While PC sales are declining precipitously, sales of smartphones are climbing rapidly. This year for the first time, more smartphones will be sold worldwide than old–fashioned cellphones (known in the industry as “feature phones”). At the same time, the mythological paper–free society — in which electronic files replaced printed documents and photos — has never materialized. From e–mails to snapshots, monthly phone bills and more, if it’s worth saving, often it’s worth printing.
So, printer makers and app developers have responded to this PC–smartphone sales dichotomy by coming up with new and improved ways to print directly from smartphones and tablets — and from anywhere the Internet is accessible.
“With the advent of the Internet, and now the advent of mobile devices and the cloud, there’s a big shift that’s happening,” said Patrick Chen, product development manager for Epson Connect at Epson America, Inc. in Long Beach, Calif. Epson Connect is a feature built into all new Epson consumer–grade printers that enables smartphones and tablets to use the device through a local area network, remotely through the Internet, or via e–mail.
To be sure, the concept of printing directly from mobile devices is not absolutely new. Hewlett Packard Co. dabbled with the concept 10 years ago in a partnership with Nokia, using Bluetooth to pair early cameraphones with printers, noted Phil McCoog, chief technologist and technology strategist at HP in Vancouver, Wash. Similar partnerships between HP and both Motorola and Sony Ericsson followed, and in this “incubation period…we learned a lot,” McCoog said. “When the current generation of smartphones came around, we were well versed in how to do this.”
By 2009, HP had introduced ePrint Enterprise, an option that enabled printing from certain BlackBerry apps. Then, in Spring 2010, ePrint for consumer–grade printers debuted, giving each compatible HP printer its own e–mail address as another remote printing solution. That same year, Apple introduced AirPrint for iOS, which added a remote printing feature to certain iPhone, iPod touch and iPad apps. And Epson in 2010 launched a partnership with app developer Thinxtream, which brought forth a version of its PrintJinni remote printing app specifically tailored to that printer maker’s machines.
Today, the tremendous popularity of all cloud–connected handheld devices — including those Apple devices and smartphones and tablets based on Google’s Android operating system (OS) — are driving down PC sales worldwide, according to reports issued in March and April by the market research firm IDC based in Framingham, Mass. In conjunction, the ways to print from such handheld devices have proliferated, too. Now there is a broad array of AirPrint compatible printers available from many brands, as well as numerous mobile printing apps for both iOS– and Android–based devices offered by both printer makers and third–party developers. Additionally, a technology from Google named Cloud Print is supposed to work with compatible printers and cloud–connected devices, and a utility application for Macs and PCs named FingerPrint, from developer Collobos Software, Inc., turns almost any printer into an AirPrint printer.
I recently tested AirPrint, Cloud Print, FingerPrint, and a variety of mobile printing apps for iOS, with a mix of new and old printers: my old HP LaserJet 2055dn laser printer and Epson WorkForce 635 inkjet printer, which are neither AirPrint nor Cloud Print compatible; and a new Epson WorkForce WF–3540 inkjet printer, which is compatible with both AirPrint and Cloud Print in addition to a dedicated Epson mobile printing app named iPrint. Read on to learn what I discovered.
AirPrint is easiest…but apps pack perks
For iOS device users, nothing is simpler than Apple’s AirPrint, which is built into the OS and its embedded apps (including Mail, the Safari mobile Web browser, and Photos), as well as integrated into add-ons such as Apple’s Pages word processor for iOS or the Penultimate note-taking app from developer Evernote Corp. Using AirPrint is as easy as tapping an on–screen Print icon within a compatible app, selecting a compatible printer that AirPrint automatically locates nearby (attached to a local Wi–Fi wireless network), choosing to print on both sides of a page or not (if the printer is capable), selecting the number of copies to print, and then tapping an on–screen “Print” command button.
However, AirPrint does not allow users to take advantage of a printer’s more advanced features, such as special photo printing options. Plus, perhaps the biggest hurdle with AirPrint is its requirement for a specifically compatible printer. That means it won’t work with any printer that’s more than three years old (and may not even work with some that are newer).
There are alternatives, though, for anyone who does not already own an AirPrint-ready printer and doesn’t want to buy one: Mobile printing apps and utilities offer an affordable way to gain the benefits of AirPrint plus additional benefits without the hardware upgrade.
