Get Dieter and Helmut out of your head: You’re thinking of the wrong Sprockets. The HP Sprocket 2nd Edition ($129.99), a pocket-size portable snapshot printer, is the company’s third by that name, replacing the popular original Sprocket reviewed in December 2016. Since then, we’ve tested similar models from Canon, Kodak, and Lifeprint, but we didn’t find one worthy of our Editors’ Choice nod until the HP Sprocket Plus came along in mid-2018. The Sprocket 2nd Edition’s beefed-up feature list, funky augmented-reality angle, and impressive output-quality overhaul represent big steps forward for this fun device. Our new Editors’ Choice, the HP Sprocket 2nd Edition ends its sibling’s short reign as PCMag’s top portable photo printer.
A Quirky, Spiffy Printer
The Sprocket 2nd Edition is about the footprint of a smartphone, but chunkier. Because the HP Sprocket Plus prints slightly larger photos than the original Sprocket and the Sprocket 2nd Edition (the pics are 2.3 by 3.4 inches, versus the more common 2 by 3 inches), the Sprocket Plus is slightly wider than the other two. The Sprocket 2nd Edition measures 1 by 4.6 by 3.2 inches (HWD) and weighs about 4 ounces. That’s in line with the original Sprocket, as well as the competing Canon IVY Mini, the Kodak Mini 2 HD, and Lifeprint’s Hyperphoto Printers.
While the original Sprocket comes in a practical black with silver trim, or in all-white, the Sprocket 2nd Edition comes in…well, not really colors, but moods, or states of mind. You have your choice of three hues: Noir, Luna Peral, and Blush.
These sound more like lipsticks or perfumes. In addition to the head-scratcher names, each color has a description. Example: Luna Peral. Shadows on white as time passes. Delicate balance of energy and quiet.
We are talking about a machine here, right? Right. According to HP, its market research says that the primary users of portable photo printers like these are young women aged 16 to 24, and it says it geared these new colors to that demographic. Beyond these, HP says that versions of the Sprocket 2nd Edition in more colors, including Lilac, will be available from specific retailers. (Info on exactly what colors and where wasn’t available yet, at this writing.)
As you can see in the image above, each of the different-colored tops has a pattern of dots or flecks. The patterns break up the monotony of these otherwise solid-color printers, but they have another, more interesting function: When you scan them with your smartphone camera from inside HP’s Sprocket App (which I’ll discuss more in a moment), status information shows up on the screen, a limited implementation of augmented reality. HP calls this Reveal.
Around the Edges and Inside
Like most other pocket photo printers, the Sprocket 2nd Edition’s design is basic. You’ll see a print-output slot and a small status light just above it on the front edge, and a power button, a micro USB port for charging, a reset pinhole, and a battery-status LED on the rear edge…
HP says that you’ll get 35 to 40 prints from each battery charge. Everything else—configuring the printer, pairing it via Bluetooth, photo editing and enhancing, and much more—is handled from the Sprocket App on your Apple or Android mobile device.
Most recent pocket photo printers, including all three Sprockets, the Canon IVY Mini, and the Lifeprint models I mentioned, make use of a technology known as Zero Ink, or ZINK. ZINK printers all use color thermal paper made by a company of the same name. Instead of spraying on or fusing external ink or toner applied by the printer, ZINK paper releases colors via chemicals embedded in the paper; the colors come to the surface based on heat patterns applied to the paper by the printer. ZINK does, however, produce branded paper that HP says has been tweaked specifically for the Sprocket printers. It also offers paper packs specific to competing models.
The Sprocket 2nd Edition receives paper just as the others do. You simply remove the lid, drop in the paper print side up, and make sure that the blue barcoded card in the paper packet goes in first, face down…
The printer scans the barcode to calibrate the printer to each new paper pack’s slightly different heat-application requirements.
New App, New Features
Little photo printers like the Sprocket 2nd Edition have minimal processing prowess onboard. Most of what they do is initiated and tightly controlled by software installed on your smartphone or tablet.
In this case, that’s HP’s Sprocket App, which is downloadable from the Apple Store or the Google Play Store. The first time you launch it, the program finds your Sprocket printer, pairs with it (without you having to meddle in your phone’s Bluetooth setup panel), and walks you through the rest of the installation. You can now print the photos you shoot with your mobile device’s camera, or images stored on your smartphone or tablet. You can also connect to and print from Facebook, Google, or Instagram social-media and cloud sites.
