Queue Up Linux Printing

If you're considering switching to Linux for your networked print services, there are a few things you'll need to keep in mind. Part one.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Jan 3, 2006
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If I had to give a general summation of printing in Linux I would have to say "better than dismal, but not much." Hardware vendors barely produce tolerable drivers for Windows, let alone us weirdo hippie Linux users.

Strangely enough, many of them are finding it in their hearts to support Mac OS X. It's a much shorter leap from Mac OS X to Linux than it is from Windows to Mac OS X. Odd little world, isn't it, with fodder for conspiracy theorists everywhere.

However, with a bit of care one can find a printer that is happy to use, instead of one that is expensive, time-wasting, and vexing. The key is to shop carefully; it's a Darwinian world out there. Buyer beware, count your fingers, watch your back. Don't pay more than $7 for a USB printer cable. Printer vendors are misers for not including cables to begin with, then they have the gall to charge $30 and up. You don't need gold or silver connectors, you don't need fancy plastic packaging that requires a chainsaw to get into, and you certainly don't need to get ripped off. (See Resources for some excellent online stores to shop in.)

Cheap Printers Cost More
Don't run out and purchase one of those $40 specials and expect that you will get any sort of joy from it. Indeed, one can spend considerably more than that and still get a piece of junk. Buying a printer, whether it's a laser or inkjet printer, involves navigating many perils:

  • Deliberate ink-wasters–using the ink itself to clean the printer nozzles, what a good idea! If you sell ink, that is
  • Partly-filled OEM laser toner cartridges and ink cartridges
  • Three months of good performance, then boom! Spontaneous death
  • Junky or no Linux drivers
  • Unbelievably expensive inkjet refills; some folks calculate that when you purchase the official name-brand inkjet cartridges, the ink cost works out to anywhere from $3500 to $8000 per gallon
  • Evil "smart" ink cartridges that complain or quit working entirely if you refill them
  • Untruthful persons who tell you that using third-party ink cartridges or toner voids the warranty. It just isn't so, or, in short crisp words, it is a big fib. Section 2302 of the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act of 1975 is usually cited to refute this; it says that a manufacturer cannot void a warranty just because customers use aftermarket parts

I'm just a dumb layperson, but I can't help wondering why companies feel compelled to roll out "new" models every month that are barely different except for newer, better defects. I have endured long explanations from marketing geeks who believe with every fiber of their beings that this is a superior strategy to a slower release cycle of better-quality printers. I'm not convinced that continually retooling the product line and fending off hordes of unhappy customers is the road to profitability, but that's just me.

So what's a hardworking geek to do? Why, what we do best- do homework on the Internet first. There are no secrets; shoddy will out, and good-quality will shine. Read the user reviews on CNet, Amazon, Newegg, and anyone else that has them- that is where you will find the real stories.

Getting the Right Type of Printer
There are several different types of printers to choose from: inkjet, laser, dye-sublimation, and thermal wax. Most folks get inkjet printers, which is often not the best choice.

Dye-sublimation printers used to be noticeably better than inkjet printers at photo and other high-quality printing. They do not squirt ink through nozzles; they do a thermal dye transfer, so there are no dots at any magnification. I'm sure you remember old-time inkjet print jobs that looked like old color comics, with big dots. Dye-sublimation printers are priced comparably to inkjet printers; but the dye cartridges will eat a fair bit of your money.

Thermal-wax transfer printers, like the Xerox Phaser, which used to be the Textronix Phaser, produce absolutely gorgeous color prints. They have dropped considerably in price–you can get a Phaser 8500 for under $1,000, which is a far cry from the $10,000+ price tags of the olden days. Operating costs are very reasonable, as the dye cartridges are rated at thousands of pages. The one drawback to these printers appears when making photocopies of your gorgeous color prints–the wax-based dyes are slippery, so you can't use the auto-feed of the copier.

If you do mostly document printing, get a black-and-white laserjet. A laser toner cartridge lasts hundreds, or even thousands, of pages. Laser printers are fast and have no print heads to get clogged. Print quality is excellent. Some laser printers separate the toner container from the print drum, so toner refills cost less than units that combine the toner compartment with the print drum. Either way it's a considerable savings over inkjets–two to five cents per pages, rather than the ten cents and up for inkjet printers.

Black-and-white laserjets are quite affordable these days, with good-quality models well under $200. Samsung and Hewlett-Packard have some great values, with actual good Linux drivers. Hewlett-Packard, according to Linuxprinting.org, is the Linux-friendliest printer vendor. Their Open Source and Linux from HP page lays out a matrix of all of their Linux printers and how well they are supported.

Color Laser
I haven't been very impressed with the color saturation or loveliness of color lasers until recently. The newest generation looks pretty good, but you still have to pay a premium to get good color. I haven't seen a decent-looking model for under $600, and replacing four toner cartridges almost buys a new printer.

TurboPrint and CUPS
If you insist on purchasing a printer without vendor Linux support, and you cannot find a decent free driver package in your Linux distribution, try TurboPrint or the commercial edition of CUPS, ESP Print Pro. TurboPrint has a lot more up-to-date drivers, especially for color printers, and costs a lot less- you don't pay more for networking and multi-user, it's all included for about $35 USD. Both have free try-before-you-buy downloads. $35 for a good, fully-featured, Linux printer server that serves both Linux and Windows clients is heck of a bargain.

Linuxprinting.org is a pretty good resource, but take their ratings with a grain of salt. Printers that are rated as "Perfect" might have great printer drivers, but they usually lack the management utilities of their Windows cousins, like monitoring ink levels and various image tweaks and fine-tunings. TurboPrint comes the closest to delivering all the goodies that Windows users take for granted.

Refills and Aftermarket Inks and Toners
You've seen those "refill your own ink and save lots of monies! best quality!" websites. I had hopes of giving specific recommendations, but it's a crapshoot- some are good, some are poo. It's not much of a financial risk, so give it a go.

Aftermarket black-and-white laserjet toner is a safe bet and a good deal from the big office supplies, like Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max.

You get more quality and performance for the money than ever–if you shop carefully. Despair not, Linux user, for you can have good printing without Windows.

Resources
Linuxprinting.org Please post your own experiences with your printers here; the more user information, the better
My very own Linux Cookbook has two excellent chapters on printing: one with CUPS, and one with Samba. Both can do cross-platform network printing. Chapter 14: Printing with CUPS is free, free I tell you, online.

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