6 AirPrint solutions for iPhones and iPads
- 08 August, 2012 14:54
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.
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 . 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  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.
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.
The xPrintServer's Web console lets you configure printers and user access, as well as add printers not detected by the appliance.
I did find that manually added printers didn't always remain visible on the network. When using a D-Link DIR-655 router, I often had to go to the xPrintServer's console page and refresh the printer to make it visible again. On a Netgear WNDR4500 router, the manually added printers occasionally disappeared but came back after a few attempts to select a printer from the iOS device; I did not have to go to the xPrintServer to reactivate them as I did with the older DIR-655.
Choosing between the Network and Home editions. There are two versions of the xPrintServer: the $150 Network Edition, which supports an unlimited number of network-connected printers, though the company says performance degrades after about a dozen, and the $100 Home Edition, which supports just two network printers but as many as eight USB printers connected directly to the xPrintServer's USB port. (You'll need a USB hub to connect more than one printer to it.)
The value of that USB connection depends on whether you use USB printers and, if so, whether you also have a router that supports such printers, as most consumer-grade ones do today. If you have your printers connected to a router's USB port, that in effect makes them network printers visible to xPrintServer as a network printer -- you don't need to use the Home Edition's USB port.
Choosing between the Network Edition and the Home Edition comes down to the number of printers you have and whether you need a USB port to attach a printer to the network. The $50 price difference is only a small factor.
If you choose the Home Edition, note that Lantronix is serious about its two-network-printers limit. On your iOS device, you'll see all compatible network printers, listed in alphabetical order. But only the first two display as active, and this can be used for printing. If the two network printers you want to use with the Home Edition are not first on the list, access the Web console to hide the printers you don't want to appear. The pair you want will then be made active.
Working with USB printers. Both the Network Edition and Home Edition support USB printers, but in different ways. Unlike the Network Edition, the Home Edition lets you connect a USB printer directly to the xPrintServer or through a USB hub attached to it, which lets the xPrintServer autodetect and set up the printer for you. Both xPrintServer models support USB printers attached to routers on the network (that is, routers that have a USB port and built-in print servers, as many do today). However, you must go to the xPrintServer's Web console and manually add them in its administration pane. You need to know the printer name and model and its IP address for xPrintServer to AirPrint-enable them.
A side benefit of attaching a USB printer directly to the xPrintServer Home Edition: It makes that printer available not just to your iOS devices but also to your Macs and Windows PCs. OS X Lion and OS X Mountain Lion support AirPrint natively, so they'll see any USB printers attached to your xPrintServer in the Print & Scan system preference when you click the + icon button to add printers. On Windows, it's not so easy; Windows XP through 8 do not support AirPrint or its underlying Bonjour networking protocol, so Windows' native network printer detection will not see AirPrint printers. But Apple has a free utility  that solves this problem, detecting and installing AirPrint printers in Windows.
Limitations in the xPrintServer line. The one significant limitation to xPrintServer is its scale. It's really designed for small office and departmental networks, with one device plugged into each LAN segment. Each xPrintServer is individually managed, so an IT organization encompassing multiple LAN segments and locations that wants to centrally manage them needs to look at an enterprise-oriented server instead -- meaning EFI's PrintMe Mobile software for Windows.
My one wishlist for the xPrintServer is that it would work over Wi-Fi relay. It now requires an open Ethernet jack on your network where it can be plugged in. That's usually no big deal in a medium-size or larger company's office setting, but it can be problematic in a small office relying on consumer-grade routers that almost always come with just four (or fewer) wired Ethernet ports. They can fill up fast, leading to awkward daisy-chaining of slave routers.
Still, the xPrintServer is by far the easiest way to AirPrint-enable your printers. Unlike the applications that convert your Mac or PC into an AirPrint server, the xPrintServer works whether or not your computers are on. That way, you can print that boarding pass at 4 a.m. from your iPhone at home, without first starting up your computer.
AirPrint app clients on your computer: Cheaper but less flexible
Soon after Apple released iOS 4.2 and its AirPrint zero-configuration printing protocol in fall 2010, small-time developers figured out how to add the protocol to Macs and PCs, so they could act as waystations between iOS devices and printers connected to your computer. Finally, people could use existing printers rather than buy one of the still-limited number of AirPrint-enabled models.
Today, what had started as hacks shared by individual developers have evolved into several commercial products that add the AirPrint protocol to your computer. This approach means no need to get hardware and find a location to plug it into a power sources and to your network. But you also can't print from an iOS device unless the computer is on and the AirPrint service is running. That's fine much of the time, but can be inconvenient in a home office setting where you may be using your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone long after you've turned off your computer.
