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Mobile printing is improving but still has a long way to go

Issue #1107 – With the arrival of the ‘pad’ computer, particularly in Apple and Android guises, the need to be able to print from mobile devices has never been stronger. While individual office software applications running on smartphones and pad devices do not include a print capability, it is down to the printer manufacturers to enable printing for their own devices. Who has done it? How? And how good are they?

Printing from a mobile phone has recently risen higher on my personal horizon, after all over 40% of mobile phones are smartphones and our use of smartphones has increased dramatically. Their capabilities are placing a higher and higher demand on the ability to print.

This demand may (perhaps) prove to be based on snapshot photography but is far more likely to be centred around the need to print documents that have been emailed to us, documents that we have created for customers or associates or content sourced from the internet – including bookings, reservations, tickets, boarding passes, itineraries, etc., etc.

But, I cannot print an email directly from my phone! I cannot print a PDF document! I cannot print a web page! Why not? The only option available to me right now is to email the page or document I want to print – and I can’t even do that for a web page.

Printing of photos is a little more flexible but I can’t actually print a photo direct from the ‘Gallery’ app (that collects photos taken using the phone’s camera) but have to use a slightly roundabout method. There are currently two options. I can either access the photos from inside the apps produced by the printer manufacturers, which open the phone’s Gallery app, or I can select ‘Share’ from the Gallery menu and then select one of those printing apps. The same goes for printing from the phone’s camera app.

However, other software applications (office and PDF viewer in particular) do not have that sort of ‘Share’ option in their menus, so there is no way of printing those documents direct.

Read on to find out what on earth this is all about.

Shortly after taking delivery of a nice new shiny Android phone last September, I was at a Hewlett-Packard product launch briefing event, at which there should have been the opportunity to test out the company’s shiny new ePrint and iPrint Photo capabilities. Sadly, with a very congested programme, time ran out and it just wasn’t possible to get hands on with that particular feature.

Android print appsAndroid print apps

However, since that time, three situations have arisen that have allowed me to get to grips with smartphone printing in a little more detail than simply understanding the specifications and theory.

Firstly, when searching the Android store for the Hewlett-Packard iPrint Photo app while at the briefing event, I came across another app – from Brother, called iPrint&Scan.

Obviously I couldn’t do anything with it till I was back at base with access to a Brother networked device (not in abundance at a Hewlett-Packard event for some reason!)

Secondly, I have recently been able to get quality hands-on time with one of the new range of ePrint-enabled Hewlett-Packard Officejet All-in-One devices (Officejet Pro 8500A) and, thereby, to give the capabilities a thorough run-through.

Now, in March 2011, while preparing this article, a further search reveals that Canon has added an app of its own to the Android (and Apple) market place. But there is still nothing from Lexmark, or Epson, or Xerox, or Kyocera, or Oki and not even from Samsung – whose phone I am using!! So, Samsung does not enable its own mobile phones to print to its own printers!

So, let’s take a look at the three apps available to Android (and Apple) users right now; at what they are capable of; and how effective this solution is in meeting the needs of mobile workers.

Brother iPrint&Scan

Wow – what an app this is! The first time I installed and used it, it knocked my socks off. And remember, Brother was, at the time, the only printer manufacturer other than Hewlett-Packard to have developed an app for printing to its hard copy devices from mobile smartphones. Well done Brother.

This app works with ALL networked Brother All-in-Ones – laser and inkjet and, when installed, presented itself as a really solid piece of software.

Having now delved deeper into its secrets, and used the other two apps as well, there are a number of areas that I would like to see addressed and that I believe must be addressed for smartphones to achieve their full potential. These will be dealt with collectively later in the article because they are common to all of the currently available apps, not just Brother.

Essentially, when downloaded, installed and accessed, Brother’s iPrint&Scan app immediately looks for Brother devices on the WiFi network the phone is connected to and displays a list of all available devices. When the user moves to another WiFi network and opens the iPrint&Scan app, a further search is implemented and a list of devices available on that network is presented for selection and devices on the original network do not appear.

Brother Print’Scan selectionBrother Print/Scan selection

At this point, the only quibble I would make is that the last printer used is displayed as the default printer, even if it is not available on the network being used at the time. The user does have to be aware that the printer displayed is not available and that a change is required. A ‘Cannot Connect’ message about 30 seconds after the print or scan button is tapped is the only alert the user receives. In fact, there does appear to be a bit of a connection issue with the app – I found that this message would appear rather too often for comfort, with no identifiable cause and no apparent easy solution to avoid it.

