Hideous Printing


I have a lousy relationship with printers. Or, at least, I started having one ever since I stopped using Apple LaserWriters (with a very brief sidetrip to the NeXT dumb printer), since having once learned how to actually type up raw PostScript and toss it over to a printer, I became increasingly frustrated with the junky PCL devices and the way HP became ubiquitous through overwhelming aggressiveness in both consumer and corporate markets.

While they gained market share, my curiosity drove me to explore printer features to the point where the printers themselves were having a bad time:

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Fun with control packets, circa 2002.

But they’ve never been my favorite printer manufacturer, and the best printer I have at the office is a Xerox copier that does double-sided and A3 printing properly, both features I use given every opportunity (I seldom print stuff, but when I do it tends to be either 2-up double sided pages or big diagrams).

At home, it’s not so much about the printing but about having a passable photocopier, a fax machine (yes, faxing is one of the XXIst century’s dirty little hangups, especially if you deal with government departments or small companies) and a scanner for occasional use – mostly for replacing the fax by e-mailing PDFs around, and every now and then for other odd jobs.

Which is why we’ve been putting up with an HP PSC 950 for nearly a decade, despite its vagaries, hideously overpriced (and literally evaporating) ink and HP’s recurring laxness in updating drivers.

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Old and busted.

Although it has been hanging off one of my Airport Extreme base stations and hidden inside a wall closet for a while, the thing is ugly, hulking, noisy and slow, and I would rather get a nice, solid kick on the head than have to use HP’s hideously bad software.

I got it working pretty well for printing via the Gutenprint drivers built-in to both Leopard and Snow Leopard, but it bears mentioning that I bought Vuescan solely to scan a few things a while back simply because the HP software is horrendously bloated and unusable.

Vuescan was well worth the expense considering the amount of features and support for a bazillion devices, and I will probably be using it to drive my Dad’s old scanner in the future, because this year we decided to put the PSC 950 out to pasture and get ourselves a new printer.

The basic criteria were:

  • We needed something with a fax and copying features (both staple features in current multifunction printers)
  • It had to come with an Ethernet port and zero-hassle printing based on standard protocols (I have been fooling around with lpr ever since I can remember using networked printers, and HP’s JetDirect is pretty much universal these days and a lot of fun in some aspects, so it did make sense to keep looking at their stuff.)
  • It should have a decent scanner and a standard way to use it over the network (this one was a bit trickier, but fortunately I found out that Snow Leopard supported brainless network scanning)
  • It had to have separate black and color ink heads, but no multiple color heads (I don’t want a photo printer, and HP’s pricing is preposterous even considering that the print heads are integral to the cartridge, but I also wanted something that could take an extra-large black ink supply).

Retail stores here carry HP, Epson and a few Canon printers, but the only decent multi-function devices at sensible prices are (much to my dismay) still HP’s, so I gritted my teeth and checked the printers listed in Apple’s KB, pecking at each of the multifunction printers there.

Ignoring all the ones with spurious features (there’s hardly any need for a printer to have Wi-Fi when you have plenty of RJ-45 sockets around the place, or fancy color displays, etc., etc), I eventually came across the OfficeJet 4500, the wired version of which is about the cheapest multi-function that could possibly work (€89.90, if you must know) and has a basic (flimsy plastic) document feeder for faxing, scanning and copying:

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The new hotness – of course it’s black.

It has a JetDirect-like web server with a platform-agnostic status display, announces itself via Bonjour on the LAN (both as a printer and as a fax, which is nice) and network scanning just works in Preview.

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Spartan, but useful.

Scanning on the Mac is childishly simple:

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Just check that option and refresh the menu.

…and you get a fairly decent set of options in a very clean UI (including if you want to scan from the feeder or the flatbed):

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Scanning, as it should have worked eight years ago.

Finally, as a nice bonus, I can print photos to it from my iPhone using their iPrint app (sadly not yet updated to iOS 4, nor for the iPad):

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More flexible than it seems, but dated.

It’s still ugly (less so), noisy (rather a bit more, but that’s what the closet is for) and expensive to run (but cheaper and greener than a laser and it takes a 901 XL black cartridge), but it’s a very nice change where it regards usability and connectivity.

Still, given the years of pain and misery the PSC 950 put us through, I can’t say it was an easy decision to buy another HP printer – I’d have expected the competition to not just have come up with something at least as good but also gone the extra mile by now…