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The HP Tango X writes the book on bookshelf printers – CNET

Grab a pencil and pad. Or a stylus and tablet. Now, sketch a printer for me. They pretty much all look like. All sharp edges and bulky cheap-looking plastic. Some are bigger, like file boxes; some are smaller, like shoeboxes.

With few exceptions, printer design feels like it's been stuck in the '90s. Even the pair of inexpensive consumer laser printers that helped me get over my printer phobia are massive black-and-gray plastic boxes that don't look like they belong anywhere outside of an office cubicle.

HP's new Tango X printer is different enough to draw me in for a closer look, despite my antipathy for inkjet printers in general. It's a compact printer, about 15 by 8 by 3 inches, in matte-white plastic with some glossy gray accents. With its rounded corners and minimalist controls, it's clearly meant for casual at-home use.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The biggest break from tradition in the Tango is its woven fabric cover, which wraps around the outside of the printer like a book jacket. In fact, HP takes great pains to promote the Tango X as a printer that can sit unobtrusively on a bookshelf, with the cover acting as very book-like camouflage. When you're ready to print, just pull the cover open, flip up the paper holder, and it's good to go.

The Tango by itself is $150 in the US, and $199 with the cover (available in several color options). Like Microsoft's Surface tablet and its sold-separately keyboard attachment, the accessory is kind of the main point, so it really should be included by default. HP doesn't have international price and availability for the Tango X yet, but the printer+cover combo would be roughly £150 or AU$275.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

On-call ink

One of the things I really like about laser printers (such as the Brother HL-L2395DW) is that even the included starter toner package can be good for hundreds of pages, meaning you'll replace it less often, even if the new ones cost a lot.

HP has found a way to turn printers into a recurring monthly subscription model, called HP Instant Ink. It's frankly pretty confusing, but you're basically paying HP a set monthly fee based on the number of pages you expect to print, and the company remotely monitors your ink use and sends new cartridges as needed. The 50-pages-per-month plan is $2.99, or you can get 100 pages per month for $4.99 and 300 pages per month for $9.99.

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The Tango X hides in a bookshelf. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's an interesting idea, and HP claims you can save 50 percent off the regular a la carte price of ink, but you have to be OK with the company remotely monitoring your ink usage. And if you don't print anything at all, subscribers are still paying a minimum of $2.99 per month. (There's also a "free" 15 page-per-month plan, but after 15 pages, it's $1 for another set of 10 pages.)

The program counts color and black-and-white print jobs the same, but Instant Ink makes me wary of misprints, drafts, and test prints, all of which would count against your monthly total. One nice bonus is that photos, on paper 5-by-7 or smaller and printed from your phone, don't count against your monthly page limit.

The service is optional, and when signing up for it, I was able to get a two-month free trial by going to a promotional URL listed on the Instant Ink brochure included in the Tango's box.

Mobile first

While it doesn't explicitly call this a mobile-first printer, the Tango is clearly designed with the modern smartphone user in mind. I find most of my printing originates on a phone now, rather than a laptop or desktop, and even the box for the Tango shows someone printing from their phone (while holding a coffee cup and with a half-eaten Danish in the background).

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HP's photo-printing app. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

HP is very insistent that you use the HP Smart printing app, which is available for iOS and Android. It's required for initial setup, and HP at least makes it sound like you need its proprietary software for any additional devices, such as PCs, you want to print from. But I was able to print from the Windows 10 printer menu and Google CloudPrint, all without installing any special software.

While this is not a comprehensive printer review, I found the Tango X painless to set up, and in my initial use, free from the frustrating errors that plague many inexpensive inkjet printers. Black-and-white print quality was crisp, but blacks were not especially deep. Photo printing, on 5-by-7 photo paper, was very good. That's one area where inkjet printers still beat lasers, which are not well-suited for photo printing.

The real test will come when it's time to replace the smallish ink tanks (one black, one color), as that's where my previous inkjet printers have all started to get finicky and became more frustrating than useful. Maybe the Tango will change my mind. 

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