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.

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If you need more in-depth features, however, Mobile Express is no substitute for the original equipment device driver. It lets you choose a different paper tray, but it can't tell you what paper type resides in each -- or if there is any paper in the tray at all. It doesn't provide low-toner alerts or support any other status alerts or advanced features (except, of course, for Xerox-brand printers).

For example, with a Canon black-and-white printer at Computerworld, Mobile Express let me change basic functions such as landscape and portrait printing and one- or two-sided printing. I could choose paper size, tray and pages per sheet, or choose a booklet layout in portrait or landscape mode with or without borders. But other features offered by the Canon driver, such as scaling, text/graphics settings and status alerts, weren't available with Mobile Express.

Xerox says that Mobile Express' discovery tool will find all USB- or network-attached printers, but it didn't always find the printers I was looking for. For example, Mobile Express did discover a nearby HP printer in my subnet, but did not find a nearby HP LaserJet 4000 printer that is attached to a JetDirect 300x print server within the same subnet -- at least not initially. Later, I did another discovery pass, and it briefly appeared before disappearing again.

I was finally able to find the LaserJet 4000 by using the IP search function and add it to My Printers; I could then print to it without any problems.

I tested Mobile Express with a variety of applications, including the Microsoft Office suite. Everything worked fine -- except for the old version of Portable Software's QuickExpense, which crashed when I tried to print using the Mobile Express Driver. Given the age of the application (circa 1995), I guess that's not surprising.

Another note: While I was able to print to every office printer I had previously configured and added to My Printers during my visit, the discovery tool could not see any of the printers in Framingham when I tried to view them from my home office through the company's VPN tunnel (HP's UPD had the same problem). A spokesperson from Xerox stated that the discovery tool would not work if SMTP packets are being filtered at the router. So if you're using a VPN, you may be out of luck.

Universal printer drivers
The Mobile Express printer driver.

Although I have no PostScript printers at home, I ran the discovery tool anyway to see what would happen. It didn't find my Lexmark all-in-one printer, but it did discover the PCL-only LaserJet 1018. However, when I tried to print to it, the print job appeared to spool from Microsoft Word but went nowhere.

According to product manager Michelon, Mobile Express can't detect whether a printer supports PostScript or not over a USB connection. "Our choice was to either not have [Mobile Express] discover locally connected USB print devices other than supported Xerox products, or discover all locally connected USB print devices," he says. Xerox chose the latter. The risk, he acknowledges, is that users will choose an unsupported device.

Xerox also confirmed that Mobile Express has an issue with printers that support Windows Graphical Device Interface. During setup, Mobile Express gives users the option to add printers that have already been installed in the Printers and Faxes control panel -- including non-PostScript devices that won't work with Mobile Express. "This has been addressed, and [an updated version] will be rolled out to the public in the near future," says Michelon.

On a more positive note, Mobile Express worked fine in my satellite office. It was able to find my LaserJet 1200, which is a PostScript printer, and I was able to print to that without problems.

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