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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

HP’s new line of printers got mail

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver November 9-15, 2010 issue #1098 High Tech Office column

I don’t write about printers very often.
Frankly, I don’t much care if the latest models offer more dots per inch or pages per minute. This year, though, HP’s printer folks have a story worth telling.

They showed off a flock of new models: Photosmart and Officejet all-in-ones aimed at home and small-business users and a new Envy model that looks more like a high-end audio component than a printer/scanner. Like other recent models from HP and its competitors, they all sported touch- screen panels and Wi-Fi wireless connectivity. But the hardware wasn’t really the story.

Up until now, before you could use a printer or scanner model you had to install drivers – software to tell your computer about the new connected hardware. Finding and installing drivers has been an ongoing pain for users and even more so for manufacturers called on to write drivers to match printers – new and old – with an ever-expanding galaxy of computers, smartphones and other gear.

The new HP models still ship with driver discs, letting Windows and Mac users print using a USB or Wi-Fi network connection. Setting up wireless printing is straightforward. The touch-screen interface makes it easy to enter a wireless password, if needed, right on the printer. You can even scan across the wireless connection.

But – assuming a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet – each device can optionally get set up for what HP refers to as ePrinting. Pick that and the device goes online to get a unique email address. It’s not easy to remember – 14 letters and numbers @hpeprint.com.
When you send an email bearing an attached document to that address, the printer will receive it and print the attachment. (That assumes that you’ve attached a document in a widely used format: word processor, image, PDF, and so forth.) The printer applies some smarts to the task: a photograph will print to photo paper if available while a word processor document will be printed on letter-sized paper.

Being able to print this way means that you can print from any smartphone or tablet app that can attach a photo or document to an email message, instantly adding printing capabilities to iPads, iPhones, Android and BlackBerry devices – all without requiring HP, Apple, Google or RIM to write drivers and without requiring users to install anything extra on their gadgets. (HP also offers a nice iPhone/iPad app that can print to these printers as well as to other HP models shared over a wireless network.)

It also enables remote printing. You can similarly print a document from any location where you have access to email. (An option lets you control whether ePrinting is available from anyone who knows the printer’s email address or only from specified addresses.)

In order to receive and process emails, these printers have built-in computer processors. Computers with touch-screens? Might as well have apps, too. Each one comes with a set of apps, and all but the lowest-end model let users download additional apps right onto the printer. The top-end Photosmart model sports a removable seven-inch touch-screen that, with the appropriate app, can function as a music player, ebook reader and more, with HP promising up to six hours of battery life. (A minimalist interface lets you continue printing, scanning and copying with the touch-screen removed.)

The problem, though, is that – at least for now – the list of apps is somewhat minimal and not very appealing to me. Get recipes right at the printer? No thanks. Even though the models use a version of Android (not Palm’s WebOS, recently purchased by HP), you can’t use the wide range of apps designed for Android smartphones.

Maybe HP’s range of apps will expand and become more useful. Maybe not. Still, the ability to print to an email address from any device and any location is a killer feature. And all with no drivers needed. Very cool. HP promises that it will be adding ePrint across its product line. 

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