HP DesignJet 120

HP DesignJet 120 large format printer
Company: Hewlett-Packard

Price: $1295.00

HP’s new DesignJet 120 is the best printer Nemo and Weeks have ever used or reviewed. We have some concerns regarding hardware and software, but all our comments on print quality are glowing with praise.

PLEASE NOTE: This review was done using both HP’s included CD software (OS 9.2.2) and web download driver (OS X/Jaguar). Our observations mention certain problems, many of which are supposed to be fixed by now for OS 9 and X/Jaguar, with newer drivers available from HP’s web site. Panther drivers should not display any of the bugs we encountered. Please keep all this in mind as you read our remarks.


I wish I had a video of me hauling the unit’s casket-size carton into my home office, and then setting up the very large DJ120 by myself. Readers fortunate enough to have a similar opportunity are urged to get assistance from a strong, smart person.

Dozens of friends, students, and colleagues have seen both the printer and its stellar results during our three-month evaluation period. Every person has said more or less the same thing: “Those pictures are gorgeous, Nemo. Where’s the printer? Oh, wow! That thing is *%#+!/ΒΆ? gigantic.”

Here’s a photo of HP’s printer next to a life-sized version of the friendly shark featured in “Finding Nemo.”

Bruce Fraser’s Macworld magazine reviewof DJ120 appeared in the October issue, and I read it not long after creating my initial test prints on a comparable printer. Bruce is the best in the business, and without implying any criticism, I wish his commentary was a bit longer and more subjective. It’s only by working with DJ120 day after day for months that its complete set of assets and range of use become evident.

Not many reviews followed Bruce’s. Why not? Perhaps DJ120 has yet to find its following. Very seriousgraphics professionals may consider it too much of a “lightweight,” being misled by its modest price. Ordinary people and digital artists may think DJ120 is priced too high, with more attributes than they can justify. Wrong, and wrong, says Nemo.

On a per-print basis, ink and media costs are reasonable, with exceptional value considering the modest initial price of DJ120 hardware. Only a couple of purchase upgrade options make a buying decision easy: if you need a roll feeder, buy one; if you need RIP capability, get it.

Speaking of printing media, we continue to be mightily impressed by Ilford’s Printasia line of premium inkjet papers, reviewed not long ago. Ilford supplied several packs of large-format Printasia glossy and satin to help us evaluate DJ120. Results are consistent, stellar, and eye-catching. If you have not yet done so, buy or order some Printasia today, then send us a thank you note afterward. The satin finish is our overall favorite.


Let’s rewind to my installation and setup of HP’s DesignJet 120. Our review model is the basic unit (minus roll-feed or RIP) which we connected via USB to two different G3 iMacs and a G3 PowerBook running OS 9.2.2 (not all at once), and to a G4 TiBook running OS X/10.2.6.

Unpacking DJ120 wasn’t easy by myself, and I managed to accomplish it using a couple of small tables to balance the monster printer without having it crash to the floor. Following the universal installer chart (which was not thorough enough) I installed all six-color individual ink units and print heads, plugged in DJ120, waited for its ink to be charged, affixed the paper tray, and loaded some ordinary inkjet paper.

Software installation from the included HP disk took a few seconds, followed by my first test prints using automatic settings. My notes from four months ago remind me that my reactions at the time were “slow” progress and “heavily inked” colors, with printer doing a “shake and shimmy” and a lot of “chirping and grunting” during the “long wait” for prints to be completed.

I commented that I “don’t like the setup info,” although once DJ120 was fully ready its prints are “quite accurate and neutral” in color realism, and “very good” using generic normal settings. Prints on photo paper using BEST mode are “superb.” I summarized that initial hour with DJ120 by scribbling: “good printer; huge paper options; very affordable; start to finish printing time acceptable for the size and quality.”

My questions(and answers) then were:

  • Why is the paper feed path so sensitive and prone to stalling or rejection? (I learned to live with it, and fed paper correctly most of the time.)
  • Why doesn’t HP’s software remember paper type or settings from the most recent output?(I now use as many presents as are available, not being bothered by minor inconveniences.)
  • Why do the universal international setup chart and the skimpy printed quick reference guide include so little information? (Because comprehensive html-based language-specific instructions and tutorials are provided on CD and at a dedicated web site.)

    Two months later I compiled Nemo’s personal list of plus/minus for HP’s DesignJet 120, with most important items having a *** indicator.

    In no special order, they are:

    MINUS — Paper type and quality settings don’t stick from print to print, but paper sizes do, on successive prints and saved Photoshop files.

    MINUS — Landscape mode settings don’t work at all using the CD software that ships with DJ120, which I discussed with my HP contacts. (Should be fixed in updated drivers.)

