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February 16, 2004
Wireless Printing

Glenn Reynolds asks:

SO DOES ANYBODY HAVE EXPERIENCE with this wireless printer from HP? I'd like to set up wireless printing, but from what I've heard it's not really ready for primetime, and the reviews on this thing's Amazon page are, um, mixed.

What I'd like is a printer that will simply print from any wi-fi computer in range without any networking setup at all. I don't think that such a beast exists. Am I wrong?

Having spent the bulk of the last 4 years working on wireless networking, maybe I can provide something like an answer.

Printing is typically done one of two ways. The classic way to do it is to use a directly connected printer on your parallel port. This can be awkward if you have more than one computer from which to print, unless you buy an automatic switchbox.

The more modern way is to send your print job across the network to a print server which then feeds the print job to the printer. Modern network printers eliminate the separate server (it's built in, like on this one) and accept the print job directly.

But that's neither here nor there. The question is, can a network printer be used without any networking setup?


Specifically, to use a wireless printer like the HP referred to in Glenn's post, you must have the same networking configuration you would have if you were on a wired Local Area Network. Wireless networking itself requires some additional configuration, but only because you're using radio to replace the copper wire, and radio can be notoriously fickle.

[Aside: an old joke from my Electronic Warfare days:

Newbie: "How does radio work?"
Old-timer: "You've heard of AM and FM, right? Well, radio works because of FM."
Newbie: "FM?"
Old-timer: "F***ing Magic."]


So once you have a wireless network established, it should act like any wired LAN. Printing configuration is then layered on top of that, just like any other network application -- browser, e-mail, instant messaging -- you name it. Every such app requires some degree of configuration; it can be hidden (like with most browsers) but there's no escaping it completely.

To print without any networking setup at all (well, minimal setup) would depend on the existence of a wireless link from the computers' parallel ports to the printer in question. Those computers would have to link to a wireless equivalent of something like an automatic switchbox.

Is it possible? Sure. It could be done right now - and for all I know, it's already been done.

Is it cost effective? Probably not. In addition to the cost of the printer (already a given, of course), you would need to buy the peripherals: the switchbox, and a parallel-port wireless "dongle" for each computer that would be originating any print jobs. And then you would still have to do a bit of configuration on the parallel wireless connection -- you'd have to set the radio frequency, for instance. If it were to operate in one of the existing bands (such as the 2.4GHz range, where 802.11b hangs out) you'd have to worry about interference issues.

In sum, there's no easy way to do it.

When I buy my next printer (I think it's time to make the leap to a laser printer) I'll probably just set up a linux box to do print serving for the rest of the network. Adding wireless into the mix is an extra layer of complexity that, for me, isn't really necessary.

Oh, and... I'm not keen on "all in one" boxes like the HP Glenn point to. Call me a stodgy old traditionalist, but I like a scanner to scan, a fax machine to fax, and a printer to print. I've always had a deep suspicion that a "jack of all trades" box would be master of none. The cliché could be wrong, but that's not the way to bet.

UPDATE: There are likely to be many possible alternative methods. One occurred to me just five minutes after I posted this. Why not have a wireless-capable printer simply sniff the airwaves for anything that looks like a print job? I can think of one main reason why not; it's that nasty cost factor again. You'd have to, in essense, build an Access Point into the printer, and add the software to do the sniffing. Manufacturers would balk, I think, because there'd be no profit margin on adding that capability. But that's just a guess.

Posted by Russ at 04:08 PM, February 16, 2004 in Geekery & Science

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I have to disagree about the Linux print server idea. I have ~$50 boxen from Hawking attached to the elderly laser printer and the newer color inkjet on my home network. No muss to set up, little fuss, and either system can print without the other....

I did put the IP addresses on the front to make my life easier when the next system comes on line......

Posted by: Rick T at February 17, 2004 12:48 AM

Hope this is not too late for you to see this ...

You would think there was a Bluetooth solution to this, but it would probably be more expensive than the printer itself!

I have used a device (here at work) from AeroComm for wireless printing, but the device I was using was made in 1996, so there's no telling how well the new ones would perform. The ones I have used were OK, but using a wire is obviously much more reliable. Most printers nowadays simply plug into the USB, although I heard (but have not actually tested this) that the limit for USB is 15 feet.

Posted by: MarcV at February 19, 2004 12:58 PM

Having the printer wake up and sniff for any potential print jobs in the RF spectrum might work, but then you'd keep having your neighbors porn printing out all the time.

However, an alternate solution might be a trainable printer. ie. one that takes signal strength into account. You turn it on and it listens for strong signals, so essentially you plop your laptop beside it and keep trying to fire off a print job till it finally latches on, sets itself up based on your IP settings, and acknowledges you with a test page. From then on it could just limit itself to listening to for your particular signals. If you change configuration, move close and repeat the process.

Sort of a silly thought, but putting devices in close proximity to get to know each other is very intuitive way to establish a connection.

Posted by: George Turner at February 19, 2004 01:20 PM