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HP DesignJet Z3200 review
Using the Z3200ps 24 inch large format printer
Hewlett Packard recently lent us a Z3200ps large format printer.
Keith has been putting it through its paces and has written up some of his thoughts on using this printer for fine art photographic printing.
HP DesignJet Z3200
Keith's review covers the 24" width version of the printer.
The larger 44" width version is just bigger, heavier and takes wider paper.
The review was carried out driving the printer from OSX Apple Macs, however the functionality and software is very similar if you happen to be using a Windows PC.
The printer is a quite elegant design, considerably wider than the 24" width paper you can see loaded in the picture above.
Ours was delivered by a man in a large van, completely ready to go... just wheeled into place on its casters.
I'm told that the shipping packing normally supplied is easy to assemble, although the bulk probably benefits from a second person at hand.
The printer takes a dozen 130ml cartridges, with the following inks: blue, green, magenta, red, yellow, gray, photo black, matte black, light cyan, light gray, light magenta, gloss enhancer.
I'll cover ink matters in more detail later, but it's worth noting the presence of red/green/blue inks in addition to the normal CMYK.
Note too, the presence of both photo black and matte black - removing the need for any ink changeover procedures when using different media.
The version of the printer we tried was the Z3200ps, which includes Postscript for rasterising vector images (amongst other things). The Postscript functionality was not something I looked at at all, since I print photos.
It is however a useful feature if you want to use the printer for document proofing or other design related work, and may well save the cost of a full RIP software package for some users.
Given our colour management work, I was most interested in the built in spectrophotometer that you get with the printer.
This is attached to the print head assembly and can scan prints for linearising and profiling purposes. I'll cover profiling in more detail later.
If moving from a desktop printer, then a 'Large Format' printer like this necessitates a few changes.
Mostly though, it's probably the economies of scale and the ability to print big prints that convinced you this was worth considering.
Don't forget that when making bigger prints you probably need better quality image files. I find it takes noticeably more effort to ensure that 20"x30" prints are of high quality from images than it does for A4.
There is a choice of USB2 or Ethernet (Gigabit on PS models) to link your printer up to a computer.
I plugged the printer into our network, and after a bit of delving into the front panel menu, I'd got it working on our network (via DHCP) within 10 minutes of turning on the printer where I was going to do the testing.
The printer contains its own hard disk and effectively boots up as a computer on your network. As someone who's been in IT for a while, I like products where I can work out how to set them up without reading the manual :-)
In the photo below, you can see the power/Ethernet/USB connections at the right.
One of the advantages with this size printer is that you can use roll media up to 24" width.
The roll paper holder is at the back, taking both 2" and 3" core size rolls. The paper is simply fed into the back loading slot.
For sheet fed paper, the loading tray/guide folds down.
Move your mouse over the image to see the open tray.
You need to allow access to the back of the printer for roll paper loading.
Also, during sheet loading, a sheet can be shunted back and forth several times and protrude out of the machine.
Stiff paper at quite a speed makes a disconcerting noise as it bangs up against the wall (enough to mark paint!)
At the front, there is a robust print catcher that folds out to prevent prints hitting the floor.
Move your mouse over the image to see the print catcher fold out.
The photo below, shows the printer in use.
I'm producing small test prints of the images recently added to our Gallery, since I know what they should look like.
Note that I'm printing both colour and black and white images on the same sheet.
The paper in this instance is HP Instant Dry Satin. A good economical lustre finish paper that produced some very nice colour images, currently on exhibition in Leicestershire (matted, framed and behind glass).
Sheet paper loading in the Z3200 is a bit more complex than you might be used to with smaller printers.
If you insert a print at the back, the printer detects the paper and part loads it. You are then asked (on the display at the top centre of the printer) if you wish to load the paper with or without a 'skew check'.
The skew checking runs the paper back and forth a few times whilst measurements are made to see if the paper is straight.
If this works then fine, otherwise you are prompted to manually align the paper with the blue lines marked on the front of the printer.
You can see the blue lines just below the leading edge of the paper in the photo below.
The printer also asks for the type of paper when you load it.
As such, you either need to pick a standard HP paper (there are lots) or a custom one that you have stored previously.
