Hands On/No Wires Necessary

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As wireless networks have come of age, so, too, have wireless printing methods. There are now several different ways to attach printers via the 802.11b networking standard, giving VARs many choices in creating the best configuration for customers.

The 802.11b wireless standard is just one of the many mechanisms available these days for cutting the printer cord. Indeed, an older method,infrared,has been around for close to a decade and has been built in to many laptops and some printers. The trouble with infrared, however, is that it requires a direct line of sight between printer and computer, and isn't readily networkable. Newer wireless connections,including 802.11b,are trying to remedy that, including Bluetooth, for very short distances, say less than two or three feet. But Bluetooth is very low power, and its bandwidth may not work so well with large graphics print streams. So the best bets remain with 802.11b protocols.

There are basically four different types of wireless printing products: a printer expansion card, a pocket print server adapter, an external print server box and a wireless access point. VARBusiness looked at four different products, each of which represents a typical product in their respective categories: the Kyocera Mita IB-22 printer expansion card, the SEH Intercon model IC155 printer server box, the Lexmark 802.11b Wireless Print adapter and the Asante FriendlyNet FR1004AL access point.

Those print servers differ in how they are attached to the printer, how they are configured and which network printing protocols they support. Setting up the overall network for these devices is a two-step process: First, you need to set the IP address of the print server itself and some printing parameters, such as the make and model of the printer. Part of this process is also setting up the encryption parameters of your wireless network, including the key used for the Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) and the identifying label, or SSID, of your wireless access point. This process differs from product to product, and it is where VARs typically provide their expertise and value-add. The best products will require the least effort here, but offer some flexibility so they can be configured for a variety of environments.

The second step in the process is to add the printer driver to each of your networked PCs, so they can actually print to the printer, which is no different from adding any wired networked printer. Given that all of these products support printing via IP protocols, it is easiest to set up Macintosh, Unix and Windows 2000/XP clients; all of these operating systems have direct support for these types of printers. Earlier versions of Windows, however, will require some driver updates.

The Nitty-Gritty

Now, back to the individual products. My first choice is a wireless print server on an internal circuit card that fits inside one of the printer's expansion slots. The advantage here is having a contained solution that doesn't require additional power and is always attached to the printer itself. Also, the unit supports the entire range of printing and network protocols that is available from the host printer, which means VARs don't lose any functionality when they deploy the wireless printer in mixed Mac, NetWare, Unix and Windows networks. The downside is that a VAR needs to stock and order separate parts for different printers, and these typically are the most expensive of the four choices because the printer vendor is the sole source for the product.

The Kyocera Mita IB-22 with the FS-9100DN printer was by far the easiest of the four products to set up and was the most reliable to operate. One of the reasons why is because you have the wired Ethernet port of the printer to communicate with your network to aid in its configuration. The unit is configured by using a combination of the printer's front-panel controls and a separate Windows utility. The combination is somewhat awkward at first, but after using the other types of products, I realized it gives VARs the least trouble overall.

My second favorite product is the pocket print server that connects to the printer's parallel port directly and contains the wireless networking adapter. It can be powered by the parallel port of some printer models, or with a separate AC power supply that connects to the pocket server. It is similar in size, shape and function to the pocket print servers that connect parallel ports to standard wired RJ-45 Ethernet networks. Most printers come with parallel ports, so this makes the pocket server more of a universal solution than the internal card solutions.

On the market you'll find HP's WP100 pocket server and Lexmark's N5 Wireless adapter, which accomplish the same thing by connecting to the printer's USB port. I tested the SEH Intercon model IC155. It is configured by using a Windows utility that was very fussy,sometimes it would be able to locate the print server on my wireless network, and sometimes the print server would disappear. However, once the unit's IP address and some other basic operating parameters were set, it functioned flawlessly. It also supports the full range of network printing protocols, including Mac, NetWare, Unix and Windows.

My third choice is to use an external print server box that attaches to the wired Ethernet port of a printer. That has the advantage of better throughput than a parallel port attachment, though in my tests I didn't notice any real performance difference for most printing jobs. The downside is that less expensive printers don't offer Ethernet ports, and if you are going to have to buy an Ethernet port, you might as well find a way to use this wired connection rather than try to use a wireless connection.

These servers range in shape and size and also require a separate AC power supply. Lexmark's 802.11b Wireless Print Adapter comes with a barebones Web server, and once you match the IP address of your PC to the same subnet of the unit's preconfigured IP address, it is relatively easy to set it up. This unit supports TCP/IP and other printing protocols.

My final choice is not really a true wireless solution to the printer itself, but a combination of access point, minimal router and print server all rolled into one convenient package. One example is SMC's Barricade Wireless Broadband Router (SMC7004AWBR) access point. I tested the Asante FriendlyNET FR1004AL product. The advantage here is that if you can locate your printer near your access point, all that is generally needed is to connect the two, and you are done. The downside is that this physical proximity is generally not always easy, which is one of the reasons why the other wireless print server methods are more flexible and popular.

However, given the cost of the access points, it might make sense to deploy them compared with the other, more costly options. The device doesn't support NetWare printers, though it does support Mac, Unix and Windows protocols.

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