Earlier this fall, imaging giant HP announced a cloud-based desktop printer, the HP Officejet Pro 8500A Plus ($300, after $100 rebate from HP). Cloud-based printers connect directly to the Web via any broadband connection and can send and receive Web content like files, software and live news. Cloud-based printers can also print without a PC, which offers smaller firms the fascinating option of creating a Web-enabled walk-up imaging work station without the expense of having a full-blown computer to support it.

As promised, the 8500A all-in-one bakes in all usual small-business imaging tools like printing, scanning, faxing and copying. But the 8500A also has its own Web address, can print without a PC and connects directly to the Web wirelessly or via a landed Ethernet connection. The unit is controlled with a 4.3-inch, iPhone-like, touch-activated screen that supports -- get ready for this -- iPhone-like apps.

Approach this printer and you’ll get the option to copy, fax, scan or access coupons, read news from MSNBC or access business forms.

Intrigued about what PC-less, Web-based, app-enabled printing might do the calculus of small-business imaging, I asked HP to send over a demo 8500A and used it in my six-person digital content company for about three weeks.

Things to Love

The 8500A is a first quality all-in-one
The better all-in-one basics are here: 35 max pages per minute for average-density black-and-white pages and 34 for color. But plan on much slower speeds for photos, though image quality is excellent. Expect to wait about 20 seconds for the unit to boot up to print. There is direct-to-e-mail printing and receiving, and other nice features like two-sided ID printing, copy-fix features that adjust for bad scans and water-resistant inks that don’t run. Overall, it’s a nice unit.

The Web-based features really set this thing apart
The news here is in the apps, which are activated buy an Apps logo on the touch screen, right next to scan functions. It leads to a series of software apps that range from kids’ stuff like Disney and Nickelodeon content to hard-core, small-biz tools like paper forms, pre-made document layouts, and believe it or not, news. HP has content relationships with, among others, MSNBC, USA Today and about a dozen or so big-traffic blogs. The printer then pulls them all together into a live news feed that is updated several times a day and can be printed directly from the machine with no PC; which opens an intriguing argument about how to view business information. I found passing a hard copy of news to my team was not that bad an idea. Shocker: Folks read it.

Web control of your printing
The 8500’s app system and its many printer controls are managed by a la the iPhone and iTunes software from the HP ePrint web site, which is linked to your unique printer. Updating of apps is fast and robust. There are nice controls on content and some security features, plus some good support pages. Set up was fast and easy. If only iTunes worked this well.

Things to Hate

The death knell of the notion of the paperless digital office
You will print. And print. And print some more with this unit: news, cards, reports, information, it all felt like a diabolical plot to amp up printing. Who know what actual print output will be long term, but as of now there is a 3-inch stack of paper sitting near this device, and it’s only been here for a week.

Not enough apps
Apps are not just limited; they are basically non-existent. The HP website featured about two dozen apps, most with little small-business utility: some simple tools for forms, the new tie-in and online design tools. Unless the catalogue of software improves, there will not be much utility here.

High cost of entry
These days, $300 is just not cheap for a desktop printer. Even powerful business, all-in-ones can be had for about half that price, with entry level printers running less than $50. Plus the actual cost per page is an unknown. The full set of black and white, blue, red and yellow replacement cartridges grosses up to $114 before taxes. And cost per page can vary widely depending on what and how often you print; but considering replacement cartridges for lower cost printers can be about as half the price, translating the gee-whiz factor of the 8500A into bottom-line results could be tricky.

HP responded that more apps are due out in November, including new tools from Google and Reuters. And it is comfortable with it is charging for inks and hardware.

Know what this printer can do, but be sure you need one before you buy
If this 8500 were priced around $200, and cartridges were price around $50 for a set, I would be all over it. But at these prices, you have to be careful. My gut is that for collateral-oriented shops, this unit will pay for itself with fewer trips to outside vendors like FedEx Office. Other businesses will need to take a harder look at the unit to understand what PC-less, cloud-based printing is and see whether it can work for them.

I intend to be keep this unit in the testing fleet for a good, long time to see where costs and utility really are. So while some bumps in this product may keep many firms away, I fully expect that by this time next year, no firm will not want buy a printer that is not Web-enabled.

Let’s be clear here: Cloud-based printing is the biggest thing to happen to desktop imaging since the laser jet.