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Aug 22

Written by: J. Gerry Purdy

Do you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch? These are the very popular mobile devices running Apple iOS. They are fun and easy to use.  But, if you’re like me, there’s one thing that can be very frustrating to do with these iOS devices: printing.  I recently tried out a really cool new product from Lantronix. It’s called the xPrintServer Home Edition, and it makes printing from any iOS device as simple as pie.

But, printing with iOS devices like the iPad is often challenging to say the least.  While we all likely have set up a printer on our PC or Mac, it’s a much harder process to print anything from an iPad since iOS leaves it to each application to determine how to print (vs. all printing being managed by the operating system). Thus, iOS doesn’t have a generic printer control process. And, since communications are made via wireless to a printer from iOS devices (there’s no USB port), you’re left with a challenge of how to print from your iOS device. Most just never bother with it, since it’s so difficult.

Enter Lantronix.  They have created the xPrintServer to enable printing from any iOS device over Wi-Fi.  It only takes about one minute to set it up: just take it out of the box, plug it in and then select ‘Print’ in any iOS application. The printer will show up in the printer dialog box.  Hit ‘Print’ and you’re on your way. And, once it’s set up, you don’t have to change it.  All the applications will then communicate with the xPrintServer thus creating a single printing solution for iOS device users.  That enables you to focus on printing what you want and not have to worry about the printer - other than making sure there’s enough ink in the cartridges are paper in the tray.

The folks at Lantronix figured how to make this insanely easy to print from an iPad or iPhone. First, take a look at what typically happens when you go into any popular iPad app like iOS email and select Print. Figure 1 shows the message “No AirPrint Printers Found’ message as shown in the photo from my iPad.

I am using an HP Officejet 4500 Wireless printer.  Most legacy and many new printers, especially laser printers, are not AirPrint compatible. Apple provides APIs for AirPrint but doesn’t define the user interface so the printing process can be different from one app to another.

The Lantronix xPrintServer is designed to easily enable printing from iOS devices for the hundreds of millions of existing (legacy) printers. If you are buying a new (mostly likely an inkjet) printer that is AirPrint compatible, then you won’t need an xPrintServer, but if you’re like me, then this little inexpensive accessory can make all the difference in the world in enabling printing from your iOS device.

Whereas print services are built-in to PC and Mac operating systems, it’s left to the individual apps in mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone. Some of the ease-of-use features so famous for the iPad and iPhone go away when you try to print.  You soon find out that iOS printing is left to be managed by each iOS app.

At this point, most people would become frustrated. One (rather inconvenient) solution is to take the file and email it (if possible) to your PC or Mac and then print from the more capable system.

But, if you simply use an xPrintServer, then you’ll find it very easy to get printing to work from your iOS device. The xPrintServer Home Edition has a list price of $99.95 from Lantronix, Amazon and other popular online retailers. The xPrintServer is currently on shelves at Micro Center stores, and the company is working on retail distribution with leading national and international retail chains, which will be publicly announced as they come on line. The xPrintServer supports over 4,000 printers so it’s likely going to work with whatever printer you have.

You just take the xPrintServer out of the box and plug the power into the wall and into the power connector (see Figure 2), plug one end of the provided Ethernet cable into your wireless router and the other into the middle connector of the xPrintServer and connect your printer’s USB cable into the bottom USB port on the xPrintServer (as shown in Figure 2).  You also have to install Bonjour Print Services (a free Apple software app) on your PC after setting up the xPrintServer. Bonjour Print Services enables Windows to discover the xPrintServer. You install it once, and it discovers the xPrintServer.  You select the printer and you don’t have to touch it again.

Now, I simply picked up my iPad, opened an email and selected ‘Print’.  You can see the results in Figure 3. I didn’t have to install any drivers or reboot my system or anything. I selected the HP Officejet 4500 and was able to print.

Figure 4 is an example of a typical home network set-up using a Lantronix xPrintServer with up to three printers (which can be wired or wireless).

Sure, there are other options for printing from an iOS device.  Let’s look at three of them:
  1. Direct Printing Apps – there are free and paid apps to print directly to a Wi-Fi enabled printer (examples - Canon’s Easy Photo-Print for iPhone and HP’s iPrint Photo app).  However, these apps limit you to these particular printers.  And, you have to use their printer application rather than simply print from your application like iOS email. They can’t support you when you have printers from other vendors. If you take the xPrintServer along with you when you travel, you’ll be able to plug it in to any printer and print from your iPad. The same situation would be if you have a second or vacation home with a printer.
  2. Printing-to-Shared Printers (Mac only) – This is still app-based. This solution searches for a Wi-Fi network on a Mac (not PC) with shared printers.  Again, it’s a solution that is limited to Mac users and won’t work if you are in an area using PCs.
  3. “Other Apps” – There are dozens of apps that don’t talk directly to printers, but to a server run in the background on a Mac or PC, to connect to printers attached to the specific machine you’re on.  In these cases, you have to leave the program in which they’re interacting (such as email, web-browsing, Word or PowerPoint files, etc.) in order to print.
If you have a small business with one to three printers, the xPrintServer Home Edition will work fine in such a small office, and if you have a larger business, then you can get the xPrintServer Network Edition that will support an unlimited number of printers.

Although printing a page range is always available on PC and Mac printer control programs, some iOS apps such as iOS email messaging doesn’t support printing page ranges (perhaps this will be fixed in iOS 6).   However, many iOS apps do support printing page ranges, e.g. Acrobat, iBook, Pages, Keystone and Quickoffice to name a few. If printing page ranges is supported, then the xPrintServer will print just the pages selected.

I was able to select Printer Properties from my iPad in email to select print quality so I could do most printing in Draft mode.

There are a number of options going forward with the xPrintServer. Most likely, I’d like them to do an upgrade so that xPrintServer could support other mobile operating environments such as Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. This would make it possible for the xPrintServer to support printing from any major mobile device.

Kudos to Lantronix for putting together a technology product that works as advertised: open it up, plug it and start printing.

Written By:

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D. 
Principal Analyst
Mobile & Wireless
MobileTrax LLC
Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column.  If that situation happens, then I’ll disclose it at that time.



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