Printer makers including Brother, Canon, Epson and HP offer one variety of these apps tailored to their own printer models, both new and of recent vintage. And because they are first-party apps, they generally present more of the machine’s features than AirPrint, such as the ability to select a print quality, paper feed source, and color or black-and-white printing.
Epson’s iPrint app, which is available for both iOS and Android, is compatible with 54 of the company’s inkjet printers built since 2008. Once the app is opened on the device, the user is presented with a simple menu of five options: Photos, to access and print pictures stored on the device or, with iOS, in Apple Photostream albums; Saved Documents, to access and print files stored by the user in a linked Epson Connect cloud service account; Online Storage, to access and print files stored in the Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox and Box cloud storage services; Web Page Print, which opens a built-in browser that can be used to print a web page from within the app; and Scan, which controls the compatible printer’s scan function to copy and send a document from the machine to the app. And once scanned, iPrint offers a variety of options for the document, including printing, e-mailing, saving to a local folder or camera roll on the device, and uploading to any of those above four cloud storage services.
In my tests of iPrint, all of these functions worked flawlessly with both the WorkForce WF–3540 and the WorkForce 635.
Because both printers have built–in Wi–Fi, the wireless connections between the app and the printers was direct. It did not require a network–connected computer to act as an intermediary. But even printers connected to a local area network with an Ethernet cable would have worked as well in the same manner, an Epson spokeswoman noted. “As long as the printer is on the network, then iPrint will be able to find it and print to it,” she said.
I was not keen on the need to open a webpage within the iPrint app for printing, but this is a limitation imposed by Apple, whose Safari mobile browser prints only with AirPrint.
HP’s ePrint app — available for iOS, Android and BlackBerry — contains an e–mail client, a web browser, cloud storage services integration, and a photo viewer. Once set up, the e–mail client can access Yahoo!, Gmail, Hotmail or other accounts, to print their contents. The integrated cloud services are the same as with iPrint: Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox and Box. The integrated photo viewer allows pictures to be rotated and cropped before printing. All of these functions worked well in my tests with the LaserJet 2055dn. Nevertheless, once again, I disliked having to open e-mails and view web pages within this app rather than in Apple’s Mail or Safari apps, respectively, merely to be able to print them.
One unique aspect of the ePrint app, according to HP’s McCoog, is its ability to reproduce Microsoft Office (Word, Excel or Powerpoint) documents with all of their original formatting intact. It is the only app that prints Office documents with headers, footers and tables exactly as they would appear if printed from an Office program on a computer, McCoog said.
When the user chooses to print a PDF or Microsoft Office document, the file is sent by the app to a cloud server on the Internet, where it is “rendered” or prepared for printing and then sent back to the printer on the local network. The cloud server is associated with a required ePrintCenter online services account, activated when the app is set up.
In addition, users can choose to send the print job through the cloud to a remote printer at FedEx Office, UPS Store or other service locations nearby, including hotel business centers and printing departments at Walmart stores.
The ePrint app works with nearly all the networkable HP laser and inkjet printers made since 2004, which now number more than 200 models, McCoog said. In the iOS version, he noted, it launches AirPrint when the print command is initiated, effectively turning any of those older machines into AirPrint-compatible models.
Notably, the ePrint app also will work whether or not that printer has any wireless capability built in, as long as the machine is connected to a wireless network. In my tests, the app always worked flawlessly with the LaserJet 2055dn, which was only remotely connected to a Wi–Fi router via a HomePlug powerline networking access point using an Ethernet cable — and it printed even if the networked computer containing the printer’s driver was switched off.
“We’re fundamentally changing our printer platforms to make them driverless,” McCoog asserted. “We really believe that the future is driverless technology, embedded in the OS. It is the capability that you turn on your device, you say ‘print,’ and you can see it print. People, as they use their mobile devices, are not wanting to install massive pieces of software or do setup on things,” he added. “We believe the printing experience needs to be something you can do while you’re in the middle of a conversation with somebody.”
Apple’s AirPrint has enabled that scenario since its debut in 2010, McCoog said, adding, “we’ll be there across the board very quickly.”
