Home networks let everyone in your household share Internet access, but why stop there? Your network can also be used to share the services of any printer in your home. With a home network printer setup, you no longer need to buy everyone his-or-her own printer, or fuss around with swapping printer cables between computers. In this article, we explore network printing options and explain how to set up a shared network printer. And if you want more information, we explain how to figure out what might be wrong and — better yet — how to fix it, with this series of short video tutorials:
Choosing a Print Server
Nearly any printer can be shared, from that old inkjet connected to Junior’s PC to the new multi-function fax/copier/printer in your home office. To get started, you’ll need to create a print server — that’s the device that is physically connected to the shared printer and delivers printing services to everyone else in the network..
Most shared printers are connected to a desktop computer that has been configured to operate as a print server (Figure 1.) This approach is popular because it lets you immediately share an existing printer, without new hardware. However, it also requires the print server computer to be turned on whenever anyone wants to print, and your entire household will need access to that computer to pick up print-outs and resolve problems.
If that sounds a bit too inconvenient, you might prefer a dedicated print server. As shown in Figure 2, the server connects to your printer by USB cable, and to your home network by Ethernet cable or 802.11b/g wireless. Dedicated print servers are small, unobtrusive, continuously available, and let you put the printer in a location convenient for everyone. A wireless print server retails for roughly $80, and can be placed wherever you have 802.11b/g coverage. A wired print server costs a tad less, but must be installed near an Ethernet jack — such as a LAN port on your broadband gateway.
But before you buy a dedicated print server, take a quick look at your high-speed Internet access gateway. Some gateways have built-in print servers — examples include the Netgear WGPS606, U.S. Robotics USR5461, and Motorola SBG1000. If your gateway includes a print service (Figure 3), you won’t need to buy a separate device. Just plug the printer directly into your gateway’s USB port to start using that gateway as a wired print server.
If you’re buying a new printer anyway, look for one with a built-in print server. Many business printers use integrated Ethernet to connect to a corporate network and deliver print services to the entire office. If you intend to spend at least $300 on an upscale home office printer, purchasing one with an integrated wired or wireless print server (Figure 4) just might be a simple (but expensive) approach.
Home Network Printer Setup
Once you’ve decided how to connect a printer and print server to your home network, it’s time to configure the server. This step depends on the type of print server you have chosen — consult the instructions supplied with your computer, dedicated print server, broadband gateway, or network printer. In most cases, you will need the following:
- Network Printing Protocol: How your server will talk to print clients. To print from Windows computers, the server must speak Server Message Block (SMB). To print from Apple computers, it must speak AppleTalk. To print from non-Windows/Mac clients, try Line Printer Remote (LPR).
- Workgroup Name: A name given to each Windows home network. The print server and all of the computers that print to it are usually in the same Workgroup.
- Print Server Name: The name used by client computers to find the print server, like the IP address of a dedicated print server, or the Computer Name of a Windows PC behaving as a print server.
- Printer or Queue Name: The identity of the target printer itself — for example, the Share Name of a printer physically connected to a Windows PC print server.
For example, to configure the Windows print server “Bob” illustrated in Figure 1, you must add “Bob” to a Workgroup, turn on File and Printer Sharing, then share the printer named “Deskjet.” To accomplish this, go to “My Network Places,” click on “Network Setup Wizard,” and follow instructions (see Figure 5.) Then go to “Printers and Faxes,” select the printer to be shared, choose “Sharing,” click “Share this printer,” and type the name that you want other computers to use to reach the printer (see Figure 6.)
You can generally share any printer connected to the print server, subject to print driver limitations. For example, if your print server runs Windows XP and you want to share a printer with an older computer running Windows ME, you will need to follow prompts to install additional drivers, using the CD that came with your printer.
Notice that Figure 5, Step 4, reconfigures the print server’s Windows Firewall to permit file and printer sharing. If the print server runs any kind of personal firewall, it must allow incoming network printing protocol connections. If the print server uses a third-party personal firewall (for example, Norton Internet Security), you will need to follow that program’s instructions to manually enable file and printer sharing.
Using a Network Printer
Last but not least, you must add your new, shared network printer to every client computer that wants to print to it. Details depend on the client computer’s operating system, but this step is usually pretty simple.
For example, to configure a Windows XP laptop “Alice” to use Bob’s Deskjet printer, we boot up Alice’s laptop, go to the “Printers and Faxes” window, and run the “Add Printer” wizard. As shown in Figure 7, we choose the network printer option and type in the name of the print server and printer, using the format \SERVERNAME\PRINTERNAME — capitalization does not matter, but avoid spaces and include those slashes.
You may receive a warning regarding printer driver installation. This is perfectly normal and safe so long as you are accessing your own print server in your own home network.
To print to a shared printer in someone else’s network — for example, when Alice uses her laptop at a business center or hotel network — choose the above option to browse for a nearby printer. If a shared printer exists on the local network, it will appear in a list of discovered file and printer shares. However, you will need a username and password to access private printers, and should exercise caution when letting a stranger’s print server install a driver on your computer.
You Did It!
Now repeat the last step (Figure 7) on every computer in your home network that needs to use the printer. That’s all there is to it. From now on, whenever anyone in your household wants to print a document, he or she will be able to choose the shared network printer from the configured printer list. Just keep in mind that the client computer and print server must both be connected to the network, and the server and printer must both be turned on. Otherwise, you should be good to go — happy printing!