Why printer-sharing devices don't always work

Printer sharing devices don't always work with low-cost printers. Because of this, there's no easy workaround for this problem. But find out what options you do have in this tip.

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Most administrators are familiar with devices that can be used to share a printer across a network (either wired or wireless). By using the network, the printer doesn't have to be attached to any one computer to work; it's wired directly into the network rather than attached to a host PC (which would need to be left running).

One problem with such devices is that they don't work on all printers—specifically, those that do not have native PostScript or PCL support.

Printer-sharing devices are only designed to understand certain kinds of printer data. The two most common languages used by printers these days are PostScript (either ASCII or binary format) and Hewlett-Packard's PCL (Printer Command Language), now a de facto industry standard. In either case, the printer receives the data and rasterizes the elements to be printed, leaving the computer itself to do more constructive work.

However, some lower-cost printers (even some Hewlett-Packard models) use a different printer language. On these machines, the actual rasterization of the print elements takes place not in the printer itself, but on the host computer through a special driver. The printer simply receives the pre-rasterized elements and prints them to the page as is. Most PCs are now more than fast enough to do this sort of thing in the background. Consequently, the hardware needed to do the rasterization in the printer can be omitted, resulting in a much lower-cost printer.

Problem is, this cheaper printer is also a far less compatible one, since the data stream provided by the driver to the printer is wholly proprietary. Most third-party printer-sharing devices cannot interpret any of these data streams and do not understand how to transmit them correctly to the host. that includes not knowing how to acknowledge messages returned from the printer (which are also proprietary). Worse, most of the companies that make such printers don't provide documentation for the data stream.

Because of this, there's no easy workaround for this problem. You basically have three options:

  1. Get a network-sharing device built for that specific model of printer (usually by the printer's own manufacturer);
  2. Attach the printer to a host computer that is left running; or
  3. Use a printer that supports common printer languages in the first place.

About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!

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This was first published in March 2006

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