Who needs darkrooms with these?

Roger Frost sees the future as computers produce top-quality cheap photographs

Hewlett Packard Photosmart PC Photography System: HP Photosmart Digital Camera (Pounds 249); Photo Printer (Pounds 399); Photo Scanner (Pounds 399)

Microsoft Picture IT software with each of the above.

Overall approx. cost per A4 page Pounds 1.50, 4in x 6in 40p.

HP PhotoSmart Photo Printer: photographic quality printer complete with printer cable and ink cartridges

HP PhotoSmart Digital Camera: camera with automatic focus, flash, and exposure. 640 x 480 pixel (whole screen) resolution; 24-bit colour; 2-megabyte memory card (included) for up to 32 shots (4 megabytecard available)

HP PhotoSmart Photo Scanner: high-resolution colour scanner for negatives, transparencies and prints up to 5in x7in. Scans with 30-bit colour and at up to 2,400 dots per inch. Uses a SCSI card and cable (supplied)

Components of this three-part system are available separately from retail outlets. You need a Windows 95 Pentium multimedia computer with at least 16 megabytes of memory and 100-megabyte hard-disc space.

Details: Internet: www.hp.com

For just a couple of hundred pounds, you can buy a computer printer that can not only deliver pictures in colour, but can print very passable photographs. But that, as we've come to realise in this business, was this year.

Today we move up a whole generation as Hewlett Packard launches its Photo Printer which produces no less than the real thing. Yes, it prints photographs and with the drop-dead gorgeous gloss and richness that has always been wanted. At last it seems like the computer printer has finally played its trump card.

This is more than a printer; it is a full system offering new ways to make, use and store photos. It is a kit of parts: there's the printer itself, a camera that records pictures on a chip instead of film and a scanner that copies negatives, slides and prints.

It also includes software that can turn the most average snapshots into pictures that are stunning. And best of all, novice users will find lots of help, such as video clips on disc, to learn to do the stunning. The printer, taking as much space as a computer, is noticeably large - necessary because it needs to swallow a photo card flat and uncurled. It's also rugged because the paper movement needs to be precise. Instead of mixing the usual four colours to make every other colour, the printer layers six special photo dyes on the paper to produce a wider range of colour. As you would expect, it matches what you see on screen and there is no "dottiness" or "banding" to spoil the result which, funnily, can look better than the real thing. The cost - though good value at Pounds 1.50 for a 10in x 8in print - is nevertheless something to budget for. You can cut costs by using postcard size (40p).

The type of paper is crucial. I tried all sorts of special papers, even HP's other photo papers but nothing beats the special photo paper. When you start printing, the machine asks what type of paper you are using and adjusts its use of ink accordingly. It's too clever by half - when you first connect up it asks for the software "driver" it needs and if you put in the wrong size of paper it tells you too. What's more, it shows you very graphically how to print a double-sided folded greetings card - some blessing as this must rate as the hardest printing task known to mankind. The downside, apart from running costs, is that it's not so good at printing text on plain paper. As a result, you'll want to put this in the occasional, dedicated-printer role it fits, and keep a second printer for everyday work.

When you've got the ultimate in printing capability, the idea of having a digital camera comes into a clearer view. HP's camera is like a regular point-and-shooter, but with no worries about shooting away film. Given that the battery life is excellent - four AA cells will take a few hundred pictures - this is seemingly no-cost photography. It flashes and focuses automatically and you can get as close as 2.5in, for example, to snap pictures of children's work for posterity. You connect it to the computer's "serial" socket to transfer the pictures - an easy process taking a few minutes, though it eats into the battery life if you leave it connected. Snapping is so cheap and instantly gratifying that everyday events - as opposed to special occasions - become worth recording.

The "film" is a dinky, removable chip storing 4, 16, or 32 pictures - though you can buy a 4-megabyte card to double these figures. A camera button lets you boost the image quality at the price of fewer pictures, while another lets you rub out the last shot. Because this is a young technology, the trick for best results is to reduce the printed size of your pictures. At the best setting you get a very good postcard-sized print.

The other way (in fact a great way) to get pictures into the computer is to scan them in. The HP Photo scanner does this well. You just press a button on the front depending on whether you have a print, negative or slide and the appropriate slot appears. The software appears on screen as you push in your picture. At this stage, you can make a few enhancements such as cropping the picture, flipping it and choosing - important this - how big you expect it to print. If you want to adjust the scanning quality you can, but it seems quicker simply to set the final size and let the software do the fiddling. When you are done not doing this, it scans and saves your picture.

Those with a huge legacy of photos, like the home users who are the main market for this system, will find plenty of use for them. Those with special uses will quibble that there's a 7in x 5in limit on the print size you can scan, or that scanning lots of shots at two minutes each is slow going. Still, the final print quality is brilliant, and especially so with slides and negatives.

Once you have the pictures in the machine, you can smarten them without limit or much skill using the Picture IT software included.

You can cut someone out of a picture and drop them back into it after you have blurred the background. Or if you have some average group photos, you can swap the heads round so that all the smiles are on the same picture!

Here too is time-killing scope for creating collages of images using backgrounds, and clever picture frames where the software chooses a frame colour using the tones in the picture. If there's, say, a blue tint to the picture you click on something white to get the balance corrected. Other tricks, such as correcting contrast, removing red-eyes, and sharpening focus need only one or two clicks. It's surprising how many pictures can be salvaged in this way - the hard bit is exercising restraint. A slide show feature here is an excellent way to make a school display to show on the screen. You put the pictures in order, and the machine chugs away to save them as a presentation that needs only a click to watch. You can just as easily save the show as Web pages to put on the Internet - in fact, I've not seen anything this easy. In short, Picture IT is a perfect inclusion, and surely something that a teenager can handle. Look out for Picture IT 2, as it uses picture menus and brings all this capability within reach of juniors in primary schools.

For those with an affinity for photography, or with special presentation needs, each item here is highly desirable - with the printer opening up the new vistas. Setting up quality products, like these with their concise manuals, is an unusual pleasure - just bear in mind that playing with images needs a speedy computer with extra memory. In particular, the Picture IT software can be sluggish and deserves around 32 megabytes of memory.

This is modern-day darkroom photography and it's moving fast - already Fuji and Kodak have places on the Internet where you can send images for printing, and the facility to send snaps as e-mail postcards is creeping into all sorts of software. In the US, Kodak has been selling private places on the Internet where you can stash 100 pictures for Pounds 4.95 a month - presumably the idea is to view them on Internet-enabled televisions, the so-called Web-TV that has already established itself over there. But meanwhile, here's something to go snap-happy and collage-crazy over.

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