The HP Photosmart A526 is the entry-level model in the company's new line of snapshot printers. As we loved the Photosmart A826, we were looking forward to this one, as we figured it to be a scaled-down version of that printer. Unfortunately, HP scaled back too far and its price of $100 is too high; the printer offers fewer functions than its similarly priced competition. It's also slower and produces lower quality photos than the Canon Selphy CP740. It's clear that HP intends this for "light" users who simply want to print a photo without enhancing it, but we find it difficult to recommend the Photosmart A526 since other printers offer more for the same price, which gives users more options.
The HP Photosmart A526 is adorably tiny, standing just 8.9 inches wide at its base, 4.6 inches deep, and 5.4 inches tall. It weighs a feather-light 2.7 pounds and a flip-up carrying handle makes it easy to tote around. The printer's blue front panel opens to serve as an output tray and reveals memory card slots and a USB PictBridge port. Opening the front panel also causes the paper input panel--located in the rear--to pop open. The input area holds up to 20 sheets of photo paper. It can handle paper up to only 4 inches wide, but in various lengths, including 4x6, 4x8, and 4x12 for panorama prints.
The A526's control panel is exceedingly spare and simple. The centerpiece is a 2.4-inch color LCD for previewing photos. Left and right arrow keys flank the print/OK button and let you scroll through the contents of your memory card. A cancel button and a red-eye removal button are the only other features.
The A526 uses a single color ink cartridge that costs $20 to replace. HP also offers a combined ink-and-paper value pack that can produce 120 prints for $35. The per-print cost, based on the value pack, is 29 cents per 4x6 print.
The HP Photosmart A526 is meant to be used mainly in standalone mode, but a USB port on the back lets you connect it to and print from a PC. HP also offers an optional Bluetooth adapter that you can connect to print wirelessly from a Bluetooth device such as a smart phone.
The four memory card readers can read most major types of cards, though some may require an adapter (not included). The PictBridge port can be used to connect cameras, camera phones, and videocams, but not USB storage devices such as thumbdrives.
When printing in standalone mode, you get minimal options on the A526: Basically, you can step through the photos and print. You can't even instruct the printer to make multiple prints on the same photo--you have to press the Print button once for each copy. The only option offered is red-eye removal and that's limited to turning red-eye removal on or off for a particular image. You can change the quality of prints or turn on a general Photo Fix option by accessing the printer's menu via the left or right arrow buttons (you'll have to remove any memory cards first). But the quality changes for all prints, not an individual photo. (Of course, you can access the menu between prints to change the quality.)
If you want to make more advanced edits to your images, you'll have to use the HP Photosmart Essential software that's included on CD. The software lets you offload photos from your memory card to your PC, organizes them into a library, and lets you peruse your library by date, tags, or via a file tree. Editing options include crop, rotate, flip, red-eye removal (allow you to pinpoint the area you want corrected), resize, and add color effects. You can also use the software to share photos via Snapfish (HP's online photo-sharing service) or e-mail.
Similarly priced offerings from the competition offer a lot more by way of onboard features. Both the Canon Selphy CP740 and the Epson PictureMate Pal let you do a Print All or select multiple photos (with varying numbers of prints) before starting the print job. They also let you make an index print or do layout prints, which let you vary the number and size of photos on a single sheet of photo paper. The Epson also lets you enhance photos, crop, or apply color treatments via the printer's control panel.
The HP Photosmart A526 trailed its competition in CNET Labs' print tests. Printing from a PC attached by USB cable, it produced 4x6 prints at a rate of 0.70 page per minute, while the Canon Selphy CP740 was able to do 0.92 page per minute, and the Epson PictureMate Pal accomplished 1.0 page per minute.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The quality test prints showed that the A526 produced prints of decent quality--good enough for casual snapshooters. The colors were pleasing, but we would've liked to see sharper details. We noticed some slight graininess in color blocks, particularly in faces. We also saw a lot of compression in the dark end of the grayscale, and as a result, lost some details in the shadowy areas of the photos. Overall, we preferred the prints produced by the Canon Selphy CP740 a bit more.
Service and support
HP backs the Photosmart A526 with a standard one-year warranty. Toll-free phone support is available 24-7, or you can chat live online with tech support, also 24-7. HP's site has drivers, software downloads, FAQs, and troubleshooting guides, as well.