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Look ma, no cables: Wireless printing made easier, cheaper

The HP Officejet Pro 8000 Wireless Printer.


As computing becomes increasingly mobile, making hard copies is more of a challenge. Whether you're in a meeting at the office or on the couch at home, running cables to a printer is awkward at best.

Fortunately, wireless printing has become more simple and less expensive. Let's look at the options.

Existing printer

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If you want to use your existing infrastructure and have a wireless network, the cheapest way to print wirelessly is to take advantage of your hardwired printer, be it a network device or attached to a PC. There is no additional wiring involved, just a bit of configuration.

On the host computer, go into the printer manager and share the printer (in Windows, you'll see the option on the menu that comes up when you right-click on the printer name; Mac and Linux users can also share).

Then, as long as the host is up and running, you can connect to that shared printer and print. Depending on the operating system, you may have to download and install a printer driver on your laptop; sometimes you simply get the driver from the host computer when you connect for the first time.

Wireless printer

However, the newest way to banish those pesky cables requires a bit of cash: buy yourself a wireless printer. They can be surprisingly cheap - I've seen wireless inkjets for as little as $69. These printers have wireless network cards built in, and software automatically configures your various computers to talk to them within a couple of minutes. Virtually all printer vendors offer one or more models.

First, you need a wireless network for printer and laptop to talk to. Setting up such a beast is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that it needs to be properly secured, especially since you'll be exposing your precious data to it. And it should be as fast as possible (802.11n is the current gold standard). Documents can be large, and have to be transmitted to the printer before they can hit paper, so a fast printer on a slow network will just be a source of frustration.

Once your network is functioning, and you have proven to yourself that your laptop can, indeed, talk to it, it's time to contemplate a printer.

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You have some of the same decisions you'd make with any printer choice. Colour or monochrome, inkjet or laser? Should it only print, or scan, copy and/or fax as well? You'll find wireless printers in all of these categories.

The next decision is the placement of the printer. Obviously, it needs to be near a power plug, and it needs to be within wireless range of your wireless access point (aka wireless router). Since most wireless routers also have ports for wired devices, this will let hardwired desktops use the printer too.

To connect the printer to your computers, follow the instructions that came with your machine. You may want to download updated drivers from the vendor's website after you install, since you have no idea how old the drivers on the supplied CD may be. Updated drivers usually make devices perform faster, may add functionality and tend to be more stable.

Standard wireless is not the only way you can connect to a printer without cables. If your computer and printer will be within about 30 metres of each other, and are equipped with Bluetooth, you can use that short-range protocol. You might have used it to connect an earpiece to your mobile phone, but it also works with printers, and it will let you print when you don't have an 802.11 wireless network.

But regardless of which method you use, once you configure everything you'll find wireless printing is no different to printing to a hardwired device - but without the wires.

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