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Turning mobile devices into printers

MUNICH--Even the most passionate advocate of smartphones and tablets often ends up reverting to the dreaded old PC when it comes time to print a document. But Wi-Fi printers and the appropriate apps might soon bring an end to this throwback.

The devil, of course, is in the details. One of the problems with printing from handheld devices is the fuss of dealing with various wireless printing standards, like Apple's Airprint, or finding some way to push a print command through one's home network. It doesn't help that there's no USB port on most such devices.

A quick search through the download platforms of Google and Apple show that just about every printer manufacturer has created a free app to aid printing. But there are alternatives. IPhones and iPads support the Airprint standard.

“Most new printers with Wi-Fi are compatible with Airprint,” says Michael Wolf of Stiftung Warentest, a German consumer goods testing organization. Still, owners of Apple devices should check the details before rushing out to buy a new printer.

But Airprint doesn't allow people to control specific settings, like print quality, notes Wolf. “You just have to take what the printer spits out.”

Still, the results are often very reliable, but not always. If you really want control over the final printed product, you'll need to edit or rework the document to be printed in another program.

An alternative to Airprint, from Google, is Cloud Print. It lets users print directly from Chrome and the apps for Google Docs and Gmail. Its use is not just limited to Android systems, but multiple operating systems that support its apps.

But, just like Airprint, it only works if the printer supports its standard. Otherwise, users will have to fall back to relying upon a PC connected to the printer.

Tim Gerber from German computer magazine “c't” says standards like Airprint are probably the best option. “This way, printing is just the way we're used to it on PCs — the printer function is directly integrated into the operating system and can be called up from any app.” The only requirement is that the app maker has integrated the function.

On the other hand, apps directly from printer manufacturers need to be started up independently each time. And the app cannot handle every format. It's usually not a problem with graphics, photos and PDF files, but often can be with Office documents.

Gerber sees another advantage with the Apple and Google options.

“The chances are also higher that I'll be able to print on a strange printer while I'm under way.” Conversely, anyone relying on manufacturer apps would theoretically need 10 different apps at the ready at all times.

Printing from a smartphone only works with devices that have Wi-Fi. Both the printer and the smartphone need to be tapped into the same wireless network.

There are exceptions. Google's Cloud Print actually sends the print command to a corporate server. HP's ePrint service is similar. That means the printer has to be assigned an email address to which the print command can be mailed.

In the end, it's still a fuss. But it's a fuss that will need to be surmounted as more and more people begin to use tablet computers instead of PCs.

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