As with most other apps for pocket photo printers like this one, the Sprocket App lets you make basic image corrections, tweaking items such as crops, brightness, and contrast/color levels. You can also add borders, text, or stickers, and even draw (or paint) shapes freehand. You’ll also use the Sprocket App, of course, to configure the printer itself, and to work with most of the features we’re about to discuss.
Here’s a rundown of the most important and the new stuff in the Sprocket App.
Augmented Reality Photos
This debuted on the Sprocket Plus (it was called Scan Mode there) and is similar to Lifeprint’s augmented reality (“Hyperphoto”) feature. You associate printed photos with short video clips and then invite friends and family to scan the printed image with their smartphone’s camera inside the Sprocket App. Doing so plays the clip on their phone.
The primary difference between HP’s and Lifeprint’s iterations is that Lifeprint stores the associated video on the company’s Instagram-inspired photo repository, which makes it available to anybody with a copy of the photo. HP requires the user to have both components—the photo and the video—stored on the mobile device scanning the photo. Is it handy? Questionable. Gimmicky? Sure. But it’s a fun gee-whiz feature to impress friends and family.
Also possible on the Sprocket Plus, this is the process of printing pieces of a larger hard-copy image or graphic, and then sticking the pieces, or tiles, together to create a larger copy of the original shot. You define up to nine tiles in Sprocket App, print them, and then piece the image back together using printed guides and adhesive on the back of the paper. Canon’s IVY Mini also supports tiling.
Enhanced Connectivity and Multi-User Printing
In response to customer feedback, HP has improved the Sprocket 2nd Edition’s Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) connectivity to eliminate flaky pairing and dropped connections. The beefed-up Bluetooth service now also supports multiple simultaneous connections, allowing you and your friends and family to use the printer at the same time.
Multi-users, in this case, means three. The Sprocket 2nd Edition will accept print jobs from up to that many users simultaneously. Anybody within the Bluetooth LE connection range (about 15 to 20 feet) with the Sprocket App installed on his or her mobile device can connect to and print photos on your printer. While you can’t control who connects and prints, you can manage your print jobs, which are listed by filenames and sorted by print times in the Sprocket App’s Print Queue. And you can prioritize jobs by moving them up or down in the list. You can also pause, delete, and move print jobs from the queue to an inactive pane on the Print Queue screen.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to identify print jobs by user, but you can tell from the printer itself when your own document(s) are printing: The LED above the output slot flashes in the color assigned to your printer in the Sprocket App…
I asked HP why Sprocket 2nd Edition’s security was so…not lax, but nonexistent. The company rep said that since Bluetooth LE requires users to be so close to the printer to connect, you’ll likely see anybody using it.
Always On and Always Connected
Instead of going to sleep and disconnecting from your tablet or smartphone, the Sprocket 2nd Edition now stays connected when sleeping and wakes when you send it a print job. This eliminates the need to reboot the printer to reactivate it and reconnect to your mobile device.
I should note here, though, that this didn’t work for me. I left my printer idle too long, not realizing that I had to physically turn Sleep mode off. This also seems like a good place to point out the copy of the documentation I worked from was not fully developed, so this may be rectified by the time you read this.
Printer Status Communication
The two status lights on the Sprocket 2nd Edition illustrate low and high battery-charge levels, as well as when a print job is running, and when a firmware update is happening. The Reveal function, which I alluded to earlier, is another augmented-reality feature. It displays the printer’s status (for example, the battery-level info) when you scan the dot patterns on the Sprocket 2nd Edition’s lid with the Sprocket App. This didn’t work for me the first few times I tried, but I was up against this review’s deadline and ran out of time to experiment with it.
Name Your Sprocket, and Upcoming Stuff
During its initial installation and printer set up routine, you are prompted to change your Sprocket’s name from the default “HP Sprocket 200.” If you ignored the prompt or, thinking that the device’s name is unimportant, typed in something inappropriate, you can change the name and any other setting from one of the three settings control panels (Sprocket, Inbox, and Print Queue) accessible from the app’s main menu. (It is located in the top left corner of the Home screen.) After giving this some thought, though, I couldn’t figure out how, beyond purposes of vanity, giving this printer a unique name would be helpful, unless I found myself in a room full of Sprockets broadcasting the same name. Not likely; but it’s an option.
HP says you can look for another feature to come to the app soon: Later this year, expect support for shared photo albums for specific events. Through these, owners of the albums can set up shared events and contribute images to that event.
