In 2010, Apple introduced AirPrint, an addition to the iOS ecosystem that enabled iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches to wirelessly print to one of a handful of new AirPrint-ready printers.
Of course, hardware made to work with the new system was scarce upon launch, and although AirPrint printers are easier to come by nowadays (you’ll find around 200 on retail shelves) printing is still an issue for those with older hardware. But if you just want to be able to print from your iPad, you don’t need to replace your existing printer or face the redundancy of multiple printers in the same house.
If you’re a genius, you can roll your own print server. Alternatively, there are a few easy software workarounds — FingerPrint, PrintCentral and Printopia are standouts — that will perform the necessary dirty work so you can print from an iOS device to any networked printer.
Most of the software solutions are pretty smooth, but I’ve found something even smoother: the xPrintServer Home Edition from Lantronix. It’s a little white box (about the size of two iPhones stacked on top of each other) that costs $100. You plug into your Wi-Fi router using an Ethernet jack. The xPrintServer will recognize almost any network-enabled printer in your house, and you can connect it to older USB printers as well.
Even though the XPrintServer found my Canon MX700 printer as soon as I plugged the device into my router, a few more steps were involved before any ink landed on paper. There’s a browser-based configuration menu (those are always fun) that’s accessible through any browser on the network. The interface closely resembles the type you’d use to administer your wireless router.
Configuration involves multiple steps, and naturally, the instructions are buried in the downloadable 37-page PDF manual. But the directions were clearly worded enough, and once I had it set up, printing from my iPad was a two-tap process. You just choose “Print” from the app’s drop-down menu, and this works system-wide on any device running iOS 4.2 or later. Of course, you need to be on the same network as your printer.
Mac users will be able to jump right in, but Windows users will need to download and install Apple’s tiny Bonjour Printer Wizard before their first print job. It’s mostly painless.
You’ll want to bookmark that configuration menu. It’s where you go to view pending print jobs and the users who sent them, in case you want to cancel a job or force a reprint after a paper jam. It’s also the place to find and install firmware updates, which I’d suggest you perform before you do any printing. If you do run into a technical problem that you can’t solve, the config menu has a convenient troubleshooting diagnostic system which sends reports to Lantronix’s tech support.
The xPrintServer’s case fully follows Apple’s pure and minimalist design language — just three ports (power, USB and Ethernet) and no other buttons. The only interface on the white chassis is the back-lit “X” in the Lantronix name. It serves as the device’s status indicator with a Morse code-style blinking. This is where it deviates from Apple’s philosophy: there are eight different patterns, but the secret of what each one means can only be found in the PDF manual. Even after consulting the manual, it will take a steel-trap memory to recall what each light pattern means.
The good news is that most people won’t need to solve the riddle of the blinking lights, because once it’s set up, the xPrintServer seems to work just fine. And Lantronix is constantly updating its supported printer list. After I filled in the “Add my printer” form on the company’s website to get the Canon MX700 on the list, it was added a few days later.
The suggested price is $100, but it’s available cheaper if you shop around online. That’s still a somewhat high price to pay for the convenience the xPrintServer offers. But it’s a more seamless solution than a software app, and it certainly beats having to buy a new printer just to serve your iPad and iPhone printer needs.