The printer has its own linearization and profile information for each paper (known as a 'Preset'). This allows colour managed printing with the printer taking care of profile choice, if desired.
I'll cover paper loading in the conclusions later, however I'll just note here that I'd not want to be loading small sheets (say A3+) into the printer all day long.
The display on the top of the printer is pretty clear to read in most lighting conditions and of enough resolution to show useful information.
The view here, is of the ink level display.
You can drop down into more detailed printer information if desired.
I've slightly increased the contrast in the image, since it's not easy to get good shots of this sort of LCD display if there is much other light about.
The indicated levels seem quite accurate and when a cartridge was shown as empty, a quick check showed minimal ink left.
The ink cartridges are accessed at either side of the printer, under a flip up panel.
Move your mouse over the image to see the 6 carts.
Like all to much PC equipment, everyone and his Uncle wanted to leave some sticky label on the printer - suffice to say, if it was my own printer, then all this guff would come off in pretty short order :-)
The remaining six cartridges are on the other side (move your mouse over image to see inside)
The cartridges contain a bag of ink.
The one below is a dismantled Gloss Enhancer cartridge I used up. There were no more than a millilitre or two (at most) of unused liquid remaining. The Gloss Enhancer is almost like a clear 'varnish'. I'll show its use later.
The 130ml cartridges are the only size available - there are no 'extra large' versions, although it's worth pointing out that if you buy the multipack options, then there is a reduction in ink price.
Actually there is a smaller size available - 69ml 'starter' cartridges are supplied with the 24" Z3200.
So, probably best to get some spare cartridges when you first get the printer. About 20% is used on initial printer installation - perhaps time to strike a bargain with your printer vendor?
Precise ink costs and usage are important to some users.
I'll cover the accounting and resource usage options available below, but for the kind of printing I do, media and ink costs are a small part of what I charge for my work.
If a large print costs £2 in ink or £3 in ink, it makes precious little difference if the quality I'm getting is good enough to meet my needs. Equally well, a saving of media costs of 50% is utterly irrelevant if I don't like the look of the cheaper version.
I rarely do print work for other people (you need to visit us in person at Northlight -and- I have to like your work) but when I do, once again I'm not interested in the precise details of media/ink costs (if it made a difference, I'd know I'm not charging enough ;-)
On the Z3200, the print heads are also a user replaceable item. There are six units - each printing two inks.
The print heads (~$70 each) are rated at taking at least a litre (1000ml) of ink through them before replacement, although I've heard that in practice it can be 2-3 times this much.
None of the heads required replacement during our testing, so I can't comment on the process, however I've read that it only takes a few minutes.
The head cleaning design and way the printer monitors inkjet nozzle function means that there is also no large 'maintenance tank' to change on the Z3200.
The HP Printer Utility software installed without any problems on all the computers I did testing from. It also uninstalled quite cleanly when I had to return the printer.
I'll not go into every feature available in the software (it does a lot) but I'll cover some aspects that I found useful.
First up, the basic status, showing ink levels in more detail than the basic printer LCD.
You can see that I'm connected to the printer via USB, although the options work just as well over a network.
The printer has it's own built in web server, so most of the utility software functionality is available through a browser interface too.
In the view below, I'm checking the job queue, or print jobs that have been stored on the printer's own hard disk (80GB)
You can generate previews of how the job will look, and how it will be laid out on roll paper (in this example)
If you want to repeat a print job, then it's easy to go back to the printer, recall the job, and print it again.
As you'd expect, there are a -lot- of options you can change. Fortunately the help system and documentation give enough guidance that you often won't need to look in the full manual.
The display details are updated pretty much in real time, so expect numerous warnings when the printer is out of paper, or waiting for something to be done.
The numbers below give detailed ink levels, although I noticed that if you took an empty cart out and replaced it, then there was often a bit more ink available to use.
I ran out of Gloss Enhancer and was without a spare cartridge. Replacing the 'empty' cart allowed me to finish a print job, so it looks as if the very tiny amount of residual ink I noticed in the dismantled cartridge above might also be due to my getting it to run on 'reserve' a bit longer than it wanted.
As I mentioned earlier, the printer can supply detailed ink and media usage records.
This is the level of detail initially available in the Printer Utility.
I was using mostly HP media to test the printer, although I did try some third party papers. I'll cover their use in a separate review in the near future.