    PLUS — Ink quantity display is good, and ink usage is thrifty. ***

    MINUS — Universal setup instructions are still frustrating. ***

    PLUS — Print quality is consistent and excellent on all photos and art images. ***

    MINUS — Text printing is slow, with acceptable quality.

    PLUS — Page setup paper choices are extensive. ***

    MINUS — Either or both printer and/or computer can appear to freeze with original printer drivers, when sometimes a print is being processed and sometimes a restart or reset is required. ***

    MINUS — DesignJet’s original CD software locks the computer for an extra minute or two during every startup, with no indication of what is happening. Computer takes much longer to enter Sleep mode in OS 9.***

    MINUS — The remaining page countdown is not operative when making multiple prints.

    PLUS — HP’s affordable proofing glossy stock is easy to use and versatile.

    PLUS — Paper quality and type presets are easy to create. ***

    PLUS — Start-to-finish printing is speedy and efficient for large format output. ***

    PLUS — Manual paper ejection is required for largest sheets, to avoid paper crumpling upon release from printer’s jaws.

    PLUS — Full range of paper size markings in manual and tray feed hardware. ***

    PLUS — Easy manual or automatic front loading, or manual rear paper feeding. ***

    MINUS — Custom user-defined paper sizes don’t print consistently.

    PLUS — Ink is quick-drying, but users are advised to let it try completely before handling finished prints.

    PLUS — Approximate per-print costs for HP ink and paper are very affordable, and users will spend at most (in US dollars and inches): $2 per 8 x 10, $4 per 11 x 14, $6 per 13 x 19, $8 per 16 x 20, or $10 per 18 x 24. ***

    PLUS — Total six-cartridge ink replacement costs are under $200, with sufficient quantity for 50 to 100 large-format prints (mileage will vary depending upon ink usage). Ink replacement is effortless. ***

    When weighing the plus/minus ratio and determining which factors matter most, the emerging punch line on HP’s DesignJet 120 is: splendid prints, affordable hardware and ink, potentially tricky setup, idiosyncratic software, multiple paper loading options, noisy but not loud, fussy paper path, versatile product overall.

    Do you remember our recent reviewof HP’s home office color laser printers? At the time we considered the LaserJet family to be the best printers we had the pleasure to use. DesignJet 120 surpasses that standard, especially with its stunning exhibition-quality photos and artwork results. (We did not address the issues of archival ink and paper during the course of our review.)

    Specs? Interested? Visit this URL or go to HP.com and do a search for “designjet 120” (quotation marks not necessary). All of the following are linked from the same web page: product information, overview & features, specifications & warranty, supplies & accessories, printable data sheet (.pdf), request a print sample, and technical support.

    The basic sheet-feed model costs around $1200 US, and the networkable roll-feed DJ120 costs around $1800 US. I predict prices will remain steady until an upgrade or replacement model is released.

    For demanding color matching and professional use, our HP representative explains:

    There is good reason why an optional RIP is available. HP wanted to make the printer affordable and bring large format abilities to a new audience (especially one that may not need such strict color requirements, such as at home designers or amateur art/design students, architects). For graphic design professionals that need a very high level of color management, the optional RIP is available and recommended.

    Basically, HP didn’t want to penalize or overload/overprice those not needing or wanting such color control (they may just not need it for their everyday use). This is also why there is a model with and without a roll feed. These advanced features are examples of how HP is trying to accommodate a wide range of
    users. They firmly believe large format capabilities should be available at a nonprohibitive price (for the base model). What this says to me is that the printer’s quality is extremely high (amateurs are getting top notch, professional quality) and just a couple distinguishing options (roll feed model and optional RIP) bump up the product to meet that top level of professional use.

    MyMac.com Publisher Tim Robertson worked with HP’s RIP while testing a different printer. His comments may be helpful.


    The MyMac tag-team review process got underway when I showed up at Nemo’s to beat on the HP DesignJet 120 printer. Good OS X printing compatibility sometimes takes a bit of extra time, and we wanted to see how well HP had written the OS X drivers for this wide-carriage USB printer.

    I had no trouble finding and downloading the latest version of Jaguar driver installer from the HP web site. The testing started auspiciously when the software installed without a hitch.

    My test print was a high-resolution image taken with my Fuji FinePix 601, 3 megapixel camera. I opened it with Photoshop Elements, and printed it with no further tweaking.

    The standard OS X print dialog appeared, with the expected addition of the DesignJet 120 options in the pop-up menu for print settings. This printer has LOTS and LOTS of options: dozens of paper types, paper feed options, and more. Make sure you know the difference between HP Proofing paper, and HP
    coated paper!

