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Unleash Your Printer

By Craig Ellison and Oliver Kaven

Contrary to popular belief, the benefits of a home wireless network don't begin and end with a free-flowing Internet connection. Wireless print servers are liberating printers everywhere, allowing users to print with reckless abandon from anywhere in the house.

Of course, printer sharing at home and in small offices is nothing new. Wired print server devices have been doing the job for years, and many network-enabled printers have sharing capabilities built-in. Most people, however, have shared their personal printers by using a single Windows PC on a given network as a print server. There's a downside to this: The dedicated PC must always be on for others to print.

Wireless print servers simplify the concept and save on electricity, too. You simply plug one into any printer via a USB or parallel port; the server then communicates with your wireless router and in turn with any wireless or wired PCs on your network.

You can also manage such print servers remotely via a Web browser interface or through telnet, so you can manage a printer that is in another room or even in an entirely different location.

Before you buy one, though, there are several things to consider. Make sure that the print server you are interested in supports a network protocol that your PC's OS can understand (such as NetBEUI, SMB, or AppleTalk). Also keep in mind that if you own or plan to purchase a multifunction printer, a print server won't support features like faxing or scanning in such devices. Finally, most print servers won't support useful feedback features that many printers provide when they are directly attached to a PC: alert messages warning when ink levels are low, paper is jammed, or your printer is out of paper.

Security can be an issue as well. All of the print servers we review here support only WEP. This may be sufficient for home use, but businesses might find it problematic and should consider WPA security instead. The manufacturers assure us that WPA support will appear in more models soon.

Following are reviews of six wireless print servers (a mix of 802.11b and 802.11g) for the home and small office. We also look at two more expensive and more complex products for business use.

Craig Ellison is the director of operations at PC Magazine Labs. Associate editor Davis D. Janowski and PC Magazine Labs lead analyst Oliver Kaven were in charge of this story.

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