An Affordable, If Quirky, Print Server

By Joseph Moran | Posted February 25, 2005

Sharing a PC-connected printer over a network is still widely practiced by many small businesses, but there are many practical reasons why this isn't the best approach. First, you have to make sure that the attached PC is always turned on and working properly. This seems simple enough but in reality, that's sometimes easier said than done.

This type of printer sharing consumes computing resources on the attached PC, so the person using the host computer may often notice reduced performance, especially during large or complex print jobs. You may also need to configure a software firewall to allow other systems on the network to access the computer the printer is attached to. Finally, cable length limits your office layout since any printer connected to a computer can't be more than a few feet away from its host PC.

Centrally sharing your printers via a print server that connects directly to the network is a much better alternative. To be sure, this is hardly a new idea; print servers — first wired and then wireless, parallel and then USB — have been around for years. What makes the Actiontec 54Mbps Wireless Multiport Print Server noteworthy, though, is that it's one of the few devices of its kind that accommodates not only multiple printers, but multiple connection types as well. In fact, you can simultaneously connect three printers to the Actiontec — one parallel and two USB.

Wireless Printing
As a wireless device, the Actiontec supports 802.11g 54 Mbps operation and either WEP or WPA encryption. So, if you're already using WPA encryption on your WLAN, you won't have to dumb your network down to WEP just to add the Actiontec to your network, which was often the case with print servers in the not-too-recent past. The Actiontec supports multiple forms of network printing including TCP/IP, Netware, AppleTalk, and IPP (Internet Printing Protocol).

Installation and Setup
You use a somewhat crude Windows utility called PSAdmin to install the Actiontec on a wireless network. The utility gets the job done, but it uses non-standard interface conventions and iconography that takes a bit of getting used to. PSAdmin includes a setup wizard that — to its credit — can locate the print server (even if its default IP settings are different from that of your network) and let you configure the basic connectivity settings of the device.

Once you've completed the setup wizard you can use either the PSAdmin tool or the Actiontec's browser-based interface to view or modify device settings.

I connected two printers to the Actiontec, an Epson Stylus CX3200 multifunction inkjet with a USB interface and an HP LaserJet 1100A via parallel port. To access the printers connected to the print server, Actiontec includes on the CD a print client that maps the print server's three networked ports to local ports on a PC.


Actiontec 54Mbps Wireless Multiport Print Server
Serve It Up — With Actiontec's wireless print server, you can connect up to three different printers — parallel and USB. But rough edges, like indicator lights that don't work properly and a funky admin utility, mar an otherwise decent performance.

While physically connecting printers to the device, I found a few mildly annoying physical traits. First, the USB ports are flush with the unit bezel rather than slightly recessed as is customary, which makes it appear that the USB cables are not fully inserted even when they are.

Minor Complaint Department
Although each printer port has its own indicator light on the front of the unit, they all remain dark — even after you've connected and correctly configured the printer. Although the documentation indicates the lights should glow when a printer is connected, they light up (and blink) only when a job is actually printing.

Adding to the confusion, the PSAdmin utility and the print server's browser admin tool both reported that the connected ports were off-line. This was in spite of the fact that they were clearly functioning properly, as evidenced by the fact that both test pages and regular print jobs went off without a hitch.

One minor performance caveat to consider when using the Actiontec Print Server is that the two USB ports on the Actiontec are only USB 1.1 ports, so they provide relatively limited bandwidth — a maximum of 12 Mbps. On one hand, many, if not most, entry-level and low-end printers only support USB 1.1 anyway, so this may not be a problem for most SMBs.

On the other hand, a growing number of printers — currently mainly mid-range to higher-end models — do support USB 2.0 and it's forty-fold increase in bandwidth (480 Mbps). Actiontec says that such printers will still work with the Wireless Multiport print server, albeit at the slower USB 1.1 speeds, so the Actiontec won't be able to send data nearly as fast as the printer is capable of receiving it. (Incidentally, Actiontec says the print server should work with most USB and parallel printers.)

But the Actiontec's lack of support for USB 2.0 speeds is not as much of a hindrance as it may seem, especially when you consider that the 54Mbps bandwidth of an 802.11g network is but a fraction of USB 2.0's, As a result, a USB 2.0 printer connected to any wireless network — indeed, any wired network short of Gigabit Ethernet will not reach its performance potential, because it can receive data only so fast over the network. In practice, the Actiontec or any other wireless print server will likely slow down a USB 2.0-capable printer, and the only way to take full advantage of one is to attach it to a PC's USB 2.0 port.

Forget Multifunction Devices
Another compromise inherent with using the Actiontec — or any other print server for that matter — concerns multifunction devices that scan, copy, or fax as well as print. Printer utilities designed to control the non-print functions rely on direct bi-directional communication between the printer and PC. When you connect this type of device to a print server, their utilities will fail to recognize the printer and will no longer function. You'll also likely lose other features like alerts that let you know when the ink is running low.

Bottom Line
The Actiontec 54 Mbps Wireless Print Server exhibits a few rough edges and would generally benefit from a bit more polish. It would also be nice to see diagnostic and test page capability built into the unit to aid in troubleshooting so that printing problems could be easily isolated. Nevertheless, the Actiontec will get the job done for most situations, and if you've got more than two printers scattered around your office attached to individual PCs, the Actiontec offers you a good way to simplify your network by consolidating and centralizing them.

Price: $149 (MSRP)
Pros: Supports up to three printers, both USB and parallel
Cons: Indicator lights and configuration utility may imply problems where none exists; USB ports are the slower 1.1 type

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in St. Petersburg, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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