There is a lot more in the way of cost analysis available.
Enter the costs of inks and paper, and you can calculate job costs with considerable accuracy.
As I've mentioned, the importance of this feature really depends on the type of business you run.
Results can be exported as spreadsheets for further analysis.
Looking at these features, I can see that a lot of thought has gone to helping users control printing costs.
Another area I have minimal use for in my own work is Pantone colour reproduction. However I know how many people use printers like this for proofing, where the ~95% Pantone coverage will be most welcome.
The utility allows you to print out your own swatch sets (with appropriate paper stock)
The colour accuracy and range available is a promising sign for reproduction of photo images.
I've no experience of earlier large HP printers, but I'd been told that the Z3200 uses a reformulated red ink that gives very good colours.
To get the best out of a printer you need printer profiles for the paper you are using.
Installing the driver software gives you loads of them.
If you synchronise the printer's own profiles with your own system, then even more appear.
Fortunately they all get put into appropriate folders, so if you know you will only be using a few papers, you can prune the collection quite a bit.
In some of the profiles above you can see they include 'GE'.
This signifies a profile for a paper when using the Gloss Enhancer. For some papers this is optional, hence the different profile versions.
For our print work here at Northlight, I make the printer profiles myself. I usually use an i1 iSis to measure profiling targets and often create profiles with X-rite ProfilemakerPro.
In the Z3200 there is a spectrophotometer based on the design used in the iSis (UV cut only) which is used to scan profiling targets printed out on the printer.
Whilst there is an advanced version of the profiling software available, I'm going to stick to the basic profiling capabilities here. Even with the basic version of the software you can export the measurements to your own profiling package if you wish.
As well as the profile, the printer needs to know the proper media settings for the paper, this includes ink limits and basic characteristics of the paper.
The combination of profile and paper information is known as a 'Paper Preset'
This example is from when I first got the printer, but without any HP paper to test.
I had a box of plain matte paper (Pinnacle matte) which I'd looked at some time ago, but was just a bit too brilliant white for my liking. In fact, it had so much Optical Brightening Agent (OBA) that I used it as an example when testing the iSis OBA compensation module recently. I was curious to see what the printer would make of it.
I'm creating a Preset from scratch here.
Some paper suppliers provide Z3200 Presets in a 'ready to go' format, whilst I could also export my own Presets and give them to other people to import.
For this paper though, I've no information.
I need to give the Preset a name and choose an appropriate media setting for it.
Fortunately there is help available, to help me choose the best settings.
I decide to go for a basic Photo Matte Paper.
If I was going to be profiling a really good quality 3rd party paper then I might want to experiment with media choices, since I've found in the past that the most obvious media selection is not always the best.
Of course I wouldn't want to make a profile for every possible setting, but I didn't find an obvious way to compare different media settings such as I've written about a while ago.
I can also (optionally) adjust ink limits, drying time and details of the paper advance mechanism.
I've seen some discussion about the star wheel design for early printers, but I believe the design has been modified. I noticed no marks on any of the papers I tried in the printer from ultra glossy through to heavy matt art papers and canvas.
It helps if you give the profile you are going to create a meaningful name.
The first print test is for calibrating the paper.
This adjusts printer ink output to get the printer to a given state where you will get the best profiling results. This is where the correct media type makes all the difference.
Of course, when I loaded the paper into the printer, it made me pick a preset.
Since it didn't exist at the time, I just picked a generic matte paper.
Now I get the chance to correct this.
The printer now prints out a test pattern.
This print is held by the printer after printing, so as to dry.
Each ink is printed as a series of patches from dark to light.
Ideally this should be a linear ramp, but it usually isn't and this is what 'Calibration' fixes.
If you've profiled ordinary desktop printers before, then this stage will be new to you.
It's one of the aspects of using RIP software to drive a printer that can sometimes give superior print results (particularly with older printers).
This was the point where I realised that I should perhaps have used a smaller piece of paper for this stage (A4 should do).
The print on top of the printer is the complete linearization pattern.
Next a larger profiling chart is printed.
As you can see, many more coloured patches (464).
Many people mistakenly equate patch number with profile accuracy.
