Cloud Printing Is Here--Do You Need It?

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You need your printer to print, but do you need it to access the Internet? HP and Lexmark are hoping you'll think so, as they launch more and more of their printers into the cloud. Through Web-connected printers you can access maps, games, and coupons, or add functions such as sending print jobs via e-mail, viewing Facebook or Twitter updates, or uploading data to services such as Evernote.

These new capabilities are interesting, but are they worth purchasing a new printer for? I spent a week working with two Web-connected printers, HP's Photosmart eStation and Lexmark's Genesis, to see if they offered something I couldn't live without.

Lexmark Genesis: Silent but Trendy

Lexmark Genesis inkjet multifunction printer
The Lexmark Genesis inkjet multifunction would be cool even without Web apps, thanks to its arresting vertical stance and its superfast, whisper-quiet, camera-based scanner. But it also offers Lexmark's SmartSolutions, a collection of programmable, downloadable apps. In addition to automating specific print, copy, or scan tasks, the apps can reach out to the cloud, scanning photos or documents and uploading them directly to Evernote or Picasa accounts, or displaying data from sites such as Facebook, Google Analytics, or Twitter on the unit's 4.3-inch color LCD screen.

After I created an account on the Lexmark SmartSolutions Website and linked it to the Genesis, I easily downloaded apps that automate tasks such as uploading scanned photos to Flickr or printing out the day's headlines. The Facebook app seemed silly at first glance, but being able to print the latest photos that family and friends uploaded--without needing to boot up my PC--was surprisingly convenient. Syncing my Evernote account with the Genesis was a cinch, too, and I loved being able to come back to my desk after long meetings, scan the chicken scratch that passes for my notes, and instantly upload them to my Evernote account.

HP PhotoSmart eStation: Print Anything From Anywhere

Like the Lexmark Genesis, the HP PhotoSmart eStation inkjet multifunction offers an attention-grabbing twist: The control panel is actually a 7-inch removable touchscreen called the Zeen, which runs the Android 2.1 operating system and has some tablet functions, acting as an e-reader for the Barnes & Noble eBookstore and browsing the Web. It also gives you lots of screen real estate for amassing apps directly from HP's ePrintCenter catalog.

HP's app store offers more consumer-oriented options than Lexmark's collection does. HP has partnered with Disney and DreamWorks to offer printable games, posters, and puzzles featuring their characters. MSNBC and Yahoo provide news feeds, while Bing, Google, and MapQuest compete to satisfy your mapping needs. HP regularly updates the app library with new Web-centric stuff, such as Facebook and LeapFrog games. Not surprisingly, nearly every app has a built-in print function.

Unlike with Lexmark's Genesis, on the eStation no account-creation process is necessary to configure the printer for Web use. I simply connected both tablet and printer to PCWorld's wireless network using the Zeen. The tablet boasts a multipage home screen that you can customize with downloadable app panes via an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop interface. The family-friendly appeal of playful printables such as Disney greeting cards and crossword puzzles was lost on this bachelor, but I did find the Zeen handy for printing day-to-day necessities like calendars or plane tickets; back at the office, my boss mentioned how cool it was to scan a handwritten document and upload it directly to a cloud-based sharing service like Google Docs.

One of the most appealing things about the eStation is its ePrint feature, which allows you to send print jobs to the printer from any device with an Internet connection, from anywhere in the world, using the printer's own unique e-mail address. The eStation will also print mail attachments (Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, and the like) up to 5MB in size. However, the cool factor of ePrint wears off quickly if you can't use it, as our colleagues at Macworld experienced when they tested the ePrint feature on the HP Photosmart Premium e-All-In-One; capacity issues delayed a test print job for 2.5 hours. Many HP customers have faced similar problems.

Convenient, but Still a Luxury for Now

Do you need a Web-connected printer? The short answer is no, because the only thing you really need a printer to do is print. The longer, more complicated answer is that you might find cloud-based printing handy, depending on your requirements. Spending a few days working with the Genesis and the eStation convinced me that Web apps on a printer aren't just a gimmick: They're handy tools to tailor a printer to your needs, and they work well. Moreover, connecting your printer to the cloud eliminates hassles such as updating drivers or trying to print documents from random places and devices. Owning one of the first Web-connected printers is a luxury, but regular updates and expanding app stores render units such as the Genesis and the eStation more useful with each passing day.

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