    The main difficulty with using the printer comes from the fact that there are a plethora of settings, and few of them “stick” between print jobs. If you use a non-standard print size (we used 13″ x 19″ sheet-fed paper), be aware that the paper size is NOT retained from print job to print job; you’ll need to reselect it each time.

    Nor does the paper type “stick” between print jobs, so you need to scroll through the extensive list of paper types each time.

    Finally, Nemo and I discovered that a bug in the OS 9 driver got carried over into the OS X driver; choosing Landscape orientation does not work correctly. After choosing Landscape, you can Print Preview and view your image in Landscape, but it prints in Portrait orientation. This is quite frustrating. We could reliably work around this problem by rotating our photo 90 degrees, but this is clearly a bug, and needs fixing. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does add to the complexity of the printing process. (See comments below regarding updated software.)

    The final annoying discovery came when I was unable to create a usable preset for the various test settings of paper size, type, and margins. Try as we might, I could not get the paper size choice to stick when I created and chose a preset. I continually had to reset the correct paper size.

    Once you’ve set your options, and checked and doubled checked them (wasting a big sheet of expensive paper and lots of ink drives me crazy!) the actual printing goes normally. The output is excellent.

    My conclusion is that the basic functionality of the Jaguar OS X driver is okay, but HP needs to work on properly implementing the finer points of the software to eliminate repetitive setup chores each time printing is done. It’s easy to forget a setting, and then waste money when the print comes out looking great, but with the wrong orientation.

    HP tells MyMac.com:

    The options of the driver are the result of the versatility of the HP DesignJet 120 D-size printer that has roll, tray and manual and rear paper feed. And also the paper type options reflect the media flexibility of the printer.

    If you keep the same document open and reprint, you don’t have to reselect the paper size. However once you reopen the document or open a new document you will need to reselect the paper size again. The application is the owner of the Page setup dialog and it is out of the driver scope to retain any paper size settings.

    The “stickiness” of the print dialog settings is also out of scope of the drivers. Mac OS X doesn’t let the driver implement this “feature.” You can use the Presets to save your most used printer settings.

    In Mac OS X, you cannot include any settings from the Page setup dialog in the Presets. “Presets” is a feature of the Print dialog and you can only save settings that belong to it. Once you enter into the Print dialog box the page size and margins have already been defined, so your printing settings are independent to the paper size, margins and orientation.

    We have currently a known bug in the Presets functionality of the driver. The workaround is to manually reselect the Preset, which then will apply the saved settings correctly. We address this in the next release.



    Representatives from HP assure me that updated OS 9 and X/Jaguar drivers will be available by the time you read this review: easy to download, install, and use. Improvements will correct most of the problems we encountered. Panther has all necessary DJ120 drivers pre-installed, so most of the glitches and bugs we experienced should not be evident in future.

    Do yourself a favor and buy a second set of ink cartridges. When one of them hits low level on the indicator panel display, DJ120 becomes inoperative. I had just finished printing an edition of twenty-three 16 x 20 exhibition prints for my daughter’s night photography show, and the final picture brought DJ120’s magenta cartridge into REPLACE ME NOW OR ELSE mode. I was stuck with a really large paperweight or desk ornament until the replacement cartridge arrived.

    How did the exhibition photos look? Great! So did the botanical prints I did for landscape designer Carrie Nimmer.

    Over the Thanksgiving weekend I printed an extensive range of final demonstration photos and artistic images on DJ120, including a creative, textured-scan of a woman’s sock, done by my sister-in-law. She tells me: “Your HP printer is terrific, John. Fabulous detail. I scanned a sock and printed the image as an 18×24 inch photo. When framed, my friend, upon seeing it, had to go up and touch it because she thought it was knit and three dimensional. Details too small to see on the computer monitor emerge with amazing clarity.”

    How will we rate HP’s DesignJet 120 printer? Let’s be totally honest, and divide its components into three:

    PRINT QUALITY = 5 out of five

    SOFTWARE AND INTERFACE = 4 out of five


    OVERALL = 4 MAC MICE out of five, based on Nemo’s MyMac.com “Q/D/S/V Standard” for all product reviews:

    Q = QUALITY, including ease of installation, performance, stability, and general happy relationship with everything on my system;

    D = DOCUMENTATION, both printed and electronic, plus appropriate website material;

    S = SUPPORT, in the form of email, phone, and web updates;

    V = VALUE, which includes both original cost and subsequent expenses.


    MyMac Rating: 3 out of 5
    Shows promise! Could be better, but a product worth watching.

    MyMac Rating: 4 out of 5
    A very decent product. Worth the time and investment, but look for competing products.

    MyMac Rating: 5 out of 5
    Fantastic product! Well worth your money and investment. The best of its kind.


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