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HP's open-source printer drivers need improvement

It's nice to use HP's fancy color printers with Linux. Windows, however, does a better job.

(LinuxWorld) -- Not long after Bruce Perens inspired HP to announce the release of open source drivers for Linux for many of HP's most popular ink jet printers, I asked for one of their top line printers to review. The drivers have since been released and HP sent me not one, but two printers for review. This week I informally review one of the printers, the company's top-of-the-line HP 990Cse, a nice little job that not only cranks out monochrome copies at 17 pages per minute, but also high-resolution (2,400 x 1,200 dots per inch), photo-quality graphics.

The 990Cse comes with USB and infrared connectivity, in addition to the traditional Centronics parallel port. It comes with an attachment to provide automatic two-sided printing and it has a built-in sensor to detect what kind of paper is being used. It's a very spiffy printer.

Strangely enough, visitors looking at the HP Web site are told the 990Cse does not support Linux. If you visit the HP Drivers search page (the URL is in Resources), you learn that drivers are available for various flavors of Windows and Macintosh. Unless you know the secret handshake, you (the wise Linux consumer) will probably never consider purchasing this printer.

If you search for "Linux" from the search engine on HP's home page, you find links to where the drivers live. The HP Printers and Linux page (see Resources) outlines the drivers available for specific laser and ink jet printers. The ink jet printer drivers are part of an open source project on Sourceforge called the HP Linux Inkjet Printer project.

The Sourceforge project page provides guidance for installing the open source drivers for various distributions. My choice for the test computer was SuSE 7.2, which includes the driver needed. At worst, you will have to download and compile a few things. It all depends on the flavor of Linux you're using.

With SuSE 7.2, it was simply a matter of running YaST2's hardware/printer module. The HP 990Cse was correctly identified and I was offered a choice of a Quick, Normal, or Advanced setup. The Quick install defaults to a standard ink jet driver, which delivers only 300 DPI monochrome print. I wanted more from the 990Cse. The Normal setup let me choose the DJ9xxVIP (the "HP-developed monochrome or color" driver instead of the default.

Selecting the DJ9xxVIP with default settings for the printer resulted in an error installing the driver. I contacted HP about this and they pointed me at an errata page on the SuSE site explaining that the default settings had not been included in their printer database. The workaround was to select specific settings for the driver. I chose 600x600 photo-quality setting and finished the installation without another hitch.

Text printing was crisp and fast, no doubt of that. I was unable to get the automatic two-sided printing to work. I noted in the Windows documentation for the printer that two-sided printing is a hardware and software implementation, and that it does not work on Windows 3.1. An HP official says it is not supported in the current Linux driver either.

Most of my color printing is of digital photographs, so I was anxious to try it. Roses I took the photo below using a Sony Mavica digital camera at 1,280 x 960 resolution. Printing with the photo color driver settings at 600 x 600 from GIMP resulted in a nice -- but not great -- print. Both the reds and the greens looked a little muted and darker than the image displayed on the screen. My own color vision is poor at best, so I asked my girlfriend for her opinion. Her immediate reaction was that the print quality on the HP was not as good as prints we get on a Lexmark Z52.

Timeout for a color printing lesson: Since the dawn of WYSIWYG, computer, monitor, and printer makers, as well as software developers, have tried to work together to make what we see on the screen match what's printed. It's a difficult job. CRTs use RGB technology, which is additive, and printers use CMYK, which is subtractive. If that's not enough, you have to keep control for the color balance of each individual monitor, and even the color balance of lighting of the room where you look at the monitor or printed output. For publishers, a synchronized monitor and printer is crucial. For everyone else, we just want a printer that spits out color prints that look good.

Ever curious, I decided to hook the printer to my new Sony laptop, configured as dual-boot with Windows 2000 and Red Hat Linux. Surprisingly, W2K did not identify the printer. Score one for SuSE Linux. After feeding W2K HP's installation CD it set up everything quickly.

I printed the same image using the Windows imaging software bundled with W2K. The reds of the roses were much brighter, and the greens were more vibrant as well. We compared the prints from Windows and the open-source HP driver on Linux with the image displayed on the monitor. In light of the difficulties of color-matching a monitor and printer, it wasn't surprising that neither printed image was faithful to the screen. The Windows print seems to have automatically enhanced the colors to make them brighter. The Linux HP print seemed to reduce their brightness.

Finally, I reinstalled the Lexmark Z52 printer on SuSE, grabbed the proprietary print driver Lexmark has created for Linux, and printed the same image. While not perfect, it seemed truer to the colors than either the HP on Linux or on Windows.

Remembering the great work being done on the GIMP-print project, I wrote Robert Krawitz a note and asked if the HP drivers had been or would be incorporated into GIMP-print. Unfortunately, Krawitz says they just don't have the developer resources to accomplish this at present.

How much of the print quality comes from the printer and how much comes from software is an interesting question. With this particular printer, as Bruce Perens said in an interview earlier this year, much of the color handling happens in hardware rather than by the driver. This should mean prints from both Windows and Linux would be the same. It's obvious some enhancement is done to the image the printer is asked to print before it gets there, in much the same way that hitting the "loudness" button on a boombox boosts the bass and makes music sound richer. Perhaps color enhancement is a default settings on Windows but not Linux.

The open source side of the equation (GIMP/HP open source driver) does not deliver the same quality as Windows/HP. Certainly not in resolution, where the open source driver can only achieve 600 x 600 DPI. Though I want more fidelity to colors than either delivered, the "loudness" enhancements on Windows were more pleasing to my eye than the toned-down GIMP print. As I noted above, I believe the Lexmark driver on Linux beats the HP on either platform for trueness of color.

Who do we blame for this poor showing against identical hardware on Windows? I think we need to blame ourselves. HP delivered the goods in terms of open source code for this printer. An HP spokesperson says higher resolutions will be available for this driver in the future, as will the ability to do duplex (two-sided) printing. Now, the open source community needs to step in and bring the drivers up to parity with what users get in the Windows world.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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