Newest photo printers becoming more like PCs

August 29, 2007: 9:30 AM ET

From a glance at Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) new high-end photo printer, the Photosmart A826, you'd swear it was a computer.

It has the familiar jellybean shape of an all-in-one consumer PC. It has a 7-inch screen, and slots for plugging in memory cards. It even has a keyboard, sort of – you can call one up using the touchscreen controls.

But this $249 contraption isn't a PC – at least, not in the traditional sense. It doesn't run Microsoft (MSFT) Windows or Apple (AAPL) OS X, and it doesn't surf the Internet or do spreadsheets. No, the A826's job is more basic than that. It prints photos. Period.

I got a close-up look at the A826 last week, and got a feel for how functions that were PC-only are now trickling down into printers. HP hopes the new products will help it maintain its printing lead over Dell (DELL), Canon (CAJ), Lexmark (LXK) and others.

But the new printer is also the latest example of how, as consumers become comfortable in the digital home, the line is blurring between PCs and "peripherals" – the old industry term for devices that hook up to PCs. In fact, these latest printers aren't built to be peripherals at all – they're front-and-center fixtures in the home, designed to be useful whether you regularly plug them into a PC or not.

The A826 isn't the only example of this trend – HP's multi-function C8180 has a DVD drive, and can automatically archive your photos if you pop in a memory card and a disc at the same time.

And of course there's Apple's iPhone. In the old computing world, it might have been classified as a "peripheral" – you need to hook the phone up to a computer to activate it, and to make most of the functions useful. But in the iPhone's case, the device itself is the focus when it hooks up to a computer. It's as though the phone is the main device, and the PC becomes the peripheral.

From the looks of things, more and more devices will be taking on PC-like functions. Upcoming designs for digital cameras feature built-in WiFi connections, which could allow the cameras to e-mail photos to friends, post them to a photo gallery, or eventually order prints without the help of a PC.

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