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Ask the PCist - Is there such thing as Wireless Printing?

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this year LAist introduced "Ask the MACist" and now we give you... Ask the PCist!
by Andrew Solmssen - send your questions to pcist at bitboy dot com

I have a wireless laptop, and I'm tired of having to plug in my printer every time I want to print the sides for my commercial auditions. Is there anyway to print over the wireless connection?

You bet. What you need is called a wireless print server, and it will let you clip that annoying cable, and bonus, even share the printer with other computers! There are some choices for you here, so lets run them down. One important point is that many all-in-one units (copy,scan,fax, & print type machines) require a special print server because of the more complex communications required, so if you have something like an OfficeJet or similar, be sure that it's compatible with whatever solution you choose. Also, some really cheap printers are so dependent on the host computer for processing power that they can't function unless they are directly attached to a PC - these are sometimes called GDI printers, so be sure your printer has enough smarts to stand alone. In general, if the printer uses a standard printer language like Postscript or PCL, it should work fine.

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The first choice is a new printer that includes a wireless print server. Many Hewlett-Packard printers now do, and so do many other brands. The advantages here are mainly simplicity, you're guaranteed compatibility between the print server and the printer, and the software that comes with the printer will generally include a way to configure the print server easily, which can be a real timesaver. HP's units that include a wireless print server start around $135, which is a significant savings over buying a printer and a print server separately, especially if you're using a multi-function printer. One other bonus is that it's much neater - the only cable you need is the power cable for the printer.

Second, if you're using Apple's Airport Extreme or Airport Express base stations, you can plug many USB printers right into the base station unit and access it from a Mac or a PC. One reason these units are more expensive than other wireless routers is that they include a wireless print server as well. This is great if you're happy putting the printer where the router is, otherwise, you may need to see below. Also, the wireless print servers in the Apple units have only limited compatibility with all-in-one units like OfficeJets - you may be able to print, but you will not be able to scan or fax over the network.

The third way: If you have a printer that you're already really happy with, you can get an external wireless print server - they run about $80-$100 from manufacturers like D-Link, Linksys, or Netgear. If you have a multi-function printer as mentioned above, get the print server from printer manufacturer - i.e, if you have an HP OfficeJet, get an HP JetDirect print server. The wireless JetDirects aren't cheap, I'm afraid. They'll set you back about $200.

My rule of thumb is that multi-function printers are just too much hassle to network unless they were designed to do it. If you have an OfficeJet or similar and want to network it, you should seriously consider replacing it with one that has a print server built in. If you have a good USB inkjet or laser printer and you want to print cable-free, grab something like a Linksys WPS54G and go for it. If you have an Apple Airport, you're most of the way there already.

One final note: If you're leeching wireless from your neighbor (you know who you are!), a wireless printer will print your neighbor's documents as easily as it prints your own. Caveat Moocher.

Andrew is also an expert on Palm Treo smartphones and would love to answer people's questions about those too.