Net connection brings the future to my printer

HP's Photosmart B110a printer shows the direction printers will take as the Internet pervades everything electronic. Too bad about the driver software.

HP's B110a printer has its own e-mail address.
HP's B110a printer has its own e-mail address. Hewlett-Packard

To me, printers are a necessary evil.

I lead a largely paperless existence. I'd rather see a full-screen photo on a computer than a 4x6 print. I resent it when word processors--especially the cloud-based Google Docs--squander my screen real estate on rulers and margins and page breaks that will never be physically incarnated on paper. And don't get me started on the price of ink cartridges.

For my purposes, the last time a printer paradigm shifted was about 15 years ago when they sprouted USB ports. So imagine my surprise when I found myself impressed with new features in a Hewlett-Packard printer family that made me reconsider my distaste.

Here's what happened. When my wife and I moved to England half a year ago, we pared our possessions back to what we could carry on a plane. Our bulky and seldom-used printer clearly was destined for some quality time in the storage facility.

The world isn't ready to give up printers just yet, though: the electronic era has yet to fully arrive when it comes to direct debit forms, letters to the school district, and boarding passes. I reluctantly concluded I'd have to spring for a printer but procrastinated over the new clutter.

Fortuitously, though, HP announced a new line of printers with "ePrint" technology that struck me as the first big step into the future I'd seen with printers in a very long time.

ePrint, at least in theory, unshackles you from that onerous piece of software, the printer driver. To print a document, you can e-mail it to the printer's unique e-mail address. The printer, connected to the Net via your wireless network, picks up the print job, including a variety of formatted attachments: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Excel; text; PDF; and images in JPEG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF formats.

HP's Photosmart printer updates its firmware automatically, in this case retrieving the update that enabled the ePrint feature.
HP's Photosmart printer updates its firmware automatically, in this case retrieving the update that enabled the ePrint feature. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Big deal, I hear you say. But in my view, it really is.

Forward-thinking features
It means you can print from your Net-connected phone, any computer in your house, or the Internet kiosk in the airport halfway across the globe. You can print from your iPad today and your Chrome OS Netbook tomorrow. You can print driving directions in the morning from an e-mail message on your work computer even though it's been locked down by the corporate IT department. Presumably in the future you could print a recipe from your networked refrigerator, and given the number of cameras, in-dash computers, and other devices that will get Net access, this sort of interface will get more important.

By default, the HP ePrint e-mail address can be used by anyone who knows it. Somehow I get spam on a variety of e-mail addresses I've never actually used, though, so it's a good thing you can change the settings to permit only a whitelist of authorized e-mail addresses. And you can click a button to create a new address as well.

The print drivers are still there, of course, and will get you a lot more control. But for my purposes, the wirelessly connected ePrint technology solves a niggling problem I've had for years: turning on the home computer with the printer's USB connection and the driver software installed to print something stored on another computer.

However, I was sorely disappointed that when my artlessly named HP Photosmart Wireless e-All-in-One Printer B110a arrived last week, the ePrint technology hadn't been released. A message promised ePrint would be done at some unspecified time soon, but I felt unhappy since I'd spent my money already.

HP activated its ePrint service Thursday, though, just in time for me to try it out--and to show off another feature I really like about this printer. Namely, it updates itself.

This, too, is a glimpse of the future, but not just for printers. The world is gradually shifting to software that updates with varying degrees of automation. My camera has significant new video features and a much-needed image quality fix that didn't exist when it first shipped. My operating systems are routinely patched to close security holes. The Chrome browser doesn't even tell me when it's been replaced by a new version. As network connections become ever more common, expect the ghostly arrival of firmware updates for cars, video game consoles, and TV sets.

HP provides a Web interface to manage ePrint settings, see what's been printed, and install applications.
HP provides a Web interface to manage ePrint settings, see what's been printed, and install applications. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

As soon as I connected the B110a to my wireless network, it found an update and applied it. It retrieved another Thursday to activate the ePrint service. Installing it is a simple matter of clicking an OK button and waiting for a download and printer reboot..

Another good feature, though it's not pioneering, is the wireless access. When I scan a document or image, the printer asks me which of my two computers I want to send it to--though this requires HP's driver software to be installed. And of course, it's nice to be able to print from another room in the house.

Finally, back in the future vision area, the printer comes with a variety of network-aware apps installed for tasks such as retrieving and printing a daily news digest from Yahoo, a Sudoku puzzle, or Shrek-branded activities from Dreamworks.

I think of these printer apps chiefly as tools to ensure my ink cartridges are drained as fast as possible so I can help prop up HP's quarterly profits. The only one I could see myself using is the HP forms app that lets you print create paper for musical notation, children's writing practice, and the like. But I'm sure others will like them.

Although I was impressed with the printer's novelties, I was equally disappointed by the aspects that remained lodged firmly in the past.

The included software remains a bloated, unpleasant, and mostly useless for me. It took me ages to install on reasonably new Mac OS X and Windows 7 machines, and on the latter, I failed to figure out how to scan an image with anything other than what the printer deemed the best settings. HP told me it should work, so at least it was a bug rather than a oversight.

I reinstalled the software, thinking maybe I missed something. The good news is that the second time around, I found the option to switch off all the junk I didn't want (no, I have no interest in the Shop for HP Supplies application). The bad news is it still didn't work.

I can change scan settings such as exposure and resolution using the Mac interface, but it's pretty crude and didn't give me what I'd hoped for in a 48-bit scan. I recognize this isn't some print shop professional gear, but I'd hoped for something better. A TWAIN driver should let Photoshop take control on Windows, but it, too, was apparently the victim of the my installation woes.

The printer can scan to PDF, though, which is very useful for my paper-lite existence. I couldn't figure a way to combine multiple pages into one PDF though, so I had to use Adobe Acrobat for that.

No, you don't need to install all the elements HP wants you to install.
No, you don't need to install all the elements HP wants you to install. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In contrast to the minimal but functional packaging of the printer itself, the print cartridges are packaged to survive Armageddon. HP said it's just to protect them during shipping and retail, but I couldn't help suspecting it was related also to HP's increasingly draconian effort to curtail use of somebody else's knock-off or refilled cartridges. Given the cost of $18 for the larger cyan, yellow, and magenta cartridges and $35 for the larger black cartridge, it's pretty easy to feel resentful about it. Good thing I don't print much.

The software installation is seemingly interminable for reasons that mystify me, taking more than 20 minutes on both machines I tried. Even the second time on Windows, when I shut down all but the mandatory elements, the installation took eight minutes, and that doesn't include the preliminaries of configuring the installation. This extraordinarily unpleasant chore starkly contrasts with the otherwise nice unboxing experience--for example the handy reusable tote bag to lift the printer out.

And some ePrint gripes. I wish, when printing an e-mail with ePrint, that it included not just the body text, but also the "to:", "from:", "date:", and "subject:" information. It can't print Web pages yet, despite an optimized mode the printer has for doing just that. And I wasn't encouraged by this warning that indicates ePrint is still incomplete: "This update has a temporary limitation with photo scaling functionality for 4x6-inch photos. In many cases, the printed photo will include a small blank area in the lower right-hand portion of the photo. Photo scaling functionality will be enabled August 2010."

To be clear, I can't comment on a core attribute, print quality, since I haven't thoroughly explored that. I only need a basic printer, after all. This assessment is chiefly a discussion of what happens when a printer becomes more broadly network aware.

And when it comes to the printer's ties to the cloud and my own Wi-Fi network, HP is headed in exactly the right direction.

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