(CNET) -- The $150 HP Photosmart A636 is a slight upgrade to last year's A626, with a few minor software differences. The A636 retains the same body shape and design but adds additional photo customization and editing capabilities.
We didn't notice any significant change in print speed since the A626, but we certainly saw an improvement in photo quality.
With loads of software versatility, a clean design, and vastly improved picture quality, we're comfortable recommending the Photosmart A636 over the competition.
Design and features
The A636 has the same small print kiosk form of its predecessor. The exterior is still matte black with a glossy output tray that folds down to reveal four media card slots (CompactFlash, Memory Stick, SD/MMC, xD) and a PictBridge USB port. The only aesthetic difference between the A626 and the A636 is the faceplate, which is now light gray instead of blue.
Standing at 5.2 inches tall, 9.9 inches wide, and 4.6 inches deep, the printer takes up very little real estate on a table, and all the trays including the screen, conveniently fold up into the body for clean storage. Conversely, popping open the output tray also releases the rear paper-input door and the 4.8-inch color touch screen, our favorite feature on the printer.
Other printers like the Canon Selphy dye-sublimation printer use hard navigation buttons surrounding the display to access features, but the A636's touch screen and stylus work much better for direct photo editing.
When you're not using the stylus, you can either slide it back into the slot or prop it up on a quill style holder if you're not completely finished editing. A small door on the front of the printer folds down to reveal the single HP tri-color inkjet print cartridge, and the rear mounted input tray can hold 20 sheets of photo paper in a variety of sizes including 4x6 inch, 5x7 inch, and all the way up to 4x12-inch panoramas. HP sells its compatible photo paper on the HP Web site in a variety of sizes for any application.
The A636 also has the potential to become completely mobile and self sufficient if you purchase a few additional wireless accessories including an external battery pack, Metro Style Carrying Case, and Bluetooth dongle. The printer already has a built-in handle, which folds down and out of the way when the printer is stationary, for comfortable transportation.
While other printers require an external disc full of drivers and superfluous software, the Photosmart A636 has all the necessary installation files already preloaded onto the device; we were able to set up our unit in less than 2 minutes by simply plugging the printer into our Windows XP desktop--the printer did the rest. After a few minutes, the hardware completed its installation and HP's Photosmart Essential Software automatically loaded to indicate a successful install.
We've used the Photosmart Essential Software in the past and there are no noticeable differences in the version that comes with the A636. Obviously, since the printer can only do photos in a limited number of sizes, some of the features embedded in the software are unavailable.
Users can connect to their home computers using a USB cable (not included, unfortunately), but the true bread and butter of the A636 is the power to edit directly from a memory card, USB key, or PictBridge digital camera.
The onscreen software is a sliced down version of the Photosmart Essential Software and discards all the fluff to reveal a sleek, easy-to-use interface. When you insert a card into one of the slots, the printer immediately scans and brings up a thumbnail library of your photos. The screen can display up to nine thumbnails at a time, versus the old model that only showed four.
Alternatively, you can also horizontally scroll using your choice of a large navigation bar at the bottom of the screen or soft "left" and "right" buttons on either side of the display. After selecting the individual shots you want to print, you have several editing options that include cropping, pet eye fix (pets tend to have glowing green or yellow eyes in photos), brightness edit, and a spot fix touch-up that didn't always have pleasing results in our field tests.
The A636 provides a variety of fun, creative ways to edit your photos using more than 300 stock elements, including borders, frames, clip art, and even drawing on the screen. Choosing the "create" option within a picture brings up a menu of features to select including "clip art," "design gallery," "greeting card," "caption," "albums," and "draw."
Best of all, the interface lets you combine elements to really put your imagination to the test. Our favorite supplemental component is "draw," which brings up 20 different colors and three brush sizes to help you draw and paint over pictures. Afterward, you have the option to save the new image to an external card or continue printing without saving, which saves room on the card by placing the image in the A636's 64MB memory bank. After the image is printed, the file is immediately deleted to conserve space.
Finally, HP added a nice touch by adding a slide show to the feature set; users can select individual photos for display or instruct the printer to scroll through random images on the card. The slide show will also turn on automatically if the printer is inactive for more than 5 minutes.
The HP Photosmart A636 performed at a relatively similar speed to the A626 at 0.63 page per minute. While this is about average for a small single-function printer, it still doesn't come close to the quickest portable photo printer, the Epson PictureMate Dash PM260 that leads at 1.42 pages per minute. It's also slower than the Canon Selphy CP770, a dye-sublimation printer that uses heat to place four layers of ink over the paper.
Even though the Photosmarts are on the slower end of the printer spectrum, we're pleased to see that the image quality has improved since the A626 hit the market. Replacement ink cartridges are $20 that will reportedly yield 55 4X6-inch photos. HP also offers a bundled paper and ink pack for $35 that includes 120 sheets of paper, which works out to about 29 cents per page, a competitive price in this market.
HP shows significant improvement over the A626 in terms of print quality. The color blocks that seemed grainy before are now crisp and clearly detailed. The color spectrum remains solid and well defined, with sharp edges that seem to pop off the page. We used HP's recommend Advanced Photo Paper and the skin tones are very accurate, certainly better quality than what you'd get from a drugstore kiosk.
Service and support
HP offers a 90-day warranty on its software media and a full one-year warranty on the printer itself. The warranty is limited but still covers defects that arise from normal use. HP will repair or replace the product depending on the severity of the problem.
Users also have the option of purchasing HP's additional two- or three-year extended warranty program, where HP will send a new unit overnight in the event of a malfunction. Toll-free phone support is also available 24/7, or you can chat live online with tech support. HP's Web site has drivers, software downloads, FAQs, and troubleshooting guides.