Here's a great recession freebie: business cards.

As grim as times are, day after day, week after week, remarkable innovations happen, especially for small businesses.

This week, business cards are gratis. We're not talking dime store, DIY cheapies, but professionally designed and printed business collateral. And the price? Nothing but the time and creative energy it takes to make them.

Even better, the source of this small-business miracle isn't a graphic-design shop. Hardware giant Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) - Get Report(Stock Quote: HPQ) is behind the deal. The drivers are simple. Computer hardware, particularly imaging, is a tough business. HP and rivals like Lexmark (Stock Quote: LXK) (LXK) and Xerox (Stock Quote: XRX) (XRX) - Get Report are getting crushed. Lexmark's profits dropped 82% in the fourth quarter. I can't even look.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get ReportHP, trying to find profit in imaging, is betting on printing services with MarketSplash by HP, which offers low-cost, high-quality graphics and business stuff to small businesses. This market is also competitive. England-based Moo.com, and American players VistaPrint (VPRT) (Stock Quote: VPRT) and 123 Print all provide solid Web-based printing services.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) HP, trying to grab market share, recently launched what company spokespeople call a no-fee, no-shipping, "zero cost" business card service aimed at small businesses.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) My assistant, Saj, and I have been testing this freebie for several weeks. We designed and printed our own cards. And though our traditional designers and printers have nothing to fear, we found the service decent. Quality was acceptable. Results were solid. And you certainly can't beat the price.

"We are hoping to bring a new level of sophistication to the small-business graphics market," says Aaron Weiss, HP's vice president for product management.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) What you get: Perfectly reasonable business cards and other promotional items for nothing or next to nothing.

Let's cut to the chase. Not everything MarketSplash tries to sell is free. HP has brought the process of designing the paper things you need to do business to the Web, dramatically lowering the costs. Logos start at a whopping $45, Web sites at $13 and letterhead at $28. That's pretty cheap.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) And the Web-based process couldn't be simpler with MarketSplash. The site made it easy to design a card from scratch, use a template or even hire a professional designer to develop or update your brand.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) Even with our limited design skills, the service is easy to use. It took Saj about three hours to create a card. When he placed the order, MarketSplash automatically routed our design to a local Staples store. Same-day pick up is possible for some orders. Our 100 free cards were ready in two days. And the cards were impressive: printed on high-quality stock with a nice semi-gloss finish. All in all, a perfectly professional job.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) What you don't get: You don't get truly high-quality cards.

MarketSplash is cute and all, but it's nothing compared to cards that are professionally printed using the latest in digital imaging. The service's templates are too limited to generate fabulous designs, unless you pay for H-P designers to upgrade them. Image sizes had to be carefully watched, in our experiences. And if you self-design, expect to make several attempts to get the cards you like. All that takes time, and hurts quality.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) I wouldn't recommend the site for businesses that rely on highly developed brands. The quality isn't there, at least in our testing.

(HPQ) - Get Report (LXK) (XRX) - Get Report (VPRT) Bottom Line: MarketSplash opens the world of custom printing to any small business, as long as you don't ask it to do too much. And particularly for those new to the small business shores, say if you're freelancing for the first time, MarketSplash is a powerful branding tool you should consider.

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