As the device name suggests, the app is for scanning from the device as well as printing to the device – being Brother, all devices are multifunction anyway.

It works fantastically well. The flexibility is superb – paper sizes can be selected easily, scanning can be achieved from either the platen or the ADF, multi-page documents are handled with ease and, when saved, a JPEG file is created for each page with no hassle at all. This can, of course, be printed from the app as with any other JPEG file.

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be A3 support for A3 AiOs, nor can photos be cropped within the app. If cropping is desired, the photo has to be accessed through the Gallery app and then printed by ‘Sharing’ the image with the print app. Also, there is no option to select more than one photo at a time for printing. This seems to be a major oversight, as the call for printing several photos at once is likely to be very high.

Once documents are scanned, they can be saved as JPEG files or emailed, beamed, uploaded to Picassa or printed straight away using the ‘Share’ menu option. The reason these documents can be printed directly to the printer, where office documents cannot, is because they are scanned and saved as JPEG image files.

I was mainly testing Brother iPrint&Scan with a duplex-print capable wireless MFC-6890CDW but I have also tried it on a wired inkjet AiO and a wired laser AiO. Both are recognised.

Because this is a direct print app – very handy – it does not handle remote printing via an email carrier in the way that Hewlett-Packard’s ePrint solution does. As we will discover later on, this is a useful function but, to be perfectly fair, this is not a function of the HP iPrint Photo app anyway!

Canon Easy Print Photo (EPP)

Canon EPP select photosSelect multiple photos with Canon Easy Photo Print

Canon’s Easy Photo Print app follows very much the same principles as the photo printing apps from Brother and Hewlett-Packard. It offers the straightforward ability to print a JPEG image from the phone, using the phone’s WiFi interface, to a compatible Canon printer. There is no document printing capability at all.

Disappointingly, the app is compatible with a relatively small range of devices – but then, Canon was late into the market with network-enabled inkjet All-in-Ones. The oldest compatible devices are the MP560 and MP640. According to Canon, it seems that not even all of the current (including brand new) machines are compatible. There are no laser devices listed as compatible.

In addition, even more surprisingly, the Apple version of the app has an even shorter list of compatible devices, according to Canon! It does not even include the latest models. This information could well be out of date though, as the iTunes website contains a compatibility list that is the same as Canon’s list for the Android app. – rather poor attention to detail from Canon.

If these rather restricted lists are correct though, it would seem to be a massive oversight on Canon’s part. I would have expected the app to work with any networked Canon printer/AiO, regardless of age, as is the case with the Brother and Hewlett-Packard apps.

That said, the app itself looks to be very thorough, with a wide range of paper sizes supported, and certainly contains one major feature that neither of the others offer. That is – the ability for the smartphone owner to select more than one photo at a time for printing! This is significant as it radically reduces the amount of time and effort the user has to put into printing a batch of photos.

In addition, Canon’s EPP app allows the user to take a photo on the phone’s camera from within the app, meaning that it can be printed instantly.

Hewlett-Packard iPrint Photo

Hewlett-Packard’s iPrint Photo is, again, an app that focuses solely on the printing of photos. Like Brother’s iPrint&Scan app, iPrint Photo loads and scans the WiFi network for Hewlett-Packard printers and displays a list of those available.

On this note, there are a couple of differences between this app and Brother’s app.

Firstly, Hewlett-Packard’s iPrint Photo will not access networked laser devices but will access all networked inkjet devices, wired or wireless. The printers tested for this article were the Officejet Pro 8500A (wireless), as mentioned above, and a Photosmart C6280 (wired) – both worked fine.

HP iPrint Photo print screenHP iPrint Photo print screen

Secondly, while Brother’s app retains the last used printer and settings as a default until modified, the Hewlett-Packard app retains only the last printer used. If that printer is not available, the app indicates this after a few seconds, thus prompting the user to search the network.

It is, however, rather frustrating that the app defaults back to 10×15 paper size and photo paper after every print job – and does not allow for multi-photo selection. This means that, if there are multiple photos to be printed, the settings have to be changed every time – frustrating and time-consuming.

