A printer, several computers and wireless network mix

If you are like many people, however, you get computers that can’t print. Sharing a printer is one of the most basic appeals of wireless networking, and it can be pretty simple if your computers run the Windows operating system. Add a Mac to the mix, which is becoming more common, and the process can get complicated, pronto.

I set out to find the easiest way to share a printer, using my own home equipment: two MacBook Pro laptops, a Dell Windows 7 desktop and an Asus Windows 7 netbook. My printers, a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet P1006 and a Samsung ML-1740, are both elderly, low-end lasers. (No printers with built-in Wi-Fi here.)

The basic problem with setting up a shared printer is that the USB connection on home printers was not designed to carry networking information. Sharing a printer via USB requires a tricky translation from USB-based protocols to Ethernet or Wi-Fi protocols. (Feeling a little befuddled yet? That’s what is happening to the printer.)

These limitations, which can include an inability to connect and incompatibility with the scanning functions of all-in-one printers, can be easily avoided by purchasing a new printer with integrated Wi-Fi or Ethernet networking. But if you are not ready to throw out your older printer, there are a handful of ways to share it on a home network.

The cheapest

What you need: A USB printer and a networked computer.

Pros: No new equipment to buy

Con: The computer must be left on to use the printer.

In Windows, this is an easy setup that requires no additional equipment. I connected a USB printer to my desktop, which is hard-wired to my router, then enabled printer sharing in Windows and ran the Add printer wizard and selected Add a local printer. I installed the driver, right-clicked the printer icon, clicked Printer properties and selected the Share tab to enable sharing.

It wasn’t so direct with my Mac, which couldn’t “see” the Dell computer on the Windows network. To adjust, I enabled LDP Print Service on the Windows desktop. (Control Panel>Programs>Turn Windows Features On or Off, >Enable LPD Print Service.)  I clicked Add, installed the printer driver, and printed a test page. Success! But needlessly complicated.

The easiest

What you need: A new router with a USB port and a printer-sharing app.

Pros: Easy setup; works well with Windows and Macs.

Cons: You probably need to buy a new router; only one printer at a time.

I installed a Belkin Play Max Wireless Router on my home network, then connected my printer to the router’s USB port. I installed the Belkin Print Genie app, and a dialog box immediately popped up and asked if I wanted to connect to my printer. I clicked Yes, installed the drivers, and printing was enabled immediately. You’ll need to install the Print Genie app (and drivers) on every computer. Installation was fast and easy on both Windows and Mac machines.

The most lauded

What you need: An Apple AirPort Express router.

Pros: Flexible, many uses;

Cons: Can be complicated to set up.

I was expecting an almost magical ease of use, given the user reviews I had read. Yet my first attempt at installing the AirPort Express was astonishingly frustrating. It didn’t work with the HP printer, even after an hour and 20 minutes on the phone with tech support. When I plugged in my Samsung printer, the AirPort Express immediately recognised it.

I figured this must be a fluke. So a few days later I installed the AirPort Express on another home network, and I was printing within two minutes. The explanation? None. I learned that there is no singular outcome when you’re working with so many variables.

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