6 AirPrint solutions for iPhones and iPads

It's amazing how much you can do digitally these days. More and more, documents stay digital, moving from person to person over email, file shares, and cloud storage, never to see a sheet of paper. And more and more "paperwork" processes, from expense reports to vacation approvals, happen over email and via apps. The closest to print many documents get is being saved as a PDF copy for archival purposes, to be printed (or faxed -- another dying technology) later should the need arise.

Yet there are times we need to print: An airline boarding pass or ticket to a show. A checklist to bring into the store or specifications to bring to the shop. Medical records to be shared with a new doctor. Résumés. A backup copy of directions you can glance at while driving. Yes, even some of those are becoming increasingly digital, but printing isn't dead, even if it is rarer.

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When you need to print, you need to print. Computers have been able to do so for years, but not the mobile devices increasingly pushing PCs aside for many tasks. Apple didn't offer printing until fall 2010, when iOS 4.2 introduced the driverless AirPrint technology [5]. Very few devices supported it then, and today you'll find backing mostly in inkjet color printers, not so much the kinds of high-volume laser printers used in businesses large and small. A year ago, Apple eliminated the technical loophole that let apps print outside of the AirPrint protocol, forcing developers to support AirPrint and its accompanying printers. (Apple has a nice primer [7] on which iOS devices and new printers support AirPrint natively, along with some troubleshooting tips.)

Google's Android has no print support at all, and Google's Chrome OS goes through a clunky service called CloudPrint that uses your Windows PC as a print server -- an inelegant approach implemented poorly by Google. For all intents and purposes, mobile printing today means iOS printing.

The good news is that there are now several options to print from your iOS devices when on a Wi-Fi network -- and one to print from Android devices. Best of all, you don't have to buy a new printer to use AirPrint. The protocol is now available for use in network devices, not just within printers. It's easier to support those legacy printers that work just fine and are, frankly, cheaper to run than today's printers, which are designed to use high-priced, low-capacity toner and inks to fill printer makers' coffers.

The mobile printing options range from suitable just for home and small offices to a server product for a company of any size:

High end: EFI's PrintMe Mobile, software you run on a Windows machine on your backbone network or on multiple segments to AirPrint-enable most network printers in use today. It's the only product that supports printing from Android as well as from iOS.

Small to medium: Lantronix's $150 xPrintServer Network Edition, a print server appliance you plug into a network segment to add AirPrint support to most network printers in use today. It handles an unlimited number of printers on its network segment, but performance can degrade after a dozen.

Small: Lantronix's $100 xPrintServer Home Edition, a version of its print server appliance that adds a USB port to support as many as eight USB printers (if you use a USB hub to connect them) in addition to as many as two network printers.

Small: Netgear's WNDR and R series of wireless routers ($125 to $200), which include the Genie application for Macs and PCs that turns them into AirPrint print servers for any printers attached (via the network or USB cable) to the computers running Genie. If a computer is off or Genie is not running on it, its printers are not available via AirPrint.

Personal: Collobos's $20 FingerPrint application for OS X and Windows, or Ecamm Networks' $20 Printopia software for Macs only. Like Netgear's Genie, both turn your computer into an AirPrint server, making any printer attached to it (via the network or USB cable) available via AirPrint. Again, that means your computer has to be on and the application has to be running.

And for tips on printing from iOS and Android apps-- it's not always so easy -- check out our Lab Notes report.

EFI PrintMe Mobile brings AirPrint to networks large or small

EFI promises "any mobile device to any printer," but that's a stretch. Unless you're willing to assign email addresses to your printers and users agree to attach and send instead of printing in the usual way, then EFI's PrintMe Mobile supports only two mobile platforms: iOS and Android. Still, that's one more mobile platform than other solutions support.

PrintMe Mobile's advantages hardly end there. Whereas other mobile printing solutions require mobile devices and printers to be on the same subnet, PrintMe Mobile can make printers available to devices anywhere on the network. PrintMe Mobile is also the only solution reviewed here that integrates with Active Directory, though it is not the only one that allows administrators to require users to authenticate before printing.

In short, PrintMe Mobile gives you a great deal of control over your mobile printing environment. You can set up a central PrintMe Mobile print server, publish any or all of its printers as AirPrint printers, make those printers available to iOS and Android devices on any subnet, and control which users may print to which printers. Best of all, PrintMe Mobile achieves all of this without being difficult to set up or to administer.

AirPrint for better or worse. The magic behind EFI PrintMe Mobile is that it turns any printer installed on PrintMe Mobile's Windows host into an AirPrint-enabled printer. iOS devices (version 4.2 and later) print to these printers natively, while Android devices (version 2.1 or later) can do so through EFI's free PrintMe Mobile app, which mimics AirPrint on iOS.

The good news is that printing from iOS or Android is easy. For instance, click the Share icon in either OS, choose Print (or PrintMe Mobile on Android), and select a printer. There are other methods as well, depending on the app you're using. The bad news is that not all iOS or Android apps support Share or printing in other ways; even when they do, the print options are limited.

For instance, some iOS apps let you choose a page range to print, while others will print the entire document. The remaining options iOS provides are the number of copies to print and whether to print one-sided or duplex. Falling just short of parity with native AirPrint, EFI's PrintMe Mobile app for Android gives you these choices, but not the ability to select pages. If you're going to print, you must print the entire document. (For more on the ins and outs of mobile printing, see "iOS and Android printing gotchas.")

