be the same.

Here are the B8850’s basic specs:

  • Eight Vivera pigment inks—cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan, light magenta, gray, and photo and matte blacks. Each cartridge holds 27ml of ink.
  • Bottom-feed paper tray that holds up to 200 sheets of standard office paper.
  • Front-load, specialty media tray for loading a single sheet paper up to 0.7mm thick.
  • USB 2.0 connectivity (no cable in box, however).
  • Print sizes supported range from 3″ by 5″ index cards to 13″ by 44″ panoramics
  • Borderless printing on most standard print formats from 4″ by 6″ up to 13″ by 19″.
  • Operating systems supported: Mac OS X; Microsoft Windows XP; Microsoft Windows Vista.

Quick and easy setup

The B8850 sets up in a jiffy. The cartridges and the printheads snap easily into place, and the printer takes about 15 minutes or so to charge the lines with ink and perform other initialization tasks.

To ensure consistent color from unit to unit, the B8850 includes an internal densitometer that calibrates your unit with the factory defaults; whenever you change an ink cartridge or let the printer sit for a while, HP recommends that you recalibrate the printer, which is a simple task accessed via the HP Print Utility, and uses a few sheets of HP’s Advanced Glossy Paper.

With the printer is a disc that contains both the Mac and Windows print drivers, the Print Utility, a custom printing plug-in for Adobe Photoshop CS2, the Photosmart Print utility and widgets for keeping an eye on ink levels. (Adobe and HP worked to integrate the B8850 and Photoshop CS3, so the plug-in is no longer required.)

Mac and Windows ink supply widgets

The B8850 has ink-level widgets for both Mac and Windows systems.

Adding custom paper

One of the things that makes the HP print driver more advanced than those from Canon and Epson is the functionality to add third-party papers and their associated ICC profiles. At any point—even with the print dialog box on-screen—you can add a custom paper to the Paper Type menu. It’s quick and easy, and something that Epson and Canon should incorporate into their higher-end photo printers.


Once you’ve added the paper, all you have to do to print on that paper type is to select it in the driver. You don’t have to guess which Epson or Canon paper corresponds to the paper you’ve chosen, and you can print easily from other applications without having to worry about color matching (assuming that the application handles it correctly).

Print quality

With the release of the Photosmart Pro B9180 in 2006 (reviews on Macworld, Luminous Landscape), HP crossed the image quality barrier with a printer that produced photos as good as those printed with Epson’s $800 Stylus Photo R2400 desktop printer. The good news for potential B8850 buyers is that it uses the B9180’s print engine and inks (the cartridges are identical), and thus offers the same print quality as its higher-priced sibling.

The B8850’s eight inks produce a wide gamut that is capable of reproducing almost any color image faithfully. While it might not resolve detail to the level that we find with Epson’s Stylus Pro 3800, nearly every test image we printed was comparable in quality and color fidelity to any other photo printer in the $500-$1,000 range.

We tested the B8850 on a wide variety of HP’s branded papers, as well as papers from Hahnemühle, Red River, Moab, Ilford and others. With most glossy papers, there was some gloss differential, but it was rarely extreme or distracting. If you’re planning on printing a lot of glossy images with the B8850, however, you’ll probably want to look for an alternative to HP’s Advanced Glossy paper. It has a flimsy feel to it, and exhibited more gloss differential than either of our current favorites, Moab’s Lasal Gloss and Red River’s UltraPro Gloss.

When printing on matte, fine art and fiber-based media, the B8850 did fairly well. You’ll have to pay close attention to paper weight and thickness, especially because not all vendors provide both pieces of information. Papers like Hahnemühle’s Photo Rag 180 and Moab’s Colorado Fiber Satine worked with the specialty tray just fine, but we got scratches from the printhead on the trailing end of prints on Ilford’s Gallerie Gold Fibre Silk, which, at 0.32mm thick, shouldn’t cause any problems.

Like its rivals Epson and Canon, HP is really focusing on offering a broad selection of media types for it’s advanced printers, and there were two that we thought were outstanding with the B8850: HP’s new Professional Satin Photo Paper (Amazon link), which has the feel of a fiber-based paper with minimal luster-style pebbling, and Artist Matte Canvas (Amazon link), which has a bright white finish to it.

[When looking at papers for the B8850 or B9180: stay away from HP’s Premium and Premium Plus papers. Even though you might think that they’re ok for use with the Vivera inks—which HP states on some of the boxes we’ve seen in stores—they are designed solely for dye-based inks.]

Black-and-white printing

The B8850 isn’t only for printing color images, however. With the additional gray ink, the printer does an excellent job with grayscale images. This is one of the benchmarks set by Epson’s groundbreaking Stylus Photo R2400 and Stylus Pro 4000, and very nearly a requirement for this class of printer.

When printing in grayscale, you have two options. You can use only the black and gray inks, which gives you an entirely neutral print, at the expense of some detail and tonal range. You can also print a grayscale image with all of the inks, which, depending upon the image, can give you slightly more dynamic range and detail. The danger in using color inks to produce a black-and-white photo is that the print can exhibit a slight color cast when it is viewed under different lighting conditions. We saw little evidence of this situation, which is also known as metameric failure, on our B8850. In reality, almost all of the B8850’s black-and-white prints held their own against prints from an Epson R2400, which has two light-density black inks in addition to the matte and photo black inks.

