Computing had always had its annoyances, none more so than printing. Even on the most well-behaved system, printers can misbehave and if it isn’t a paper jam or obscure flashing error light, it’s the printer resolutely failing to talk to the computer.
Printers often seem little better than a sulky teenager who storms off to his bedroom and absolutely won’t do what you want until he’s ready, regardless of anything you might say or do.
With Linux it can be even worse. When printer companies like hp and Kodak bring out a new model, they’ll bundle software for Windows and Mac with it. Not so much on Linux. The company might not bother to write a Linux printer driver at all; or if it does it will almost certainly be late and probably won’t include all the functions.
Unfortunately, not only does the 1-2% market share Linux holds mean that it goes to the bottom of the to-do pile at most companies, but the differences in printing and software installation between different distros make it more complicated. Sometimes the community are left to have their best stab at writing a printer driver. For others, the manufacturer may support the main distros only, or may produce their own software that bypasses the distro’s printing software.
What does that mean for the user? With Windows or Mac, you’ll either have a CD with a decent printer driver or it’ll automatically download the latest driver from the web when you plug the printer in.
If you’re a Linux user, you might find the printer just installs and works. That does happen – though not as often as you might like. Most likely if you have a printer that’s common, from a manufacturer that’s Linux-friendly like hp, and not too new a model, you’ve a good chance of getting lucky.
The openprinting.org site maintains a database of known printers and how well they work with Linux. On the one hand, that’s a really useful resource. On the other hand, the mere fact that such a site is needed says a lot about the problems of printing on Linux.
Common printing setup
There are three common ways to connect your Linux computer to a printer. You may have it directly attached via a USB cable, in which case print setup should be simple as long as you have a decent printer driver. You might have the printer connected via another computer (which is acting as a print server). Finally, many printers now connect directly to your network, with a wireless or wired connection.
With every distro having a slightly different way of setting up printing, each with their own good and bad points, detailed setup instructions are beyond the scope of this article. All the major distros have “Add printer” dialogs, some simpler than others.
As a general rule, if you have a standard printer and your computer can find it automatically, setup is very simple and just takes a few clicks. If either of those isn’t true, setup can get a good deal more complex and you may need to tell your computer the IP address of the printer or print server, and even the port number it’s talking over (something that should never be required of a non-technical computer user, but Linux still all-too-often puts in front of you).
In the worst case, you may find your printer is simply unusable on Linux, or you could end up trying to compile a printer driver from source code – let’s hope not!
Google Cloud Print
Could Google Cloud Print be the answer to Linux printing woes? It’s still in beta, but Google’s muscle is big enough that four manufacturers (Canon, Epson, HP and Kodak) are already churning out “Cloud Print Ready” printers.
Here’s how it works. You can either register your printer directly with Google (assuming you’ve configured it with an internet connection), or you may need to connect them to a Windows PC or Mac, install Google’s Cloud Print software and register them through that. If the printer is Cloud Print Ready, the process will be easier. In my testing, I was able to easily register a Kodak esp 1.2 printer directly with Google without a Windows PC or Mac in sight.
You also need a Google account. Having registered the printer, you claim it for your account. This allows you to manage the printer from your Google account. Go to www.google.com/cloudprint to see not only your printers but also all your print jobs (not just the ones currently printing – Google Cloud Print has the neat feature of saving everything you’ve printed). Because it knows the files you’ve printed, it can list filenames and web addresses, not just print jobs.
That means you can log into any computer (and any operating system) anywhere in the world and – as long as you’ve got an internet connection and your printer is online – you can print to it – pretty neat!
You want the rest of your family to be able to print to it too? Once you’ve claimed a printer for your Google account, you can share it with other people so they can print to it from their Google accounts.
If this is all sounding too good to be true, there’s a downside – here it comes. You want to print a document from LibreOffice? Sorry, not going to happen. Or a web page from Firefox, or a graphic from Gimp? Nope. Google Cloud Print does not work through your Linux printing system. The operating system knows nothing about your printers. It works directly through applications.
The full list of Linux applications that you can currently use to print via Cloud Print? Wait for it. Ready? Chrome. That’s it. Just Chrome.
It’s not a showstopper by any means. If you want to print your OpenOffice document, save it as a PDF, view the PDF in Chrome and away you go. Similarly you can view graphics, photos and pretty much anything else you might want to print. There may be a couple of extra steps, but it can be done easily enough.
Plus, whilst printing from anywhere in the world to your printer might sound pretty cool, how often are you going to want to do it? It’s not like Google have a magic way of getting the printout to you on your holiday island off the coast of Brazil, and if the printer’s out of paper or misbehaving then you’re out of luck.
Despite its limitations – and it is still in Beta – Google Cloud Print is an interesting solution to Linux printing problems and definitely worth a look, especially if it takes off and more printers arrive on the shelves Cloud Print Ready.