Zis Is Ze Part of Sprockets in Vich Ve Print
I used my year-old Samsung Galaxy smartphone and my daughter’s Apple iPhone 8 to print some sample pictures. The 2nd Edition model printed the 2-by-3-inch photos I threw at it at an average of 39 seconds each, about 3 seconds faster than the first Sprocket and 19 seconds quicker than the Sprocket Plus.
Remember, though, that the Sprocket Plus photos contain 30 percent more coverage area than the 2×3 models’. The Sprocket 2nd Edition was also a substantial 51 seconds quicker than the Lifeprint 3×4.5 Hyperphoto (it prints snapshots that are 50 percent larger) but 9 seconds slower than Lifeprint 2×3 Hyperphoto, the fastest standard-size ZINK model so far.
Compared to some of the other 2-by-3-inch models, the Sprocket 2nd Edition proved 5 seconds faster than the Canon IVY and 41 seconds quicker than the Kodak Mini 2. (The latter is a thermal-dye-sublimation machine that uses cartridges containing both ink and the photo paper, not ZINK technology.)
Mediocre print quality—a lack of color vibrance and image detail—was one of the more frequent complaints HP received from the owners of the original Sprocket. But this is not exclusive to HP ZINK-based products. A recurring theme in user reviews, professional reviews, and just about everywhere else has been the overall so-so photos produced by these little ZINK printers. The Sprocket product manager told me that in response, after many hours of research and collaboration with ZINK, HP’s in-house imaging specialists, product developers, and programmers found a solution.
With some minor tweaking of the HP-branded ZINK paper and an overhaul of the printer’s firmware and the thermal printheads, the Sprocket 2nd Edition applies heat to the thermal paper with much more precision than previous models could. (An HP rep also told me that a solution entailing an overhaul of ZINK’s thermal paper, too, was not pursued, since so many of these portable photo printers use the same media.) The results are shown in the HP-generated comparison below. (Note: I’ve seen this firsthand and was duly impressed.) The prints are brighter, with more vibrant colors and greater detail…
That said, even with the output improvements, the new Sprocket’s images are not as brilliant and sharp (which you probably can’t see on a low-resolution web page) as photos produced by five- and six-ink photo printers and all-in-ones from Canon and Epson. I still contend, as I have in other ZINK snapshot printer reviews, that another reason for the somewhat bland output is the lack of black in the ZINK color model. In any case, there’s no denying the improvement. For now, anyway, the Sprocket 2nd Edition produces the best-looking 2-by-3-inch ZINK-based snapshots from a pocket photo printer.
A Look at the Print Costs
The Sprocket 2nd Edition’s running costs are, due to a better deal on HP-branded ZINK paper, lower than the first Sprocket’s initial 65-cent cost per photo. However, because these two products use the same media, a price reduction for the new Sprocket’s paper also reduces the price for the other one.
The paper comes in packs of 20 sheets for $9.99, 50 sheets for $24.99, and 100 sheets for $44.99. If you choose the 100-sheet pack, your cost per photo will be 45 cents; otherwise, it’s 50 cents a print with the other two.
Forty-five cents is good, but not as good as it gets. The Lifeprint 2×3’s 110-packs cost less than 20 cents each, for instance, but the 3×4.5 model’s prints will cost you a jaw-dropping $1.10 each, considerably more than the Sprocket Plus’ 65 cents per. The Canon IVY’s paper is 50 cents per sheet, and the Kodak Mini’s dye-sub photos run about 70 cents each. So it would seem that the Sprocket 2nd Edition’s paper lands right in the middle of the, ahem, “pack.”
The New Sprocket: Remade, Not Refreshed
It’s a common practice in the printer industry to add a (sometimes minor) feature or two to an existing product, tick up the product name and/or number, and then ship it as a major version update or all-new product. HP seldom does that. Case in point is the Sprocket 2nd Edition.
Nearly everything, including the housing, is new. HP listened to its Sprocket user base and boldly released the new Sprocket in colors that it thinks will appeal to that demographic. HP will also offer some matching carrying cases and other accessories, some of which are pictured below. I did not have the opportunity to play with these before posting time.
The previous Sprocket’s major shortcomings—flaky connectivity and so-so output—are no longer issues, and several new features have been introduced (even though some of them, like the three-user network and print-queuing features, are half-baked). Plus, the Sprocket 2nd Edition costs less to buy and use than the previous Sprocket and several competing models.
For now, until some other portable photo printer leaps ahead, the HP Sprocket 2nd Edition is the pick of its litter to snag. It’s our latest favorite pocket-size photo printer. Unless you prefer the larger output of the Sprocket Plus or Lifeprint 3×4.5 models, it should be yours, too.