HP has been going all out to add a new twist to the humble desktop printer. Recently it launched e-All-in-One functionality in the Photosmart Premium and Photosmart Plus models, enabling you to set up these printers on a home network and email them directly from anywhere in the world, with attachments being printed automatically.
Cunningly, while documents, spreadsheets, PDFs and the like are printed on regular A4 paper, 6 x 4-inch or 7 x 5-inch photo paper is loaded automatically from a separate tray for printing photo attachments. The new Photosmart eStation follows suit, but raises the bar with its very own 'Zeen'.
Whereas the HP Photosmart Premium has a perfectly serviceable 8.9cm colour touchscreen, the eStation's has a much larger, 17.8cm tablet-like touchscreen that's a self-contained gadget in its own right, called a Zeen.
Remove it from its docking bay on the front of the printer and you can use it all around the home, not just controlling the printer but also reading the news, catching up with your Facebook pals, receiving and sending Yahoo Mail and more besides.
The various widgets are designed to work seamlessly with the printer as well as the internet, using your wireless network.
It's not all good news, however, because despite being based on the Android 2.1 operating system, functionality is somewhat hamstrung and the Zeen only really works with a relatively small collection of 'Print apps', rather than the wider range of general Android apps.
The printer comes with a collection of pre-installed apps and extra ones are available for download from HP's website directly to the printer. There are currently about 30 in all, including a slew of business and entertainment apps.
These range from handy forms to Picasa photo printing, greetings card creation, web Sudoku puzzles and fun for the kids from the likes of DreamWorks and Crayola.
Surfing the web on the Zeen is a slow and tedious business and, based on our review sample, operation is still a bit flaky. Several of the components such as Yahoo Daily Digest and Yahoo Mail repeatedly crashed during our tests and the weather forecast widget wouldn't let us switch to UK locations.
The touchscreen also often failed to tell the difference between a press and a swipe, taking us to the wrong place in our navigations. On the plus side, there's an SD card slot built in, making the Zeen good for viewing photos and printing them without even having to get up off the sofa.
The underlying print engine seems identical to the Photosmart Premium, which we've reviewed previously. Compared with the pigment-based black and dye-based cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges of the Photosmart Plus printer, both the Premium and eStation add an extra dye-based black cartridge.
Commonplace among Canon PIXMA printers over the years, this configuration adds depth, contrast and greater colour fidelity in photo prints. Indeed, print quality for both documents and photos is very good, although colour accuracy isn't quite as excellent as with the latest Canon printers, such as the PIXMA iP4850 and MG5150 all-in-one printer.
Print speeds are pretty quick, with mono text pages and colour DTP pages taking just under 10 seconds and 20 seconds respectively. Photo output is fast too, at about 30 seconds for a normal quality 6 x 4-inch print and just under three minutes for a high-quality borderless A4 photo print.
The eStation also comes with an auto duplex unit as standard, for double-sided printing, which can cut down on paper usage for multi-document printing.
The Photosmart eStation creates very good quality prints for documents and photos alike, and it's pretty quick too. The printer is only supplied with 'setup' cartridges, but ink costs are quite modest if you fit HP's high-capacity 364XL cartridges, at around 2p per mono text page, 7p per colour text page and 14p for a 6 x 4-inch colour photo.
Build quality feels solid and dependable and the printer is smartly styled and finished. The additional photo tray reduces the need to swap between plain and photo paper, unless you want to print photos at sizes larger than 7 x 5 inches.
The main selling point of the eStation is its tablet-like Zeen. This does a fairly good job of controlling the printer, both when it's docked and when you're using the Zeen remotely, but there still seems to be a few bugs that need ironing out. Ultimately, the fact that apps are mostly limited to printing makes it of limited appeal.
We found that after the initial novelty value of using the Zeen remotely, we tended to keep it docked all the time. This makes it an expensive luxury that's simply not worth having, considering that the eStation is 3.5 times the price of the Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One, which includes most of the same ePrint functions.
The Photosmart eStation's printing performance is pretty impressive but no better or faster than the much cheaper Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One. That means that you're currently paying an extra £225 or so for the luxury of the removable Zeen, and a couple of extra (but quite basic) web browsing facilities. For our money, it's just not worth it.