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Review: HP looks to redefine the printer with PhotoSmart e-All-in-One D110a

HP PhotoSmart e-All-in-One D110a It's hard being a printer manufacturer in an age in which people want to cut down on paper. But tough times tend to prod innovation, and that's exactly what seems to have happened within HP's printer division.

Starting this month, all of HP's new $100-plus consumer printers will feature built-in web-based services; ways in which consumers can use their printers without their computer being switched on and without even being in the house. I had a chance to try one of the most basic models, the $139.99 PhotoSmart e-All-in-One D110a.

Setup took a little longer than I was used to. Rather than just plugging in a USB cable (which is optional) and installing some software, I needed to use the device's 2.4-inch display to connect to my router and enter my network password. I also needed to copy the printer's IP address to my computer during installation and print out a code to log into HP's website so that I could delete old apps and download new ones.

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Apps, you say? Yes, apps. Like so many other consumer gadgets these days, HP's printers now have their own collection of free mini-programs developed not just by HP but also several of its partners. Programs that came pre-loaded on the unit I tested included a Yahoo! news app that allowed me to print a 15-page newsletter collection of the day's top stories, a Dreamworks app loaded with printable kids activities such as cut-out creatures and colouring sheets, a Sudoku app capable of generating devilishly difficult number puzzles and HP's own Forms app, which lets users print off blank graph paper, music sheets, fax headers, and other useful formatted paper types.

There were nine apps in total on my demo unit. More can be added from HP's website, but there weren't many available when I visited - though keep in mind I was evaluating the printer pre-launch and that a handful apps are restricted to more advanced models. An HP Canada spokesman told me he sees more coming soon, such as movie ticket generators and retail coupon creators. Indeed, apps like these already exist for U.S. customers.

Meanwhile, the web-based feature with the most potential, ePrint, will be available by the end of the month. It allows users to send items for print in the form of e-mail attachments. You can, say, take photos with your phone, e-mail them to the printer, and arrive home to a stack of freshly printed pictures. It will also let you print from an iPad without going through the file transferring rigmarole Apple's hot new device currently demands. ePrint was unavailable to test during my evaluation, but if it works as advertised it could be a great time saver.

ePrint aside, many of the web services may seem redundant; functions you can perform just as easily with a PC or without paper at all (smart phone owners, for example, can surf Yahoo's news site without printing off a ream of paper). But keep in mind that this new web functionality isn't increasing the cost of HP's machines. It's essentially a value-add feature being implemented in most of HP's new printers. If I was sizing up a few seemingly similar models and learned that one had this sort of web functionality, it could very well sway my purchase.

And that seems to be what HP is counting on. Aside from the web services, the PhotoSmart e-All-in-One D110a is in most ways a very typical two-cartridge wireless printer/scanner. The pictures it prints aren't of noticeably superior quality to those generated by my two-year-old Canon printer, and it pops out pages at no greater pace. However, add the ability to print from any email-enabled device and some handy PC-free printing apps and suddenly it stands well apart from the crowd.

In the relatively dull world of hardcopy hardware, this may well be a game changer.

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