The HP Photosmart A636, available for around £90, is a slight upgrade to last year's Photosmart A626, with a few minor software differences. The A636 retains the same body shape and design but adds additional photo customisation and editing capabilities. We didn't notice any significant change in print speed, but we certainly saw an improvement in photo quality.
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/MultiMediaCard and xD-Picture Card) and a PictBridge USB port. The only aesthetic difference between the A626 and the A636 is the faceplate, which is now light grey instead of blue.
At 251mm by 132mm by 117mm, the printer takes up very little space on a table, and all the trays conveniently fold up into the body for clean storage. Popping open the output tray also releases the rear paper-input door and the 122mm (4.8-inch) colour touchscreen, our favourite feature on the printer. Other printers, like the Canon Selphy CP770, use hard navigation buttons surrounding the display to access features, but the A636's touchscreen 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-colour inkjet print cartridge (replacement cartridges cost £21). The rear-mounted input tray can hold 20 sheets of photo paper in a variety of sizes, including 4 by 6 inches, 5 by 7 inches, and 4 by 12 inches. HP sells its compatible photo paper on its 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 accessories, such as an external battery pack, carrying case and Bluetooth dongle. The A636 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 A636 has all the necessary installation files already preloaded. 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. Since the printer can only print 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 A636 can also edit directly from a memory card, USB stick or PictBridge digital camera.
The on-screen software is a sliced-down version of the Photosmart Essential Software and boasts 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, while the A626 only shows four. Alternatively, you can 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, including cropping, pet eye fix (pets tend to have glowing green or yellow eyes in photos), brightness edit, and spot fix touch-up, which didn't always produce pleasing results in our field tests.