Review: Universal printer drivers from Xerox, HP aren't so universal

Xerox's Mobile Express and HP's Universal Printer Driver let you use one driver for many devices. Too bad they're not truly universal.

If, like me, you travel regularly with your laptop between different locations, you know how annoying it can be to get even a simple document printed to the right device and in the right format. And if you forget to choose the right printer when you come into a new location? Everything disappears into the wrong queue, only to spit out in a torrent when you connect at the other location.

Why can't there be one universal printer driver that knows where you are, finds the printer you need and just prints the job? That's the problem Xerox and Hewlett-Packard attempt to solve with their free Xerox Mobile Express Driver and HP Universal Print Driver (UPD), respectively.

Xerox's Mobile Express and HP's UPD both support location-based printing. The drivers identify your location by sensing the subnet your computer is on at any given time and offering up the appropriate printers you've associated with it. If it's your first visit to that location, they will automatically discover available printers and let you choose from a list. They also let you choose a default for each office you visit. Once you've set it up, the driver determines your location by examining your network IP address and automatically sends the print job to the default printer.

But there's a rather big catch in each case. Mobile Express works only with printers that use the PostScript page description language. It won't work with any other printers, including those that use HP's popular PCL format.

Meanwhile, HP's UPD works only with HP-branded printers.

Recently, I took both drivers on the road. My own circumstances provided a perfect testing environment for these two drivers. I access six printers (three regularly) at each of three office locations. When I am at Computerworld's main office in Framingham, I print to an HP monochrome LaserJet 4000 printer (attached to the network by way of an HP JetDirect print server) and a Canon multifunction color laser. At my home office, it's an HP LaserJet 1018i and a Lexmark X2350 all-in-one ink-jet printer. And a separate satellite office houses a LaserJet 1200.

As it turned out, neither product was a panacea for my printing problems in all locations, but I did find both tools useful and came up with a few work-arounds to make them play nicely together (or whatever the problem was).

Xerox Mobile Express

I started by downloading Mobile Express to an IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP. The 9MB installation file downloaded quickly and took just a few minutes to set up.

Note: When running the install routine, don't be surprised if you see a Windows dialog warning that you are installing a nonapproved program. According to Richie Michelon, product marketing manager for Xerox's Mobile Express, this happens because of the nature of the universal driver. "Windows XP doesn't recognize any digital signature for a device driver that's not associated with a specific device. But we assigned a third-party [VeriSign] digital signature to make sure it's secure," he said.

Mobile Express begins by asking you to name your current location. You can have the driver import all printers in your Printers and Faxes control panel and/or have it discover available printers automatically and choose the ones you want to use.

Once the initial setup is complete, the Xerox Mobile Express Driver becomes your default printer driver. The first time you take your computer to a new location, Mobile Express recognizes that it's on a different subnet and asks you to give the location a name before moving on to discover available printers.

Universal printer drivers
Mobile Express shows only the model names and IP addresses of each printer.

Unfortunately, the discovery tool displayed rather arcane model numbers, not the more intuitive printer names I was used to seeing in the Printers and Faxes control panel. At the Framingham office, I was forced to use the IP address to identify each discovered printer. On the other hand, once you've discovered a printer, Mobile Express lets you give each a name that better describes the device.

After the initial discovery process, you can choose one printer and print a test page to it. That printer is automatically added to your list of printers (My Printers) in Mobile Express. To add others, you bring up the Xerox Mobile Express Driver Properties dialog, click on Printing Preferences and select Change Printer. Up pops the Xerox Mobile Printing dialog. The three buttons on the top of the Mobile Printing dialog let you view My Printers or the listing of discovered printers; you can also search for printers by IP address. By selecting each discovered printer, you can add it to the My Printers view.

Thereafter, Mobile Express remembers which printers are available in that location and shows you only those printers when you're there (although you can merge in lists of printers from other locations if you prefer to do so). For example, at Computerworld's Framingham office, Mobile Express initially found five networked printers on my floor. At my home office, it excluded the Framingham printers from its list, showing only what was available for my home. Printers that were offline were grayed out.

By default, Mobile Express will prompt you to choose a printer every time. That's the best setting if you frequently alternate between printers at a given location, since that option brings you directly to a pick list. You can, if you wish, set Mobile Express to automatically print to the last printer used in each location. But if you need to change printers thereafter, it's a multistep process that involves navigating through four levels of dialog boxes.

The Mobile Express Driver provides a consistent set of basic printing functions that work across all printers. These include the ability to do two-sided printing, N-up printing (multiple images per page), landscape/portrait mode, a black-and-white/color switch, and watermarks.

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