One side note regarding black-and-white printing: when you’re printing on matte or fine-art papers, the B8850 will use both the matte black and photo black inks, in addition to the gray ink. (We recently covered this, noting that it also works with the B9180, and the wide-format Designjet Z2100.)

With regard to print longevity, Wilhelm Research has posted preliminary print permanence ratings for the B8850 on HP media. They estimate that unframed color prints will last more than 100 years on most media types, and black-and-white prints over 200 years, with estimates even longer for prints framed under glass.

Paper handling

If the first generation B9180 had a weak spot, it was in its paper handling. The bottom-feed paper tray generally worked fine, although the guides for aligning different paper sizes were flimsy and hard to move. The specialty tray, while a good idea, was prone to misalignment, often causing paper to skew slightly at times. We also had quite a few instances of paper crimping when printing on thick media. To be fair, these were generally minor issues, but we know of at least one photographer who traded in his B9180 for a Stylus Photo R2400, preferring to go with better paper handling over the necessity of swapping matte and photo black inks.

To be honest, it’s hard to tell if HP has fixed all of the problems; we’ll need a lot more testing, and will want to hear from other folks with units in the field. The guides inside the paper tray are much improved; we didn’t feel like we were going to break them every time we changed the paper size. And we generally had better luck with the specialty media tray. We fed approximately 100 sheets of various sizes through the manual-feed tray with only a few problems: the aforementioned issue with the Ilford paper; issues with another paper that started to buckle as the ink coverage increased (leaving ink smears on the page); and a couple of skewed prints on paper that had been trimmed from letter-size. For us, that’s just the way things work—we think it’s the nature of this mechanism that it won’t always be perfect—and those instances are acceptable for us.

We had absolutely no problems with HP papers, however, and our advice would be to stick with the HP-branded papers and some of the better third-party glossy papers to start with. Be careful with experimentation, at least until you have a good handle on how the tray deals with the type (and sizes) of images you print.


At this level, performance is generally secondary to print quality and usability, but if your primary goal is to find an inkjet that will churn out high-quality prints in seconds, the B8850 probably isn’t going to be your first choice. When testing the printer up against the current set of printers in its price range—Canon’s Pixma Pro9000, and Epson’s Stylus Photo 1400 and R1800—the B8850 came up last. Again, it’s not a big concern to us; print quality is of prime importance, but if you like any of the other printers in its class, the B8850’s speed might make a difference for you.

Photosmart Pro B8850 print speeds (default photo quality)

Print sizePhotosmart Pro B8850Stylus Photo 1400Stylus Photo R1800Pixma Pro9000
4×6 (borderless)90454931

Photosmart Pro B8850 print speeds (highest photo quality)

Print sizePhotosmart Pro B8850Stylus Photo R1800Pixma Pro9000
4×6 (borderless)1209562

[All times in seconds; smaller is better. Print sizes in inches. Tests run from a MacBook Pro, with Mac OS X 10.5, Adobe Photoshop CS3. File resolution was 300 dpi at the print size. Three trials, averaged. Stylus Photo 1400 was unavailable for testing at highest quality setting.]

With regard to ink usage, we printed more than 200 photos before we started to run low on any ink. Depending on the type of work you do, you might find that you use a little more or a little less ink, but we think our usage is fairly typical. A full set of eight cartridges lists for $272, which is not insignificant, but the B8850’s 27ml cartridge volume is twice that of it’s competitors.

The B8850 vs. B9180

The B8850 uses the same print engine as the $700 Photosmart Pro B9180; HP’s intention was to build a less-expensive printer without some of the B9180’s bells and whistles. As a result, the B8850 lacks the B9180 LCD status display and Ethernet port, neither of which are crucial to us. The front panel of the B8850 has small status LEDs for each ink that turn on when the ink level in that tank is below 25%, and you can perform all maintenance tasks directly from your PC or Mac.

Where some users might want to go for the B9180 is in the media support: it will handle rigid media up to 1.5mm thick. We’ve found that most fine-art stocks come in lighter weights (180-235 gsm), and they work great with the B8850, but for people interested in a bit more heft, the B9180 (or one of the comparable Epson and Canon pro printers) is a better choice.

The B9180 also supports Electronics for Imaging’s Designer Edition RIP, which makes the printer an ideal proofer for a small design firm or workgroup. HP has said that the RIP will not be available for the B8850.

Is this the printer for you?

As we stated in our initial analysis, we think HP will sell quite a few of these printers. At that magic price hovering around $500 (which is where we expect the printer to be priced once the initial wave has passed), it offers some very enticing features: excellent print quality and color fidelity, great black-and-white output, a nice set of usability features, and is backed by a very solid group of papers available directly from HP. If you’re looking to mostly print glossy photos, we think that Epson’s Stylus Photo R1900 will probably be a better choice, but it’s going to be a close call. We can tell you that the Photosmart Pro B8850 does look like it will be a top contender when it ships this spring.

3 thoughts on “First look: Photosmart Pro B8850”

  1. I got one and I’m really Happy With the Results
    this is a good printer but without all the gadgets,but it does the job beatifully
    Amaterur Freelance Photographer

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