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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HP Universal Print Driver

HP offers three variations of UPD: for HP PCL 5, PCL 6 or PostScript printers. I chose the PCL 6 version, an 18.5MB download.

UPD lets you choose between what HP calls Traditional and Dynamic modes. In the former, you choose one printer to map to and that becomes the permanent, default printer. Since that defeated the purpose of my using the driver, I chose Dynamic mode, which lets you change your printer destination with your location.

Next, UPD lets you set up your printers. It can search for HP printers by IP address, search for all available networked printers, or map to a shared printer (i.e., \\Emachines\LaserJet1018).

At the Framingham office, I let UPD search for all available network printers. The results differed from what Mobile Express found -- instead of a list of IP addresses, UPD offers a list of model name and numbers. Interestingly, neither found the JetDirect-attached LaserJet 4000, while Mobile Express picked up on a LaserJet 1200 that UPD missed. I knew the IP address for the LaserJet 4000's JetDirect adapter, so I used the IP address search capability to map to the device. That worked.

UPD doesn't gray out unavailable printers, as Mobile Express does, but you can click the Check Status button for a printer before sending a job.

When you print using UPD for the first time, a dialog box comes up. Click on the "settings" hot link and a third dialog box appears with radio buttons telling the driver to always prompt you for the printer (default), to prompt you only the first time an application prints or to prompt you only when the last known printer is unavailable. Since I primarily print to one printer at each location, I chose the latter to get as close to one-click printing as possible.

Universal printer drivers
Instead of a list of IP addresses, UPD offers a list of model name and numbers.

UPD doesn't support direct-attached printers -- obviously, it wasn't written with consumers in mind -- but does recognize printers locally attached to other computers on a network that have been configured in Windows to be shared peer-to-peer across the LAN. In my home office, where I have other computers on the network, I was able to use UPD to print to my HP LaserJet 1018 by attaching it to a PC and configuring it as a shared printer.

But in my satellite office, I was unable to use UPD with the direct-attached HP LaserJet 1200. To use UPD with it, I would either have to attach it to another PC and share it to the network or buy an external print server for the LaserJet -- at a cost of $65 to $99, depending on the model. Since I don't need to share that printer with anyone else, the only benefit would be the little extra convenience of easily accessing other HP printers -- probably not worth the investment.

One advantage of using the HP UPD driver is that it offers more settings for the HP printers it manages, including diagnostic codes and alerts, than Mobile Express. Features available through UPD include scaling, an economy printing mode that saves ink and a wider variety of finishing options. During testing, UPD warned me that the 4000 black cartridge was low -- something that Mobile Express couldn't tell me.

As with Mobile Express, UPD couldn't discover printers in the Framingham office when I connected from my home office over the VPN to the Framingham location. However, it did detect online the status of and print to devices that it had previously discovered while I was in that office I had no trouble printing to those printers over the VPN.

UPD can also map to printers on other Windows computers that you set up as shared devices in a peer-to-peer Windows network -- something Mobile Express can't do. On the other hand, Mobile Express allows you to add subnets to a location -- something that can come in handy in offices where wireless and wired LANs are in use. UPD doesn't let the user add subnets to locations, but you can access any printer by its name or IP address and print to it. Administrators can also create managed printer lists that can be made available to UPD users, regardless of subnet.

While the installed base of printers in most offices includes the HP brand, the reality is that most offices have a mix of brands. In those environments, a tool that's limited to managing only one brand of printers doesn't solve the larger problem for administrators or end users.

Lessons learned

For my purposes, neither tool had a clear advantage over the other. The discovery tools in UPD and Mobile Express are fine as far as they go, but based on my experience, you'll need to be prepared to find printers by their IP address if they don't show up on the list.

UPD will work with any printer -- as long as it's an HP. It might work for you if you have networked HP printers in all of your office locations, but it won't help you quickly connect to nonnetworked printers or non-HP printers that you might encounter while traveling.

Mobile Express will work with any brand of printer -- as long as it supports PostScript. That leaves a lot of printers out in the cold, especially low-end models that may be direct-attached in home offices. While most corporate offices have networked printers these days, not all support PostScript. And the low-end, all-in-one ink-jet printers typically found in the home and satellite offices of many mobile users often don't support PostScript either.

The best fit for these tools may be folks who travel between offices within the same company. In each location, users are more likely to find a variety of networked print devices, at least one of which might be HP-branded or PostScript-compatible.

In my case, I could make either work as my single-click printing solution for all three locations. But not without a few changes. With UPD, I'd need to buy at least one print server; with Mobile Express, I'd need to buy another PostScript printer for one location.

I've decided to keep both tools on hand. They might come in handy for situations where I need to quickly access a printer but don't have the right driver installed -- a sort of skeleton key for unlocking access to printers anywhere. For everyday use, however, I'll stick with the drivers I have -- and hope for Xerox to come out with a version of Mobile Express that supports PCL.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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