You'd be forgiven if, at first glance, you mistook HP's quirky new TopShot LaserJet Pro for an old-fashioned overhead projector.
The American computer company's latest all-in-one printer (it can print, copy, and scan) sports a folding arm that hangs above a matte white scanning bed. Positioned on the arm's head is a high-resolution camera and LED flash system that captures images of not just flat documents and photos, as traditional scanners do, but also small three-dimensional objects.
HP is pushing the device toward small and medium businesses, with a marketing campaign that seems to have its sights set on companies that sell small products online. An eBay seller, for example, might be able to use the TopShot in place of a photography studio to capture pro-style product shots.
However, the range of suitable objects is limited. The effective area of the scanning bed is only a little larger than a letter-sized piece of paper, and the camera hangs just 20 centimetres above it. Imagine an invisible pyramid, the tip touching the camera with its four sides extending down to the edges of the scanning plate. That's the area in which your 3-D object must fit, and it's pretty restrictive. My 14-centimere-tall teapot was too high (the camera captured the top, but cut off the sides) and a baseball glove was too broad.
I eventually found a number of three-dimensional items one might find on an online auction site that were of appropriate size and shape (see sidebar). Results were mixed. Matte elements, such as the body of a game controller and a cardboard Blu-Ray sleeve, came out nicely, but others – like the thick glass bits on a necklace – sometimes lacked detail.
The inconsistency likely has to do with both the method in which images are captured and the way in which the printer's software interprets them. Upon initiating a scan, the LED flash goes off three times and the camera takes multiple shots at different exposures. The TopShot then selects and amalgamates the best parts of these pictures, creating a composite image. Sometimes I was provided more than one image from which to choose, but that usually meant the scanner was experiencing difficulty creating a proper picture and that none of them would be usable.
Assuming your products are of suitable size and shape, 3-D scanning could result in a significant time savings for some online sellers. The scanning process takes less than 20 seconds, and downloadable printer apps let users instantly upload images to various websites. Just keep in mind that – as its name implies – the TopShot offers limited angle options. Unless you can work out a way to safely place your object on its side, you'll be forced to capture it from directly above, which may not be the product's most flattering angle.
The TopShot's 3-D scanning system also impacts traditional 2-D scanning. The overhead camera does a decent job of capturing text documents, and you can easily scan several small items – like business cards – at once. However, it struggles with documents of greater visual complexity, especially photographs. I tried scanning several 4-by-6 photos at 300 dots-per-inch, the TopShot's highest capture resolution, and the resulting files were grainy, pixelated, and had mottled colours. I couldn't imagine using them for anything.
Not surprisingly, it's a capable printer/copier, especially when it comes to text documents, business cards, and simple brochures with colourful logos and diagrams. It's reasonably quick, offers useful features like duplex printing, and employs a smart, accessible paper processing system that sees sheets sucked up from an open feeder on the bottom then spat out onto a tray just below the scanning bed.
However, like most laser printers, it's not really suitable for printing photographs or documents that incorporate lifelike images. Home-based entrepreneurs looking for a machine that can handle both business documents and the occasional family photo would do better to invest in a traditional inkjet printer.
Like other recent HP printers, the TopShot excels at networking – and not just the local area variety. It supports HP's ePrint, which lets you send files to print from pretty much any place you happen to have an Internet connection, as well as AirPrint, which means you can print directly from Apple phones and tablets. And, as mentioned earlier, downloadable apps that reside on the printer can post scanned images to popular websites without running them through your computer. Some people may find they do the majority of their printing, scanning, copying and uploading without ever touching a laptop or desktop.
The TopShot's distinctive camera arm helps it stand out in a sea of seemingly interchangeable black and grey all-in-one printers, but its 3-D scanning capabilities will likely prove beneficial only to a small group of online businesses. Traditional laserjet and inkjet printers are still the better choice for most.
You can find the HP TopShot LaserJet Pro at Canadian retailers for $399.99.