What is perhaps rather more useful than retaining previously used print settings is that the app shows only printers available on the current network at the time of use. This means that if a printer is not available for some reason (switched off for maintenance, for instance, or a different WiFi network is being accessed), it is not shown on the list and the app indicates ‘no printer selected’. By default, it will continue to use the same printer until told otherwise. Although this is not hugely different to the situation with the Brother app, at least iPrint Photo does alert the user that the previously used printer is not available.

Photos can be cropped very easily before printing, simply by tapping on the image to activate cropping selection. All expected settings for paper type and size can be adjusted and the maximum number of copies that can be printed at once is 10 compared to Brother and Canon’s 5. There is also a useful addition if A4 paper is selected that allows the user to set an image size smaller than the A4 paper size.

Some connection issues were also experienced with this app, where the Officejet would suddenly drop out after a few seconds, causing print jobs to fail. Sometimes a print job could be sent before the connection was lost but only if the default settings were being used. If settings had to be changed, the connection was usually lost before the print job could be sent.

If the user has begun to prepare a photo for printing but not turned the WiFi interface of their phone on, the print will not initialise. This is in contrast to the Brother app, where the app will not go past the Print/Scan selection screen if the WiFi interface is not active.

Hewlett-Packard ePrint

This is not an app that sits on the smartphone but is well worthy of a mention because it is an interesting and useful method of printing from a mobile phone (or ‘pad’ computer). This is available only with Hewlett-Packard ePrint enabled devices.

Quite simply, the user sends the printer an email (see for more detailed information on this feature). In fact, there is no restriction to smartphones or pad computers. Because the carrier is an email, ANY device capable of sending an email can be used to initiate the print job – and the best part is that it can be initiated from anywhere in the world that has an email connection.

The real value of this is that it allows the printing of office documents, which is not currently possible with any of the photo printing apps described above. The method of printing is to email the printer with an attachment. The text of the email is printed first as a header sheet (rather a waste of paper if it is not required!), followed by the pages of the attachment.

Not only does this work with multiple page documents but also with emails containing multiple attachments – impressive.

Testing demonstrates that Hewlett-Packard ePrint will print documents created in most of the Microsoft office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) as well as PDF files and JPEG files. It is possible that some other formats may be supported but those tested so far (.PUB / .BMP / .GIF / .CDR / .XML) all failed.

Xerox Mobile Print Solution

As a final comment, it is also worth mentioning that Xerox has announced its own version of a mobile smartphone printing facility, ‘Xerox Mobile Print Solution’ (not the most inspiring name!).

This is based on the same concept as Hewlett-Packard’s ePrint, with no direct print capability – where printing is via email sent to the company’s server. As a result it is very much a corporate tool, for major Xerox customers, with some implications for small businesses rather than being a general purpose printing tool for all Xerox users.

Part of the reason for saying this is that the feature relies on the enterprise server – something that is common to all corporations and large companies but not necessarily to small business with a limited peer-to-peer network where internet access and shared printing is the primary network requirement.

When the email is received by the corporate server, a confirmation email is returned to the user with a secure code. This code is then used to recover the document from any Xerox EIP-enabled MFP in the organisation (no need to select the printer till collecting the document). At this point, specific print/paper/formatting settings can be applied on the MFP’s control screen before printing.

Supported file formats are: MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint, together with PDF.

Issues that need addressing
So, these mobile photo printing apps, and email solutions, are a very useful first step towards implementing a comprehensive and valuable printing solution for mobile phones.

However, they are not yet mature! They still need further development and will benefit enormously from certain issues being addressed, as follows (as I see it at the moment):

  • Ability to print PDFs direct to printer without using email as a carrier
  • Access to the duplex function on duplex printers
  • Access to A3 paper size on A3 format devices
  • Selection of multiple images for printing at one time. Only Canon’s Easy Photo Print is capable of printing more than one photo at a time
  • Ability to scan documents (especially office documents) to a mobile phone for either storage/reference or for email distribution. Only Brother’s iPrint&Scan has this feature – but … …
  • Improved file format handling (PDF format with multi-page capability) is necessary to maximise on the value of this feature
  • Improved stability of the WiFi network connection
  • Ability to retain desired default print settings

Needless to say, this is asking a lot of a small app designed to run on a mobile smartphone! But, if you don’t ask you’re not likely to get! Perhaps some of these features would be possible.

Whether or not any of these features are added in the future, printing from a mobile phone will become a more and more essential function. I can still hardly believe that only three (+ one) printer manufacturers are offering this capability so many years into the smartphone era and that the printing of office style documents is still not effectively addressed.

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