It's actually a combination of how 'well behaved' the printer is in the linearity of its output and a few more related factors, combined with patch count that is more important.
I tested the profiling against a much larger target using my normal profiling gear and found that the 'Auto' profile worked very well.
The printer display even gives a handy reminder of how much longer you're going to have to wait...
I'd not got the printer for long enough to do detailed profiling quality evaluations but the results for colour images I printed were very good.
If I were using the printer full time I'd also investigate the much more advanced profiling software option available.
Suffice to say, for colour printing it looked great. I'll address some B/W printing issues later, although these are relatively minor.
If you look inside the printer during scanning, you can see the red light of the paper detector and the white light of the spectrophotometer reflecting off the paper.
Move your mouse over the image to see the effect.
Once created, the profile (and calibration settings) are transferred to your printer and the profile put in the correct place on your computer.
I created several profiles whilst I had the printer, and there was no problem in using any of them.
The installation process mentions additional adjustment, but this was not necessary.
The profiles are kept together with their appropriate calibrations.
If you look at installed Presets, you can also see if the calibration is up to date.
The profile details above show that the gloss enhancer was not used (just as well for a matte paper).
As you can see below, profiling papers uses up quite a bit of ink and paper...
I've another review looking at using two versions of Innova's cotton based art papers. IFA-11 and IFA-14 on the Z3200. Innova Smooth Cotton Natural/High White paper review.
All I can show in this article are a few nice images and point out how nice they looked.
Not always of much actual help, so I'd suggest looking at some samples - fortunately many vendors will supply sample prints.
Testing a printer for print quality can be highly subjective, all the more so if you use your own (colour) images.
The Aspen tree against the dark cloud was taken in Colorado (near Hahn's Peak) last Fall.
It works as a print both on heavy matte art paper using matte black ink, and also on a lustre finish paper with the gloss enhancer.
The two versions look different, both in the range of colours and with the way the paper colour changes the greys and whites.
Both capture the subtle reds in some of the leaves.
Personally, I like the version on the matte paper best, but others have liked the satin finish version. Both look different again when framed and put behind glass.
So for looking at colour and black and white performance, I'll usually use something like the Datacolour test image for colour, and my own black and white printer test image to start with.
These test images (and many others) are available for free download on this site.
Both images have lots of components to specifically test different aspects of printer performance.
I also use both for testing the performance of printer profiles.
If you decide to use them, be sure to read the explanatory notes that go with them.
Of course I do use my own prints for testing, but they are far less likely to (obviously) show up problems than the test images.
When the printer is printing an image, an estimate of the time left to finish the print is given on the front display.
In general this was fairly accurate, particularly when using gloss enhancer over the whole print area.
Other times, such as printing jobs from the ImageNest RIP, the estimate appeared and the number didn't change until the end of the print.
I was never able to figure out why it worked sometimes and not others.
Print times vary with ink coverage and printer resolution. However, if looking at printer specs (such as at the end of this review) look for the times at 'Best' quality.
The Z3200 prints at 1200 dpi.
The print quality is set by adjusting the number of passes the print head makes and whether it prints unidirectionally or bidirectionally.
It's actually more complex than that, in that the print resolution also depends on media type.
The 'native' resolution for images defaults to 300ppi with 'Max Detail' taking this to 600ppi.
If you have very high resolution images and don't mind the extra print time, then the higher resolution modes may be of use. I only tried this with small images (it needs to be 'real' resolution) and I convinced myself I could see a slight difference with a magnifying glass.
Not something I'd regularly use, since I know that people who look at huge prints from 6 inches away are most likely to be other photographers - and they -never- buy anything ;-)
The driver also has useful options for dealing with roll media, such as rotating print layout on the paper and automatically cutting the paper at the edge of a print rather than just at the paper size you've specified.
The particular z3200ps also offers print layout options, allowing you to fit multiple prints on a page, however I didn't get a chance to try this out and compare it with the likes of ImageNest, which I use on a variety of printers here at Northlight.
The printer switches automatically between black ink types.
The view below shows an HP art paper (Aquarella) and Satin paper.
If you look very carefully at the top corner of the Satin paper, you can see the very slightly duller looking border where the Gloss Enhancer has not been applied.
The Gloss Enhancer is a key factor in giving shiny prints a noticeably more 'photographic' quality.