The three apps I tested were Collobos's $20 FingerPrint for Macs and Windows PCs, Ecamm Networks' $20 Printopia for Macs only, and Netgear's Genie app, which comes with its nicely designed WNDR and R series of consumer-grade routers ($125 to $200) in Windows and Mac versions. In all three cases, they work with printers directly connected to your computer via a cable or indirectly through the network; if the computer sees them, so do these apps. Although they do the same thing, they work a bit differently from one another.
Collobos's FingerPrint installs as a service you can manage through its background application, which you can access from the OS X menu bar or from the Windows task bar. You can get a version for OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or later, or for Windows XP Service Pack 3 or later. The company also offers a time-limited, reduced-functionality trial version, so you can see if it works in your environment before paying for it.
When your computer starts up, so does the FingerPrint AirPrint service. In the background application, a list of printers attached to the current computer displays, and you select those you want to be visible to iOS devices. Click on a printer to see any configurable options for it, such as supported paper sizes, in the General pane. In FingerPrint, use the Security pane to set up user access restrictions for printers by associating any access control lists set up in your OS to them.
Once the FingerPrint service is running, iOS devices on the same network see the printers attached to your computer and can print to them through your computer, using its printer drivers. iOS's AirPrint service supports just basic printing options, such as number of copies and duplex printing, but FingerPrint supports even fewer. The duplex option, for example, doesn't appear, as it did for Printopia, Genie, the Lantronix xPrintServer appliances, and EFI's PrintMe Mobile.
FingerPrint also can "print" to JPEG or PDF files sent to your Mac or apps such as iPhoto, Dropbox, and Evernote.
Ecamm's OS X-only Printopia also installs as a service on Mac OX 10.5.8 Leopard or later, but you manage it through a system preference on the Mac. The company offers a time-limited trial version, so you can test it in your environment before buying.
Configuration options include paper size, color settings, toner efficiency, password protection for printers, the network port, and the printer icons in iOS's printer list to distinguish Printopia-enabled printers from other AirPrint printers). Like FingerPrint, it can "print" to JPEG or PDF files sent to your Mac or apps such as iPhoto and Evernote. Plus, you get the ability to select duplex printing for printers that offer that capability.
The simplest of the three application-based AirPrint options is the nicely designed Genie router-management app that comes with Netgear's WNDR and R series of wireless routers, as well as with its wireless repeaters. (I tested it with the WNDR3800, WNDR4500, and R6300 routers, all of which I really liked as routers.) You can download Genie from Netgear's website to as many Macs and Windows PCs as you have on your network -- there's no per-client price as with FingerPrint and Printopia.
There's a version for OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or later, as well as for Windows XP Service Pack 3 or later. Note that the Genie iOS and Android clients let you manage your Netgear router but not AirPrint; you do that from the computer whose printers you are AirPrint-enabling. (It works only with selected -- meaning recent-model -- Netgear routers.)
On your computer, go to Genie's AirPrint pane and enable the printers you want to make AirPrint-compatible. That's it! As long as the computer and Genie app are running, its printers are available to iOS devices.
You don't get any of the printer configuration capabilities of FingerPrint or Printopia, nor their print-to-file capabilities. AirPrint support in Genie is simply one of several router management capabilities that Netgear offers -- a bonus of a sort. For most home and small-office environments, that's all you need. However, Genie's existence makes me wonder why Apple's own AirPort routers don't automatically AirPrint-enable network printers. Maybe Apple should license the technology from Netgear or Lantronix!
Keep in mind that although Genie comes with Netgear routers, the AirPrint service is not a network service like the Lantronix xPrintServer appliances and EFI's PrintMe Mobile server software  -- it is not running on the network but on your computers. At least one computer must be on running the Genie app for iOS devices to see its attached printers.
Making the right mobile printing choice
The decision as to what AirPrint option is best for your organization depends largely on the scale of your printing needs. EFI's PrintMe Mobile server software will typically be installed on a Windows Server, so organizations may need IT or network admin support to use it. It's also the most scalable of the AirPrint options, able to work across multiple network segments with central management. Plus, it's the only option to support Android-based printing, but it's the costliest and most complex mobile printing offering.
The xPrintServer Network Edition appliance is the simplest option for most work environments, as it can simply be plugged into an available network jack. If you need to do basic security and management, its Web-based console does the trick with little fuss -- though this management does not scale well across multiple network segments or allow central management of multiple xPrintServers. The Home Edition is a sensible option in a small-office or home setting where you have just a few printers, especially if USB models mainly comprise the mix.
The three software-based AirPrint options are the least desirable because they require leaving your computer on for iOS devices to be able to print through it. Of the three, I prefer Collobos's FingerPrint due to its OS X and Windows support. But I like Netgear's Genie application for environments that don't need configuration or print-to-file capabilities, as it's the least expensive option if you're also in the market for a high-speed wireless router or repeater.