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HP Smart Tank 5101 review: when paper jams hurt

The HP Smart Tank 5101 isn't fast, but prints are inexpensive.
HP Smart Tank 5101
MSRP $250.00
“The HP Smart Tank 5101 has its strengths, but suffers from software issues and cost-cutting measures.”
Pros
  • Extremely low cost per page
  • Two-year supply of ink included
  • Photo prints look good on plain paper
  • Scanner is fast with good quality
  • Optical character recognition works reliably
Cons
  • Tiny icon LCD and buttons are confusing
  • Faint lines in glossy prints
  • Paper jams are difficult to clear

HP’s Smart Tank 5101 is a compact all-in-one printer that comes with enough ink to last for a year or longer. That’s the great thing about tank printers — They eliminate the ongoing need to order new cartridges. Since the Smart Tank 5101 includes a scanner, it can serve multiple purposes for your home office, including copying, scanning, and printing.

HP is a reliable brand, but not all printers are equal. You want a tried-and-true printer that’s not too expensive to run and that’s compatible with all your devices. And in my testing, the Smart Tank 5101 just has a few too many problems compared to the competition.

Design

The HP Smart Tank 5101 is an attractive printer..
The HP Smart Tank 5101 is an attractive printer. Alan Truly / Digital Trends

HP’s Smart Tank 5101 is a nice-looking printer. The off-white sides and gray lid have nicely rounded corners. At the lower left, four translucent windows show the levels for the black, cyan, magenta, and yellow inks. Like most tank printers, the color doesn’t show through, but HP added a color stripe to each tank that matches the color inside. It’s a nice touch for visual confirmation of which ink is low on the rare occasion that happens.

The output bin is in the front, and a clever rotating arm unfolds to catch your prints. A 100-sheet paper tray is in the back, extending the depth of the printer.

With all trays open, the HP Smart Tank 5101 has a footprint of 17.1 inches wide by 22.9 inches deep. There’s no automatic document feeder (ADF), and the height is a short 11 inches, even with paper in the tray. If you need to copy multipage documents, you should check out our list of the best all-in-one printers.

The display is a bit unusual. It’s a 1.2-inch icon display, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not terribly useful to see icons on an LCD when there are also icons in LED lights and buttons below that screen. The lack of information is disheartening when problems arise.

Printing performance

HP's Smart Tank 5101 makes bulk color printing inexpensive.
HP’s Smart Tank 5101 makes bulk color printing inexpensive. Alan Truly / Digital Trends

The Smart Tank 5101 has surprisingly good photo print quality on plain paper, as HP claims. That’s important if you want low-cost color. Even if ink is inexpensive, the cost of letter-size glossy photo paper is about 20 cents per sheet.

The crisp quality and brightness that you get with photo paper are worth the expense for your best pictures, but everyday photos and documents will be much more affordable if you can print them on plain paper.

It’s no surprise that the HP Smart Tank 5101 prints bright, sharp pictures on photo paper, though colors are a bit muted. It can’t match the dynamic range of a six-color printer like the Epson EcoTank 8500, but HP designed the Smart Tank 5101 to fill the needs of families.

Borderless printing works well, but I can notice faint lines in the glossy prints if I look closely. That could be due to a bad paper jam I experienced on the first print. Clearing this paper jam required an unusual and significant amount of effort, including disconnecting the printheads and flipping the printer on its face to pull paper from a bottom hatch. After running printhead alignment several times, the lines persisted.

Clearing a jam on the HP Smart Tank 5101 isn't easy.
Clearing a jam on the HP Smart Tank 5101 isn’t easy. Photo by Tracey Truly / Digital Trends

Printing black-and-white documents and labels is quick. HP rates the Smart Tank 5101 at 12 pages per minute (ppm) for monochrome, but it slows to 5 ppm (12 seconds per page) for an average color document.

That’s slower than most budget printers, and HP’s prices are in the low to midrange. For example, Brother’s inexpensive, tank-like MFC-J1205W printer averages a speedy 9 ppm for color documents.

Special features

The Smart Tank 5101's scanner is quick and captures in good quality.
The Smart Tank 5101’s scanner is quick and captures images in good quality. Alan Truly / Digital Trends

The HP Smart Tank 5101 is an all-in-one, so it includes scanning and copying functions. It takes some time to figure out how to copy. I’d develop muscle memory for the controls after some time, but the printer’s control panel is unintuitive.