In fact, HP already has added driverless printing technology to the Android OS. In March, the printer maker announced that it worked with Samsung to embed a driverless printing function in the new Galaxy S 4 smartphone, which was launched last Saturday. And later this year, the embedded driverless printing technology will be offered for Samsung’s older Galaxy S III and Note II devices, in a firmware upgrade. The printing function is presented on-screen as a print button, within the native e–mail app, Android browser, photo gallery app, contacts app and S Note and Polaris Office apps. It works with the same array of networkable HP printers as the ePrint app, and also can be used to print photos, webpages, and PDF and Microsoft Office documents.
But there are important differences between the ePrint app for iOS and the Samsung embedded mobile printing feature. Firstly, the Samsung implementation offers a greater array of printing options, including choices of paper size, printing orientation, paper type and color mode. Secondly, the Samsung implementation works with only nearby printers connected to a local area network; it does not enable remote printing over the Internet.
Brother offers the iPrint&Scan app, which is available for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7 devices. Canon offers the Easy–PhotoPrint app for iOS, Android and Windows RT devices. Lexmark offers the Lexmark Mobile Printing app for iOS and Android. I did not test any of these apps.
Third-party apps are brand agnostic
Whereas printer makers’ apps are compatible with specific models from their respective brands, third–party mobile printing apps cover a broader range of printers, are brand agnostic, and may also offer unique capabilities.
One example is PrintCentral Pro for iOS ($7.99) from developer EuroSmartz Ltd. Like other mobile printing apps, it has a built–in web browser and e-mail client, and can retrieve documents from cloud storage services such as Dropbox and iCloud. But it also has some atypical features. For instance, it will receive and store files transferred to it from a computer using iTunes; its integrated “clip archive” can export saved text or images to a computer, send them in an e-mail, or save them to one of many cloud-based storage services (including iCloud, Dropbox, Box, CloudMe, Google Drive, ShareFile, SkyDrive, SugarSync, and a user-specified FTP or WebDAV site); and a URL modification (“zhttp://”) typed in the Safari mobile web browser address bar will automatically launch a webpage inside PrintCentral Pro’s web browser, ready for printing. Additionally, the app will print to a PDF — convert a file to a PDF document rather than output it to an actual printer — if that is the user’s preference.
Probably the most important component of PrintCentral Pro is an external “helper application” named WePrint. Installed on a computer, it lets PrintCentral Pro work with any printer that doesn’t have Wi–Fi or AirPrint, as long as both the printer and the computer with WePrint are connected to the same local area network. And WePrint adds even more options to PrintCentral Pro, including remote printing over a 3G or 4G cellular network, by e-mail. Gmail accounts set up specifically for this purpose are preferable and easiest to configure in PrintCentral Pro and WePrint, but any type of e-mail account will work as well, said Ian Schenkel, CEO and co-founder of EuroSmartz, which is based in Isle of Wight, UK.
An exceptional feature is the on-screen Help button, which leads to an exhaustive tutorial, an interactive troubleshooter, and a form to contact tech support agents who are available 24/7 and respond quickly via e-mail.
The app lets you know the estimated response time, which in my tests was usually 60 minutes and proved to be accurate.
I also found pitfalls in my tests of PrintCentral Pro. Perhaps the most significant of these are the confusing array of duplicate choices that PrintCentral Pro presents in its printer selection list, and the confusing nature of the app’s overall user interface. Printers that are available for printing are listed along with those that are not, a printer may be listed twice if it’s available wirelessly as well as via the WePrint conduit, and the app is filled with numerous icons and menu trees throughout its many layers. What’s more, another complication arises in the PrintCentral Pro setup process, when the user is asked to “test” each printer’s iteration with a choice of technology “protocols” by printing a series of test pages. There are no apparent reasons for those choices, which are offered without explanations of their differences.
A much simpler third–party mobile printing app is Print Sharing ($1.99) from developer Avatron Software. Its straightforward user interface first presents just two large buttons labeled “Apple AirPrint” (to use available AirPrint–compatible printers) and “Avatron Print” (to use other types of printers on a local area network).
