Wireless? Network? USB? How to choose your printer

Printer and printout

Looking for a printer for a home office? The low end of printers has changed, and how we use our computers has changed. How we connect to our computers should change, too.

There was a time when if you needed a printer, you bought it and hooked it up to the printer port. AKA the LPT1 port, the Centronics connector, or the DB25 cable end. All that is gone. The choices now are: USB, wireless, and network. Because all the printer companies are marketing geniuses, they manage to sell network printers for more than wireless printers. Keep in mind that a wireless printer is a network printer with a network radio added; they have more components than a network printer, and if not for economies of scale, would be expected to cost more than a network printer. They don’t, when compared to other printers of similar printing speed and options. And most wireless printers also have a wired network connection for an ethernet cable that will connect back to your router or network.

Can I share my printer?

Back a decade or so, if you wanted to share a printer among multiple computers, I would set up printer sharing from inside Windows. That lets you use a printer connected to some other computer. I don’t do that now, because 1) that host computer must be turned on, and 2) cross-platform printer sharing in Windows doesn’t work. Sharing between Windows 7 and XP is more broken than not, and sharing isn’t a good option when printing from non-Windows gadgets.

The easy solution is a network or wireless printer. It allows printing from every device on the network without having to leave some other computer turned on, avoids a lot of messy sharing setups, and it just works more reliably than sharing through Windows. The setup is done by running the manufacturer’s setup program from each computer, so it’s usually something that a home user can manage without having to call for tech support.

So Should You Buy a Network Printer?

Yes. But both ‘network’ and ‘wireless’ printers are network printers. If you buy a printer and connect it to your router, and it’s not wireless, you can still print to it wirelessly from any device on your network that doesn’t need a network cable. And vice versa–a wireless printer is available to your wired computers.

So either wireless or network printers are a good choice now; avoid ‘USB-only’ printers. For wireless, check to see if the printer has a network jack, sometimes called a ‘RJ45’ connection; that gives you the extra option of connecting to the router with a cable; wired connections are easier to setup, and less likely to break later on as the printer and router age.

The best brand names, as I write this, for good low-end printers that are wireless, are Brother and Epson.