Need to print from iOS? Look no further

First look: Lantronix's xPrintServer overcomes Apple's printer gap, with amazing simplicity

When then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs promised in spring 2010 that iOS would support native printing, I and many others were happy, as the inability to print was a big inconvenience when using an iPhone or iPad. But iOS 4.2's printing support was disappointingly limited to a handful of AirPrint-compatible printers from Hewlett-Packard, and the list has hardly grown in the year since. Worse, iOS 5 this past fall plugged a hole that app developers had used to enable printing to non-AirPrint network printers. Printing became effectively useless on iOS devices.

Not any more. Lantronix has a box for that: the xPrintServer Network Edition print server, which is the size of a pack of cigarettes. Once plugged into the network, it makes all recognized network printers on the current subnet available to any iOS device (running iOS 4.2 or later) also on that subnet. There's zero configuration needed for the print server, nor any configuration or app installation on the iOS device. Printers simply show up in the printer list from any iOS app with a Print option in its Share menu. It's truly plug-and-play. And it just works.

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That bears repeating: It just works. Plug in the xPrintServer, wait a few seconds for it to autodetect the printers on the network for which it has drivers (more than 4,000, including a variety of HP and Canon printers), and tell your users they can print from their iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads using the standard controls. After a delay of a few seconds, the selected printer receives the print job. (If you have more than seven or 10 printers on a subnet, Lantronix recommends partitioning the printers across multiple xPrintServers, for performance reasons.)

Don't worry if the list of available printers is daunting. First, iOS remembers a user's selection, defaulting to that printer until the user selects a different unit. If you want to control the printers available to iOS users, log in to the xPrintServer's management console via a Web browser to delete printers from the list shown to users. That console has other settings, such as for patching the firmware, editing the printer descriptions, printing test pages, and monitoring the print queues.

Because you can plug the xPrintServer into any Ethernet jack, you can install it practically anywhere you have a power outlet and Ethernet. I suspect if you don't install one on your network, a user will do so surreptitiously, enabling printing for anyone who has access to the network (assuming you don't automatically block foreign devices, of course). If you're worried about security, make sure that your network is firewalled, that sensitive printers are removed from the printer list, and that only approved users' iOS devices have access to the Wi-Fi network. xPrintServer is only as secure as the network it's connected to.

Of course, as Lantronic says upfront, the xPrintServer doesn't work with all printers -- although it worked with the various printers I tested at the InfoWorld offices, it did not work with a seven-year-old Brother MFC-8840DN multifunction printer at my home office. The xPrintServer recognized the 8840DN and sent the print job to it, resulting in a printed "invalid access" message -- and then the xPrintServer locked up. (There's a pin hole on the bottom of the box so you can reset it with a small paperclip.)

Still, the xPrintServer made me giddy with glee. Not only can I and my coworkers now print from our iPhones and iPads, but the xPrintServer took all of a few minutes to set up -- and it just worked. The Web administration features should also put IT at ease with the xPrintServer; in fact, you'll buy a lot of goodwill from users if you install an xPrintServer once the product is commercially available this winter. Even better, it will cost just $149. (The unit I reviewed was labeled a beta because the firmware has not been finalized, the company said.)

Android users -- aside from those running a recent Motorola Mobility device's MotoPrint software -- eat your hearts out!

This article, "Need to print from iOS? Look no further," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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