The PrintMe Mobile dashboard lists all of the print drivers installed on the PrintMe Mobile server. Just click to publish a printer to your wireless networks or to enable email-to-print. In either case, admins can also require authentication before printing.

EFI points out that some of these limitations can be overcome by configuring multiple drivers for the same printer. For example, by publishing two versions of your color printer -- one driver that defaults to color printing and one that defaults to black-and-white -- mobile users could simply select the appropriate version to get the print settings they want.

Easy to set up. PrintMe Mobile installs on a Windows machine that can be located anywhere in your network. However, if your central PrintMe Mobile server is on a different subnet than the Wi-Fi network hosting your mobile users, then you'll need to install an additional piece, called PrintMe Mobile Link, on a Windows box on that subnet. PrintMe Mobile Link works like a broker, publishing PrintMe Mobile's list of available printers to the local subnet, and when an iOS or Android device selects one of those printers, providing the printer's IP address so the mobile device can direct its print job.

PrintMe Mobile and PrintMe Mobile Link will run on Windows XP through Windows Server 2008 R2. I installed PrintMe Mobile 2.2 on Windows 7 and followed EFI's step-by-step wizard to a successful setup in about 30 or 40 minutes. I spent most of that time installing the drivers for the printers I wanted to publish.

Kudos to EFI for the clear and well-organized documentation and straightforward setup wizard. The installation and setup guide tell you everything you need to know. Two things you need to keep in mind: First, .Net is required, and it must be installed before PrintMe Mobile. Second, to allow Android users to print Microsoft Office documents, you must install Office 2007 or Office 2010 on your PrintMe Mobile server.

Why Microsoft Office? It seems that Office includes a PDF generator that PrintMe Mobile uses to convert Office documents for printing -- but only for docs printed from Android devices. Because iOS converts documents to PDF for printing itself (it's how iOS prints without print drivers), installing Office isn't necessary if you're only supporting iOS users. As you might guess, installing Office will also be necessary if you want to draw on PrintMe Mobile's email-to-print capability.

Easy to manage. The heart of PrintMe Mobile is an elegant Web-based dashboard where you publish your printers, enable authentication (or not), and view logs on all printer and administrative activity. It's a very clean GUI that couldn't be easier to use. All the print drivers installed on the system show up in a list. To publish a printer to your wireless networks, just click a check box. To enable email printing to the printer (assuming it has an email address), just click another check box. A third check box enables authentication, either through Active Directory or through local user accounts on the PrintMe Mobile host.

Mobile printing is still young, and you can expect glitches. The first PrintMe Mobile for Android client I tested (version 2.1) displayed not only the printers I published, but every Bonjour-enabled printer in the building. Version 2.2 of the Android client fixed this bug, but it doesn't overcome other limitations of AirPrint. Blame Apple or blame EFI, but workarounds (such as multiple drivers for that color printer) and compromises (printing 20 pages when the user needs only five) come with the territory.

On the server side, EFI's PrintMe Mobile is a polished, enterprise-class product that doesn't require an enterprise-class administrator to install and maintain. While it's easy enough for almost anyone to adopt, it does require a dedicated Windows box (for every subnet you want to support), and some of its capabilities will be overkill for smaller shops. Then there's the enterprise-class price, which starts at $510 per printer (two printers) and runs to $100 per printer for volume customers. There are no restrictions on the number of mobile users or mobile devices.

--Doug Dineley

Lantronix's zero-config AirPrint routers make mobile printing easy

The fundamental promise of AirPrint was zero-configuration printing from iOS devices. Attach an AirPrint printer to the network, and it's accessible to all iOS devices on that network segment from iOS apps' Share menus. No drivers to install, no configuration of any sort -- it doesn't matter what server or PCs you use or if you even use them.

Lantronix's xPrintServer appliances take that same concept and put it in a small print server that you can connect to any Ethernet port. Once connected and powered, xPrintServer detects the printers on your network and AirPrint-enables those that don't have AirPrint built in. It really is that simple. xPrintServer also recognizes some printer options, such as duplex printing, and makes those available via the Share menu's Printer Options pop-over.

A Web console for when you want more than plug-and-play. Most of the time it's as simple as plugging the xPrintServer into the network and letting it find your printers for you. xPrintServer doesn't support all printers, though the list of supported printers likely covers what most businesses use. Via a Web-based console, you can manually add printers to the list that xPrintServer autodetects; I had to do that to have it see a Brother MFC-8840DN, a workhorse multifunction device. After that, the Brother was just another printer on the network as far as iOS devices were concerned. (A firmware update released July 27 now autodetects and sets up that particular Brother model.)

You can also use the Web console to remove printers from iOS visibility, keeping sensitive or expensive-to-operate printers from being accessed by iOS devices. The password-protected console is also where you install firmware updates, manage the print queue (such as to delete print jobs), enter printer metadata (such as location or friendly name), and set up users (for when you want to restrict printing to specific people). It's a well-designed console that lets you manage your AirPrint environment beyond the default "plug and play, all access" mode.

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The xPrintServer's Web console lets you configure printers and user access, as well as add printers not detected by the appliance.

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