First look: xPrintServer for Android, Chrome OS

Printing from Android and Chrome OS isn't so simple, but Lantronix's tiny print server makes it much easier

A couple years ago, Lantronix released its xPrintServer and made it supereasy to print to almost any printer from an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Until then, you needed a printer specifically designed to work with Apple's AirPrint protocol, and they were rare beasts. Attach the xPrintServer to your network and voilà! Your iOS device sees network-attached printers automatically.

Over time, Lantronix refined the product with versions that allow IT management and USB printer connections. Now, Lantronix has an xPrintServer designed for Google's Cloud Print service, which Android and Chrome OS both use and which is built into just a small number of printers.

[ Review: 6 AirPrint solutions for iPhones and iPads. | As with BlackBerry and Nokia, Microsoft's mobile failure wasn't caused Apple's or Google's superiority -- but its own inadequacies. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

xPrintServer for Cloud Print is being released today, and I've been testing a prerelease unit for a couple weeks. As with the AirPrint version, it's really easy to set up the $150 xPrintServer for Cloud Print: Connect it to power and to an Ethernet port. It autodetects your compatible network printers; you can plug a USB printer (or several via a USB hub) into it as well -- just what you'd expect from an xPrintServer.

But Google's Cloud Print service is much harder to work with than Apple's AirPrint. Although Lantronix has made the xPrintServer for Cloud Print very simple, the overall setup and printing experience is terribly complicated and messy. That's entirely Google's fault, not Lantronix's -- if you want to Cloud Print-enable your printers, the xPrintServer is a great way to do so.

If you do Cloud Print-enable your printers, what do you need to know about those Google-created difficulties?

Cloud Print requires lots of manual setup
First, Cloud Print isn't plug-and-play like Apple's AirPrint. With AirPrint, any iOS device from any user can see the available printers on the wireless network. Lantronix provides a Web-based console to let you manage visibility of and access to printers on your local network; you can connect to Active Directory to manage user permissions as well. A home or small office can gain AirPrint compatibility in minutes, while a large business can let IT do the legwork to secure its printers as desired.

CloudPrint, by contrast, requires that both printers and users be explicitly enabled. You register printers with Google over the Web, tying them to a specific Google account. Lantronix has a very simple way to do that in the xPrintServer. Actually, it has two: You can scan a QR code on the device to register it from an Android device, or you can enter the serial number from your browser, then sign in via your Google account.

The disadvantage is that the printer is tied to a particular Google account, so other users -- even on the same local network -- can't, by default, see the printer.

Instead, you need to send them an invitation from Google's admin tool; to accept the invitations to be able to print, they must go to a computer (not their Android device) and follow the very convoluted instructions. You can also set up a Google Group and give anyone in that group permission to print to selected printers via Cloud Print, but they have to navigate the same convoluted setup process. It's a horrible experience that IT will likely decide not to bother itself or its users with.

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