Thursday, February 02, 2006

Printing through thin air

I was reecently approached by a couple of friends and asked a bunch of questions about network print servers, so I thought I would expound on the subject a bit with a little FAQ of my own. In general netwotrk print servers, if they work correctly, provide great convenience, however the trick is getting them to work.

What is a Network Print Server?
Simply put a Network Print Server is a device that provides you with a way to connect your printer directly to your home or office network.

Why would I want one?
There are several reasons, but if you are a home user, there are two main reasons why you might want one: a) You have several computers and want to share one or more printers with them or b)You have a wireless laptop and wireless network, and you want to be able to print without plugging the printer into the laptop.

Can't I share a printer without buying one or more of these devices?
Yes you can. Regardless if you're running Windows, MacOS, or a Linux variant, almost all operating systems will allow you to connect a printer to your computer and share it with others on your network.

So what's the benefit of a Network Print Server over Printer Sharing?
The biggest downside to printer sharing is that it requires the print-sharing computer to be on and connected to the printer. Even if this isn't an issue (i.e. you have a computer that is always turned on and can connect a printer to it), if someone on the network prints a large document it will potentially effect the performance of the computer that the printer is attached to.

What's the difference between wired and wireless print servers?
Essentially, a wired print server connects to your network via an ethernet cable, while a wireless one connects to your network using a wireless connection.Otherwise there is absolutely no difference between the two.

Do I need a wireless print server to print from my wireless laptop?
No, so long as your wireless access point or router has a free network (ethernet) port to plug in your wired print server to and provided that you can place your printer within a wire's reach of your router.

Which is better a wired or a wireless print server?
Typically speaking, a wired one is better for many reasons - less setup and configuration, faster speeds (100Mbps ethernet is still typically faster than even 108Mbps wireless - explaining why is for another article) and they typically cost about 40% less.

So why would I even consider buying a wireless one then?
For the same reasons listed above - your router doesn't have extra ports, or you want to put the printer in an area where its not feasible to connect a wire from it to your router.

I have two/three/more printers, how many of these print servers do I need?
There are many models out there, and while many are made for a single printer, still others have 2 or 3 ports. A two-port one might be ideal if you want to connect both a laser and a photo printer to your network. However, the downside is both printers need to be near each other for this to work. In theory, you could buy as many print servers as you'd like for each of the printers you have so long as you have enough network ports to plug them into.

Do all print servers work with all printers?
No. This is why it is important to check the compatibility lists first. While there are no guarantees that a particular printer will not work with a print server if it isn't on the compatibility list, you will probably not be able to get tech support from the print server's manufacturer if it isn't.

Do any printers come with these built-in or as add-on modules?
Many business printers (like those from HP) come with wired and/or wireless print servers as either built-in or optional models. Many consumer models do not, specifically on the low-end (for example, most HP printer with network print servers retail for $75-100 more than their non-network siblings, which means that it is unlikely you will find a network print server built-in to a $69 printer).

What is the benefit of a built-in print server vs. buying one from a third party?
The benefit is that you know that it is more likely to work, and/or at least you will be able to get support from one company for it. For example, if I have an HP printer with an HP network print server, HP technical support cannot pawn me off on someone else. While if I have an Epson printer with a Linksys print server - Linksys will tell me to call Epson and Vice Versa. However, built-in print servers typically cost more than buying a separate unit, and if you change printers, you will typically have to buy a new printer with a network print server as well, since you probably will not be able to swap it out (there are some exceptions to this rule, namely HP's JetDirect cards).

I have an all-in-one (MFP), will the network print server also allow me to Scan/Fax/etc. over the network?
To the best of my knowledge, the network print servers, in general, only support printing. If you need to scan something or receive a fax to your computer, you will need to plug it in directly. (If anyone knows of any exceptions to this rule, please let me know!)

If hope you have found this informative, and If you think I am wrong or if you'd like to ask and add more questions to this FAQ, please leave a comment below.


heshy said...

i have an hp 7140xi and i can scan to any computer from the control panel (at least theoretically- it usually crashes unless u initate it from the computer.)

Yonah said...


While I think that this is great, that seems to be the exception to the rule. Especially in the case of external print servers (the 7140xi is one that has a built-in print server if I am not mistaken).

Just curious, but does it require an HP utility to scan, or can you scan from other programs, like Photoshop or Picasa?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent description.

Shane Mulhall