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.