For enterprises and small businesses that are embracing iOS devices to empower employees, printing from those devices can be problematic. The solution for many organizations with scads of networked printers and armfuls of iPads and iPhones is to set up one or more Macs or PCs to handle print sharing via apps like Printopia. The app makes networked printers visible to AirPrint-enabled devices.
To complement the software-only solutions, Lantronix has developed the xPrintServer (US$149.95), a device that automatically discovers networked printers and makes them all available to your iOS devices for quick and easy printing.
Why would you want such a device? Well, to enable printing you could replace all of your existing printers with AirPrint-enabled units, print to shared printers (Mac-only), or use something like Printopia as described above. You could also sync documents to your Mac or PC and then print them, but that's time-consuming and you need a personal computer available for printing.
The device I received for review was still a beta version, and the company plans to start shipping the real thing sometime in the first quarter. The xPrintServer is about the size and shape of an iPhone, and is plugged into power and an Ethernet connection. At that point, it automatically discovers printers on the network, and then translates the iOS print format to a PDL (page description language) specific to each printer.
How many printers does the xPrintServer support? Well, I didn't feel like counting, but it's a very long list -- over 4,000 and growing. Considering you can find everything from the Apple ImageWriter to the latest and greatest laser and inkjet printers from major manufacturers on the list, chances are very good that your office printers are covered. Lantronix says that if your printer is not currently on the list, you can email them the brand and model number and they'll provide support where possible.
The printers need to be network-connected (wireless or wired) with one of three protocols: JetDirect (AppSocket), LPD, or IPP. The iOS devices must be running iOS 4.2 or later, covering the iPad, iPad 2, iPhone 3GS and later, and the iPod touch 3rd-generation and later.
Setup of the xPrintServer is drop-dead simple. Once you've plugged in the power brick and then attach the device to a router, switch or hub, it auto-discovers and auto-provisions the printers. The xPrintServer can't auto-detect printers that are on subnets different from the one that it's connected to, but those printers can be added later via the xPrintServer's web GUI.
A note for our non-North American readers: the xPrintServer comes with a boxful of adapter plugs, so using the device probably won't require the purchase of a separate adapter.
Once the device is done with the discovery and provisioning, the X on the word Lantronix pulses an orange color. At this point, you're ready to print. Lantronix notes that the xPrintServer can support an unlimited number of concurrent printers on a network, but recommends one device for every 7 to 10 network printers on the same subnet. That means that in many office buildings, you might need one or two per floor.
In actual usage, the auto-discovery on a network with a single wireless printer on the same subnet took about 15 seconds. Not bad, considering that there was no other configuration required -- the xPrintServer is truly plug-and-play, and even a corporate deployment would be fast to implement. The printer that was discovered is a rather old HP DeskJet 6800 series, and it was up and running quickly.
Printing from both a Wi-Fi connected iPad 2 and iPhone, the print times varied depending on what app I was printing from. In my initial tests, before I updated the firmware on the device, selecting a printer would sometimes take 30 - 40 seconds, and printing would take a while longer. After updating the firmware, selecting the printer and printing a single page took less than 10 seconds.
There was one issue I ran into: although the xPrintServer worked flawlessly in terms of discovery and printing, everything I printed from the iPhone and iPad came out as grayscale on a color printer. Once again, I want to emphasize that this was a beta device. The Lantronix tech support team responded immediately to my queries about this issue, and I expect it to be fixed quickly.
For businesses using a number of xPrintServers, there's a built-in web-based administrative tool for setting security, naming the devices, installing firmware updates, and capturing diagnostic information. The firmware update process was simple and took about a minute.
Whether you're a network administrator for an enterprise using a lot of iOS devices and networked printers, the owner of a small business with a couple of printers and a dozen iPads, or even an individual with a several networked printers and a desire to print without keeping a Mac running all the time, you're going to love this product. Lantronix has done a fantastic job at making the xPrintServer easy to install for the novice, and yet provides enough tools to keep any network administrator happy.
The xPrintServer is available for pre-order now, and will ship later in the first quarter. If my gizmo intuition is correct, Lantronix is going to sell a ton of these things. As they used to say on those late-night TV ads, "order now to avoid bitter disappointment."