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Front Page » November 25, 2009 » Tech Tips » Computer platforms versus printers
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Computer platforms versus printers

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While printers of all kinds are more common than ever, a large number of them are nit picky about what kind of computers they'll actually work with, which leaves many buyers with a device they simply can't use.

Today, virtually every computer supports the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port - designed to connect computers of any make or model to peripherals of all kinds - and thankfully, so do most printers. Some computers and printers even support the aged parallel (LPT) cables. That means it's unlikely that a printer and computer can't be connected via a physical cable or wire of some kind.

But that doesn't mean that a computer will actually "talk" to the printer. In order for the computer to properly communicate with the printer, it needs a piece of software called a driver that knows how to speak to, or interface with it.

Unfortunately, drivers are specific to the operating system they're meant for. This means that if the printer's manufacturer didn't create a driver for a specific operating system, like Microsoft Windows 7 or Apple Mac OS-X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), for example, the computer with that operating system will have no chance of inter-operating, or working with the printer.

As Windows is the most prevalent of all desktop operating systems, most printers come with a number of Windows drivers. The exception, when it comes to Windows anyway, is when new versions (like Windows 7, for example, which was released last month) are released after a given printer was already delivered to store shelves. Windows alternatives like Mac OS-X or Linux, however, are another story, and are frequently not supported by the manufacturer.

Why are Mac OS-X and Linux often ignored and left out in the cold by most printer makers? Because many printers are cheaply produced en masse, and the time involved to develop necessary software drivers for anything but Windows isn't cost effective for them, especially since Windows has more than 90 percent of the desktop market. They don't want to put that much effort into something made for such a select few.

So for people who want to make a sound investment in a printer that isn't going to have compatibility problems with operating systems other than Windows, making the right selection is really tough. But with a little knowledge, the selection process is made much easier.

Versatility is the key. The first thing to look for is multiple means of physical connectivity. A USB port is one of those means. So is Firewire (often called IEEE 1394) and Ethernet - a typical network connection that looks like an over-sized phone plug. This provides the printer with a myriad of ways to communicate with a myriad of computers. An Ethernet option is particularly useful if the intent is to share the printer between more than one computer.

Another thing to look out for is support for a universal print language, or print protocol, like Postscript (PS), which was developed by the Adobe Corporation, or Printer Control Language (PCL), which was developed by Hewlett-Packard Corp. This is probably the most important aspect of choosing a printer that will work with more than one operating system. Support for both languages is an even bigger asset to the printer.

Postscript and PCL are very well supported in most modern operating systems in existence today. A generic Postscript or PCL driver - one that actually comes with the operating system - can be used in the event that the manufacturer did not provide a driver, or if the manufacturer's driver does not function properly.

In some cases, a Postscript or PCL driver may not provide the computer with every single feature the printer may offer (like double-sided printing, for example), but it will always provide a minimum of basic printing functionality.

Bear in mind that a printer with these kinds of features is naturally going to cost more than one that does not. But such a purchase may be a very sound investment for some computer users, especially ones that lack Windows, or ones that are thinking about ditching Windows for an alternative.

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