The image below shows a calibration print using HP ID Satin Paper.
Look carefully at the reflection of the (halogen) light in the room above the print. Notice how different inks reflect light differently and give it a colour cast.
This is a general problem with pigment inks. The HP approach is to offer a clear glossy 'ink' that is applied to the whole image.
Look at the print below, where you can see the Gloss Enhancer (GE) applied to just over half of the white border.
Note how the start of the inked area of the print has almost no effect on the glossiness of the print.
That's on a Satin paper. Look at the equivalent on the high gloss paper, to the right, below.
The Satin paper to the left has no GE applied.
The GE can be applied in an 'economy' mode where it's only applied to the actual print as needed, rather than a more uniform coating.
I found that the GE almost completely removed that 'inkjet look' that differential gloss can give to prints in some circumstances.
The Z3200 has a number of features that make it attractive for black and white work.
There are four black inks: photo black, matte black, grey and light grey
Normally it uses either photo or matte black for a particular media, although I'm told that for some art papers it uses all four, to get finer gradations of tone.
The blacks are very neutral and require no other colours mixing in with them for neutrality.
One minor issue is that greyscales on prints are not relative to paper white which may raise issues with some paper choices.
The print driver automatically uses black/grey inks whenever it gets R=G=B values for pixels in your print file, thus you can mix B/W and colour images in a print job, such as below.
The driver has a dedicated B/W printing mode which you can use to tint/tone B/W prints if you like that sort of thing (not for me thanks ;-)
For papers such as the HP ID Satin, you need to ensure use of the Gloss Enhancer.
The two prints below show the rather serious bronzing you get without it.
Using HP supplied profiles, black and white prints looked very good and produced some excellent prints on a variety of media.
The results when using my own profiles generated from HP media were more variable
Remember, I was only trying the standard colour management software rather than the APS system.
I found that whilst many prints superficially looked great, all to many of them failed my B/W test image for linearity. Not by much, but it's a harsh test and I expect any B/W print system I use to pass it.
This is the part of the test image that quickly shows up faults (even minor ones) in printer linearity.
The pattern should be smooth with no banding or steps.
I didn't get the chance to test the more advanced profiling, and I suspect there may be ways of improving the B/W output.
I did create some QTR linearising profiles for the problematic papers and the linearity problems were no more, although you couldn't use this approach to mix B/W and colour output.
As an example, here's the QTR output for measurements of a profile created for HP Hahnemuhle Smooth Fine Art Paper. The readings are with an i1 spectrophotometer of a 21 step greyscale wedge.
The results of a response (the curve of 'L's) like this, is that you would tend to lose a bit of shadow detail.
I should in fairness note that in almost all printers I've looked at, B/W printing quality exhibits issues like this once you move away from the more common OEM papers - see the other reviews on this site for similar observations.
A fundamentally easy to use printer, obviously aimed at photographic image quality.
The addition of the Gloss Enhancer gives shiny prints a much less 'inkjet feel' although with appropriate paper choices I've never been overly troubled by this in the past.
In terms of print quality, it readily meets my requirements for image quality, and indeed I have several Colour and Black and White prints (17"x25") produced with the Z3200ps in a small local exhibition.
The ink/paper/printer produces prints which have some of the longest estimated lifetimes currently available for pigment prints. I suspect they will outlive me quite easily if looked after :-)
Buying the HP Z3200
We make a specific point of not selling hardware, but if you found the review of help please consider buying the Z3200, or any other items at all, via our link with Amazon. HP DesignJet Z3200ps
It won't cost any more (nor less we're afraid) but will contribute towards the running costs of our site.
Amazon.co.uk HP 70 Ink Cartridge 2-pack
I only had the printer for a few weeks, so was unable to look at longer term reliability and consistency issues, although looking at various on-line forums, I'm not seeing any regular problems raised.
The printer is designed to perform minor quality and maintenance tasks during normal use, and HP make a point of how little ink it wastes, compared to the proportion ending up on your paper.
The accounting and resource monitoring features will be of great interest in more production oriented environments, although the maximum ink cartridge size of 130ml looks rather small compared to other offerings.
Do remember to factor in the cost of replacement printheads if you are doing costing calculations, and remember that after print head replacement, paper calibrations will need to be redone.
