How to Troubleshoot Your Home Network

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How do I share a printer over a network?

--Irving Waldorf, San Francisco

I know of three ways to do this. Let's start with the free one:

You can easily attach the printer to one PC and share it with others at no extra cost. But there's a flaw: You can't print from any of the more distant computers unless the directly attached PC is left on.

To set your printer's sharing preferences, right-click its icon and choose 'Sharing' from the pop-up menu.
If you're okay with that, follow the printer's documentation to install it on your chosen PC. Then, in Control Panel's 'Printers and Faxes' applet, right-click the printer, select Sharing, confirm that 'Share this pritner' is checked and click OK to accept the default sharing settings for your printer.

On the remote computer, choose 'Add a network, wireless or Bluetooth printer' to browse for a shared printer on another PC.
On each of the other PCs, open Control Panel's 'Printers and Faxes' applet and click Add a printer. In the resulting wizard, select the network option. It should find the printer and walk you through the rest of the setup.

If leaving the connected PC on all the time is a problem for you, consider buying a mini print server. Priced at $50 or less, a mini print server is a little box (often smaller than its own AC adapter) with a parallel or USB port at one end and Wi-Fi or ethernet at the other. You plug it into the printer and the network, install a driver on all of your PCs, and everyone can print.

That's the theory, at least, and with a mini (or full-size) parallel print server, it's pretty much the reality. Any parallel print server should work with any parallel printer. For more about these handy devices, see Robert Strohmeyer's blog entry "Ease Small Office Growing Pains with a Mini Print Server."

Things aren't so simple with USB. If your printer lacks a parallel interface, you'll have to find a USB print server that supports your specific printer. You may have some luck searching on your favorite search engine for your printer model and the text string print server. Alternatively, you might check with the printer vendor and see which server it recommends.

Using a print server creates two other problems: It introduces yet another juice-wasting, always-on electronic device; and it leaves you with one more wall wart taking up surge-protector space.

If those problems turn you off, or if your printer lacks a parallel port and you can't find a compatible USB server, you can either accept the necessity of leaving the connected PC on at all times or turn to the most expensive option: buying a network-capable printer.

A printer that comes equipped with ethernet or Wi-Fi is the simplest and most versatile solution, but the only way it makes sense economically is if you need a new printer, anyway. Just keep networking capabilities in mind the next time you go shopping for a new printer. Network-capable printers are available in all price ranges.

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