Choosing the Avatron Print option doesn’t just make non–AirPrint printers available, it also exposes all of a printer’s features — and that is due to the app’s underlying architecture, explained Dave Howell, founder and CEO of Avatron in Portland, Ore. “The main distinction is that we don’t have to install anything on your computer,” he said, because Print Sharing uses CUPS, a printer sharing technology that is a standard feature in the Mac’s OS X operating system and can be installed in computers running the related Linux OS. And since CUPS reveals all of a printer’s capabilities to the app, “we have all the options” listed in Print Sharing, no matter how esoteric, Howell said, offering collating as an example.
There are limitations inherent in this architecture, Howell noted: There must be a Mac or Linux computer on the same network with the printer to be shared; the computer must be powered on; if it’s a Mac, it must be running Apple’s OS X version 10.5 or newer; and the OS must be set up to share the printer.
“I was on Apple’s campus where there are thousands of people on the local network and I of course saw lots and lots and lots of printers,” Howell said.
As with other mobile printing apps, there are two ways to send documents, photos, webpages, PDFs and other items to Print Sharing for printing. The first is to copy and paste the item into the mobile device’s “clipboard” for the app to retrieve. The second is to use the “Open In” feature found in many other apps to launch Print Sharing with the item pre–loaded.
Unlike more complex mobile printing apps such as PrintCentral Pro, Print Sharing is not able to create PDFs on its own, a process known as printing to a PDF.
In my tests, Print Sharing worked flawlessly, and I mostly chose Avatron Print to access the broader range of printer features it exposed.
Printer Pro ($6.99 for iPad; $4.99 for iPhone/iPod touch) from developer Readdle Inc. occupies a middle ground between PrintCentral Pro’s abundance of features and Print Sharing’s simplicity.
Although it doesn’t have a web browser or an e–mail client built–in, it does offer a URL modification shortcut for printing webpages (appending the letter “p” to the front of “http://” in front of a web address). It can retrieve files from Box, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, and other cloud–based services — via the “Open In” feature of those services’ apps — as well as from the iOS Photos and Contacts apps.
In lieu of printing, Printer Pro also will print to a PDF (saved to the app in the mobile device).
An easy setup process yields a straightforward list of available printers, which can include models connected to a network via USB as well as those connected via AirPrint or Wi–Fi. Printers that aren’t directly compatible with the app still may work with it via a helper app named Printer Pro Desktop, which is available for both Windows PCs and Macs.
Indeed, there is a great benefit to installing Printer Pro Desktop on a computer whether or not it’s needed to link a printer to the mobile app: remote printing from literally anywhere in the world via the Internet, not just within range of the local area network.
A drop–down menu within Printer Pro Desktop shows printers available on the local area network and allows one to be selected as the output device for remote printing jobs. Then, the name of the computer with Printer Pro Desktop installed will appear in the mobile app’s list of available printers, and choosing it will route print jobs to the designated printer. But the mobile app doesn’t identify which printer was selected in the computer’s helper app, a detail the user will have to remember himself. In my tests, remote printing worked well.
Printer Pro does have one drawback that some users may consider significant: It doesn’t offer any way to cancel a print job. I inadvertently discovered this when I unsuccessfully attempted to stop a multi–page remote print job midstream — first by canceling it in the machine’s print queue on my computer, and then using the machine’s own cancel button. With the queue cleared in both the computer and the printer, but the job not completed, Printer Pro repeatedly re–sent the print job, and would continue to do so as long as Printer Pro Desktop remained open.
The only solution was to clear the print queue on the mobile device, said a Readdle tech support agent contacted by e–mail. This requires a “hard reboot,” she advised. For an iOS device, that entails holding down both the Power and Home buttons simultaneously for at least 10 seconds, until the device shuts off and restarts.
By comparison, Epson’s iPrint, HP’s ePrint, Avatron’s Print Sharing, and EuroSmartz’s PrintCentral Pro all offer an in-app cancel option for print jobs in progress.
Other third–party mobile printing apps, which I did not test, include EuroSmartz’s Print ($1.99 for iOS; $2.99 for Android) and Print n Share ($9.99 for iOS); and developer Dar–Soft Inc.’s Print Utility ($1.99 for iOS) and Print Agent PRO for iPad ($2.99).
Apps aren’t the only option
There are options besides apps for printing from a mobile device.