The internal hard disk makes job queuing and re-printing very easy. It's possible to reprint jobs, directly from the front panel - no computer needed.
There are some aspects of the printer's design that make it a bit more awkward to use.
The positioning of the paper roll at the back made it slightly more trouble than you want in changing roll media.
I found it inconvenient, even with plenty of space at the location where it was tested. In our main printer room it would have been a much tighter fit.
Paper cutting worked fine, although it won't handle media like canvas.
Sheet paper protruding out of the back of the printer was an issue, particularly with stiff A2 sheets. The paper thickness limit of 0.8mm was not a problem for myself.
My pet hate, after a while, was sheet feeding.
With frequent misfeeds when trying to get the paper to carry out a 'skew check' I found it quicker to manually line up the paper with the lines at the front.
I would not relish the prospect of printing several dozen A2 sheets (or even more so A3+)
Unfortunately, the paper mark lines at the front are too thick, and a light blue colour that was not always clearly visible.
In the lighting I've seen around some people's large printers, this would not be easy to see at all.
Several times with manually aligned paper sheets, the printer mistakenly calculated the length of paper or measured that a sheet was a few millimetres off a specified size, leading to warnings in the print dialog.
The number and level of warnings and beeps from the printer and driver software didn't annoy me too much, but I can imagine that after using the printer for a few months they could become irritating. I found some controls reflecting the level of warnings but didn't go into this in detail.
The colour management option with the built in spectrophotometer will appeal to many. In a quick comparison it produced profiles not very different from those produced using much more expensive kit.
If you get the Z3200 -PS- version, then it comes with the advanced profiling solution software, however I didn't get to try this out, so my comments should be read with that proviso.
If you don't already have advanced profiling equipment/software then the profiling option represents really good value. If, like myself, you already have a large collection of the stuff then the value is lessened to some extent...
Firmware updates have also updated/improved the internal colour lookup tables in the printer, so if you update firmware, be careful to note whether this aspect is changed, since you'll have to re-profile.
The size of the printed targets do seem somewhat excessive, given I can fit a 1728 patch target onto an A3 sheet for my X-rite iSis. I'm not sure why such large patches are needed, but a 1728 patch target covers 4 square feet (24"x24").
However, making profiles with the built in system is really easy, and the calibration feature should inspire confidence where device consistency and repeatability is important, such as in proofing applications.
Given our policy of specifically not doing comparative reviews, and my personal belief that most gamut charts/diagrams are often just there to fill up space and look good in reviews, I'll just say that colour prints were every bit as good as our normal printing setup, and with the added advantage (sometimes with GE) of no obvious gloss differential or bronzing.
Writing this, I've got a 19"x14" print of the Datacolour test image nearby in my viewing stand (PDV3e). It's on HP ID Satin paper, with Gloss Enhancer.
The colours are rich and show no problem areas at all. The reds in the chillies are particularly good, one area I've heard that has been improved with the reformulated HP 73 'Chromatic Red' ink for the Z3200.
The B/W is very neutral, although the bulls eye pattern in the bottom RH corner shows some slight non linearity, as I found in my more detailed B/W testing.
The printer is obviously designed to produce top quality photographic output, and in this respect it largely succeeds.
Would I be happy putting my name to prints from this printer? - yes I would, and have already done so for several prints produced during testing.
A nice looking and well built 24" (44" available) printer that makes it easy to produce excellent print quality on roll and sheet media, colour and black and white.
Gloss Enhancer 'Ink' effectively removes gloss differential and 'bronzing' on many types of 'photo' media.
Driver and utility software is easy to set up and use.
The version looked at here included full postscript capabilities.
The built in spectrophotmeter and profiling functionality make it very quick and easy to set up and use for 3rd party papers.
Comprehensive job costing and resource accounting options are available.
The only difficulty encountered was with inconsistent sheet feeding - the prints were fine, it just took a bit too much effort to consistently get paper correctly loaded.
Note, a quick on-line check shows that some actual prices are noticeably lower (~£3200+VAT for Z3200ps)
If you've any questions or observations about this review, then please do feel free to ask...
Spectrophotometer performance (from HP)
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
Keith is always happy to discuss matters raised in his articles. You can Email Us
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