Connecting Your Printer
Most printers are connected using USB, Wired Network or Wireless (WiFi) Network. There are some other current options such as Bluetooth or NFC (near-field communication) and some older connections (serial, parallel) but for most people with most printers it will be USB, wired network or wireless network. Many printers include all 3 options, so what should you use?
TL;DR – Recommend Wired Network
USB – Universal Serial Bus
USB is currently nearly universal. Almost every printer and computer has a USB connector. That makes it an easy choice, but is it the best choice?
USB has some serious limitations:
- Distance: The normal maximum distance for USB connections is 5 meters/16 feet. There are a number of ways to connect USB over longer distances, but this is what you can easily do with ordinary USB cables. In many cases this will not be an issue, but if you install your printer in one room and decide to move your laptop to another room then you can’t print via USB unless you move back to the printer and connect to it.
Sharing: USB is normally one computer to one printer. There are some special switches to connect 2 computers to 1 printer, similar to the situation many years ago with sharing a serial or parallel printer with 2 computers. You can also share a printer by connecting it to one computer and sharing using your operating system (e.g., Windows) to let other computers connect to the printer, but that can raise some serious security issues and is not always easy to set up.
USB Port Problems: USB, unlike serial & parallel ports, allows you to connect any device to any port. Unfortunately, sometimes Windows and other operating systems will get a little “confused” and decide that a particular port won’t work with a particular printer. Or that connecting a printer to a different port than the one you originally connected it to will now make it a “new” printer and need to be configured again. Some of these problems can be avoided by always using the same USB port to connect your printer, but who remembers which port they used before going away for a week?
A wired network lets your computer(s), printer(s) and other devices use cables to connect to each other and, typically, to the internet.
While there have been many different types of wired networks over the last 40 years, nearly all home & small-business networks today use 100 Megabit or Gigabit Ethernet over twisted pair. Ethernet twisted pair cables can be up 100 meters/328 feet long.
Most of the time you will have one or more network switches which provide a bunch of identical, or nearly identical, connectors. Plug in a new computer and it is immediately online. Plug in a new printer and it is immediately available to all computers in your network (wired or wireless!).
Wired networks are great for sharing – every computer can talk to every printer.
The only disadvantage of a wired network connection for your printer? You have to be able to run a cable from a switch to your printer, even if your printer and computer are in the same room and the computer is connected via WiFi.
Wireless (WiFi) Network
A wireless network lets you put your printer anywhere within range of a WiFi access point. If your laptop or smartphone works on WiFi in a particular room, then a printer should too.
Wireless networks are great for sharing – every computer can talk to every printer.
So since “everyone” has WiFi, why not always connect printers using WiFi?
- Configuration: You can’t simply put a printer in a room with WiFi and have it magically work. You have to tell the printer how to connect to the WiFi network. The “easy” solution is called WPS (WiFi Protected Setup). With WPS, there is typically a WPS button on your router and an easily accessible setting in your printer for WPS. Activate them at the same time and the printer and the router will talk to each other and in, just a few seconds, everything is set. Unfortunately, many routers don’t support WPS (even some that have a WPS button!) and many printers don’t support WPS or it is not easy to find and use the WPS setting. The alternatives to WPS are either entering the WiFi configuration information directly into the printer (usually not easy but not impossible) or, for printers that don’t have a full control panel, connecting the printer via USB in order to configure the WiFi using your computer – which sounds absolutely crazy because it is absolutely crazy. There is one more option – a direct WiFi connection, which is often easy to set up but, unlike a regular WiFi printer connection, only works with computers that have WiFi and not with wired computers.
Reliability: If your printer is next to your WiFi router or access point then a WiFi connection will be very reliable (of course, a wired connection would be even easier and even more reliable). But if they are far apart then interference from other WiFi networks or other devices can cause your connection to the printer to be unreliable.
Recommended: Wired Network
While there are still some printers that do not have a wired network connection, more and more of them include one. The difference in cost between a printer with and without a wired network connection is often just a few dollars, and it is well worth it for flexibility even if initially you decide to connect using USB or WiFi.
As with many other features, you can’t easily add a wired network connection to a printer later (unlike a computer where you often can add a wired or WiFi network connection), so I highly recommend including wired network in your preferred list of printer features. This applies to all printer types – laser or inkjet, printer or multifunction, monochrome or color. Get a wired network connection and it will be money well spent.