Printing anything from anywhere is no longer fantasy. In fact, it’s often a necessity if using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is an essential part of your daily workflow.
Cases in point: You receive a huge spreadsheet attachment on your smartphone, and need a way to view the document without squinting. Or you revise a PowerPoint deck just as your plane lands, and need to print it before you arrive at a meeting. Or maybe you’re just staying with family out of town, and need to print a boarding pass directly from your phone.
Whatever the case, wouldn’t you like to send a print job to the printer you spot down the hall, or to a printer in an office superstore down the block? Or how about sending a document from San Francisco to your own printer back in Chicago?
Mobile printing technology makes all of this possible. Printers with wireless or Web connectivity can communicate far beyond a specific user or workgroup. And printer vendors, all too happy to help you keep printing, are rolling out solutions that use e-mail or cloud-based print servers as the backbone for sending print jobs. Big companies like Apple, Google, and HP have particularly well-developed technologies that address issues such as reaching older printers, or finding places to print when you’re on the road.
Get ready and set to print
Where and how you get started depends on how far you want to take your printing capabilities. You’ll also have to consider three basic issues:
1. Find your printer, find your app: Your device and printer of choice need to find each other. Obviously, it’s easy to set up mobile printing around your home or office, where you own or already have access to the printer. But what about when you must send a job to an unfamiliar printer? Luckily, checking a printer’s online feature sheet will tell you whether it supports a solution to cover your mobile device or situation. You can also visit the iOS App Store or Google Play to search for a mobile app from the company that makes the printer you want to use (conversely, you won’t have much luck searching for these apps in the Windows Phone Store or Windows Store). And if you want to find printers in random places as you travel, apps can help you detect accessible printers—at places like office stores and copy shops that offer printing on the fly (for a fee).
2. Print prudently: Security is a big issue with mobile printing. You want to protect remotely printed jobs from being seen by prying eyes, and also protect your Web-connected printer from being accessed by unauthorized users—or even hackers. Simple wireless printing usually prints the job immediately, so you’ll need to be nearby to pick it up. If you’re sending to a printer that’s not immediately accessible, look for a solution that gives you a passcode and holds your job until you get to the printer and enter the code. If you’re part of a big company, your IT department may require you to stick with implementations that lie within protected networks.
3. Accept limitations: A major challenge with mobile printing is the lack of a reliable connection and an installed driver. Printer vendors have had about three years to work out the biggest transmission kinks, but it’s still possible that your print job will go astray, and you’ll have to resend it. More commonly, you’ll miss that driver when your print job comes out looking funny. While most mobile solutions will let you print Microsoft Office files, photos, and PDF files with decent results, formatting hiccups could include extra pages, cut-off pages, font substitutions, and odd scaling.
Mobilize your own printer
The easiest kind of mobile printing targets the printer you know: the one that’s sitting in your home or office. If it’s on a wireless network, you can print to it directly from nearby. Conversely, if it’s connected to the Internet, you can use an e-mail-based sending app to print to it remotely. An office you’re visiting may even have a printer that you can connect to in one of these ways.
If you use an iOS device, you’re in luck: Major printer vendors—such as Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, HP, and Lexmark—cover iOS devices through either their own app or compatibility with Apple AirPrint. AirPrint lets you print from an iOS device to any AirPrint-compatible printer that shares the same wireless network. Your iOS device will detect the printer and print to it. (If your printer doesn’t support iPrint, the third-party FingerPrint app may help.) As with many direct-connect printing apps, you’ll have little to no control over the details of your print job, but you’ll usually get a decent, if not perfect, print.
Android devices, too, enjoy either a wireless app for direct printing from most printer vendors, or the benefits of Google Cloud Print. Google Cloud Print is notable for being brand-independent and for working with older printers as well as newer ones.
New Windows 8 devices don’t have much to work with yet, other than platform-independent solutions like Google Cloud Print and HP ePrint. Surface tablets, like devices using Apple AirPrint, will print to any printer on the same wireless network.
To use Google Cloud Print, an older printer needs to be connected to a Windows, Mac, or Linux PC that’s turned on and connected to the Internet. If you see the term “Google Cloud Print Ready” in your printer’s specs, that means it can connect directly to the Internet, skipping the computer intermediary. The sending device has to run Android or iOS and use the Chrome browser, and you have to have a Gmail account. A Printoption will appear for printing Gmail attachments or files uploaded to Google Drive. You can also share your printer with friends or colleagues who have the same basic setup, either as individuals or as part of a Google Group. Not bad for an app that’s still officially in beta.
Find printers wherever you go
HP’s ePrint may be brand-specific, but it’s still the most mature mobile printing solution. It comes in enterprise as well as consumer flavors, and HP’s ePrint Public Print Locations let you print to machines at UPS Store and FedEx Office locations, as well as many hotels, airport lounges, public libraries, and other organizations. HP offers an ePrint app for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry devices that lets you locate accessible ePrint Public Print Location printers and send print jobs on the fly.
Widely deployed services like these show how you can remove some of the uncertainty from needing to print when you’re on the go, whether passing through a city or an airport. More office stores, airports, hotels, and even public libraries are adding printers that can be detected by mobile users. FedEx Office stores also accept Google Cloud Print jobs, if you choose “Print to FedEx Office” in the Cloud Print dialog box.
Your device app may be able to detect compatible printers in the area, or you may get access information from the airport-lounge manager or librarian. In most cases, after sending the job, you get back an access code to release the printout when you get to the printer. In most cases, you also pay a fee for the print.
And if you’re really in a pinch, and a FedEx Office, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, or UPS store is nearby, each of those brands will let you upload a document to the cloud (a website) for printing, then pick up the job in person at the store.
Mobile printing is being embraced in multiple ways by multiple vendors, but any attempt at uniform standards is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time—probably less, rather than more, time—before it will feel natural to print to any printer that happens to be nearby without going through hoops such as installing a driver or plugging in a cable.
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Melissa Riofrio spent her formative journalistic years reviewing some of the biggest iron at PCWorld--desktops, laptops, storage, printers--and she continued to focus on hardware testing during stints at Computer Currents and CNET. Currently, in addition to leading PCWorld’s content direction, she covers productivity laptops and Chromebooks.