Online services operated by printer makers are one such option. The Epson Connect service, for example, lets any print job to be remotely sent to any Epson Connect–enabled printer via a simple e–mail message, using an e–mail address assigned to the machine by the service. Insert a document, photo or webpage into the body of an e–mail message, type the printer’s e–mail address into the “To:” line, hit “Send,” and moments later the machine has completed the job. The service then confirms this in a return e–mail message to the user.
HP’s similar ePrintCenter also enables e–mailing print jobs, and a new online service named HP Connected offers more features, including a 30–day personal archive of ePrint jobs (for viewing, reprinting, downloading and sharing them).
For Android device users especially, another option is Google Cloud Print. This online service will work with any printer that can connect to the Web directly, as well as with printers connected to a Mac, Windows, or Linux computer with Internet access — although the latter instance requires Google’s Chrome Web browser to be installed on the computer. But only printers that are registered with Cloud Print by the user will be available for print jobs; the service can not be used with just any nearby printers.
Google’s Chrome browser, and Google apps such as Gmail and Docs, are natively able to send print jobs to Cloud Print from their built–in “print” menus. Some third–party apps, including EuroSmartz’s PrintCentral Pro, have Cloud Print compatibility built in, too.
I tested Google Cloud Print with PrintCentral Pro, but was disappointed with the results.
First, I set up Cloud Print as a printer within PrintCentral Pro. Then, I selected two files to print — a PDF document and a JPEG photo — and chose Cloud Print as the destination printer for the jobs. The app successfully “printed” or saved both files to my Google Docs online account, but neither file was then forwarded to the printer I had previously registered with Cloud Print, the Epson WorkForce WF–3540. Moreover, I was surprised to discover, it was not even possible to send these files to Cloud Print from within the Google Docs online service.
Yet, I did succeed in using Cloud Print to send two other files to the Epson printer: a Cloud Print service test page, and another file that I had uploaded to Google Docs a while ago in a more traditional manner.
Finally, for iOS devices, there is the option of FingerPrint ($19.95), a utility application for Macs or Windows PCs that disguises any old printer as an AirPrint printer. It does this in a roundabout way, explained Scott Herscher, CEO of Collobos, based in Palo Alto, Calif. Because FingerPrint is imbued with Bonjour, an Apple technology in AirPrint that is used to identify compatible devices on a local area network, the iOS device identifies the utility itself as a printer and sends print jobs to it, Herscher explained. FingerPrint, in turn, acts as a print server — identifying local printers, presenting them to AirPrint as choices for the user to select among, and then forwarding the print job it receives from AirPrint to the selected printer, completing the job.
This is similar to the way EuroSmartz’s WePrint and Readdle’s Printer Pro Desktop helper apps work to supplement their respective mobile printing apps.
According to Herscher, though, there is a key difference in FingerPrint’s solitary nature. FingerPrint’s most important distinction versus a mobile printing app is that it doesn’t require any additional “taps” or steps beyond those associated with AirPrint to print from a mobile device, he said.
Even so, he conceded, the computer must be powered on (or in a “sleep state”) for FingerPrint to work; unlike apps such as Epson’s iPrint and HP’s ePrint, it won’t work if the computer on which it’s installed is powered off.
Users may consider two other aspects of FingerPrint to be even more important. Firstly, its settings screen enables “virtual printers” to be created from any file folder on a computer’s hard drive or at an online service such as Evernote or Dropbox, with just a few simple steps. Printing to a virtual printer saves the output to that file folder. Secondly, security settings within FingerPrint can “lock down” any real or virtual printer, Herscher said, so that only particular users are permitted to print to it.
In my tests, I easily set up both Evernote and Dropbox virtual printers, but I did not attempt to lock down any of my printers. I particularly liked that FingerPrint allowed me to use the old LaserJet 2055dn as an AirPrint printer — and thus to print e–mails and webpages directly from the iOS Mail client and Safari mobile browser — without having to launch HP’s ePrint app.
Certainly, the FingerPrint utility and mobile printing apps are not mutually exclusive, and they can actually be complementary. In my tests, for example, it was thanks to FingerPrint that the LaserJet 2055dn was in Avatron Print Sharing’s straightforward list of available AirPrint printers when it otherwise would not have been.
Of course, no one mobile printing app or combination of app, utility and online service will be ideal for all users. Everyone has different needs — but now, to print from a mobile device, buying a new printer need not be the only solution.