Copying works well in most cases. The scanner is fast and has good quality. When making multiple copies of the same original, you can output 10 ppm in monochrome and 2 ppm in color.

Most documents have margins and scan well. When I tried a handwritten page that went right to the edge, the scan cut off the right edge. I tried again, aligning it carefully, but the side was missing again. Canon’s PIXMA G4270 MegaTank seems more reliable, but it had a similar problem when copying documents with narrow margins. I think a full-page scanner should copy the entire page.

HP’s software includes options for multi-photo scanning and optical character recognition. OCR works well, suggesting the HP Smart app has been improved since I reviewed the HP Envy Inspire 7955e, which suffered from some software issues. The multi-photo scan seems to be unreliable, however. It failed to recognize separate pictures when scanning.

Software and compatibility

HP includes four ink bottles supplying thousands of printed pages.
Ink fills quickly and lasts through thousands of printed pages. Photo by Tracey Truly / Digital Trends

Since the Smart Tank 5101 lacks a proper screen, setup is best done with the HP Smart app. Make sure you are logged into a network that supports 2.4GHz since the printer requires that. It took me a couple of tries before getting connected, but it wasn’t too fussy.

HP includes four full bottles of ink with the Smart Tank 5101, and I was prepared to spend a few minutes waiting for them to drain into their respective chambers. But in just a few seconds, each big bottle was finished. Despite the free-flowing ink, there were no spills. HP designed the bottles and tanks very well.

Printheads need to be installed, which is a quick, but unusual step for a tank printer. Next, I started printhead alignment, which was refreshingly simple. HP simplifies the process by printing a single sheet that I transfer to the scanner for automatic adjustment. In theory, this sounds good, but I did have an issue with faint lines.

With an inkjet printer, I usually start testing with a photo from my iPhone. I immediately experienced a problem. The HP Smart app didn’t show the proper paper sizes. There was no option to choose letter-size paper, and it defaulted to 3.5 x 5 photo paper. The size options contained A4 and a few other European paper sizes.

I’m in Canada, so perhaps that was part of the problem, but we use the same paper as the U.S. I’ve tested plenty of HP printers without encountering this problem. After a few days, HP support got back to me with a solution. In Settings > Language & Region >Measurement System, choose US instead of Metric.

Everything worked normally from my Windows PC, Mac, and Android phone.

Initial cost vs. long-term value

HP's Smart Tank 5101 comes with a 2-year ink supply.
HP’s Smart Tank 5101 comes with a two-year ink supply. Alan Truly / Digital Trends

The HP Smart Tank 5101 is inexpensive for an inkjet tank printer. Still, $250 might seem expensive compared to inkjets that sell for about $100. However, the cost disappears over time. This is for two reasons.

First, HP includes four full bottles of ink, providing 6,000 monochrome pages and 8,000 color pages. HP estimates this will last for up to two years. I didn’t see the level drop despite voluminous printing. Second, the cost of ink is incredibly low.

While cartridge-based printers like Epson’s Expression Premium XP-7100 have a cost-per-page (cpp) as high as 16 cents just for the ink, the Smart Tank 5101 averages just six-tenths of a cent per color document. Black-and-white pages cost about half that.

Considering I enjoyed decent photo quality while using plain paper, the HP Smart Tank 5101 offers remarkably low running costs for color as well as black-and-white.

Is this the printer for you?

The HP Smart Tank 5101 is a printer with lots of potential. Unfortunately, faint lines on photo prints, the tiny icon display, and the awkward troubleshooting method are holding it back.

HP quickly offered a solution for the paper size mismatch. The alignment issue could be more difficult. If it’s just a matter of correcting software calibration, that problem could disappear. If it’s the result of damage caused while clearing a paper jam, that’s unfortunate because jams happen sometimes.

If you can find the Smart Tank 5101 on discount, it might do you well enough, but there are better, more affordable all-one-printers out there that could offer more value.

Editors' Recommendations

Alan Truly
Computing Writer
Alan is a Computing Writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. A tech-enthusiast since his youth, Alan stays current on what is…
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