Review – Wireless Printer Kit

On October 27, 2003, in Review, by David Weeks

Wireless Printer Kit
Company: AmbiCom, Inc.

Price: $69.99
http://www.ambicom.com

Got cables?

Sure, too many!

Every computer user has to deal with cables for AC power, cables for USB, cables for FireWire, cable for mice, cables for speakers, and cables for monitors. While technology hasn’t yet figured out an affordable way to transmit electrical power from your wall to components without power cords, progress IS being made in reducing or eliminating the cable spaghetti that we all dine on. Wireless keyboards and mice are now available for the Macintosh, and Rendezvous-capable network printers are beginning to appear in the mail-order catalogs, if not on the shelves.

But until now, the common USB printer has been ignored. USB printers generally must be tethered to their host printer by the ubiquitous USB cable, adding more pasta to the cable spaghetti under your desk. Apple’s USB printer sharing works via Airport, if you have Airport, but the host computer must be running for printer sharing to work.

AmbiCom, a small Santa Clara firm founded in 1997, has just introduced the Wireless Printer Kit that allows Bluetooth-based wireless connections between USB printers and their host computers. Bluetooth is the wireless protocol designed for short-range communications between computers and peripherals such as cell phones, PDA’s, and yes, printers. Bluetooth has been “almost here” for several years, but in the past year several cell phones have shipped with Bluetooth support. AmbiCom’s Wireless Printer Kit is the first application I’m aware of for printers.

AmbiCom’s press release announcing the rollout of the Wireless Printer Kit (WPK from hereon) caught my eye during my morning coffee-and-MacSurfer session, and I requested a review unit.

Even though I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was surprised by the small size of the blister pack containing the WPK. You get a small AC “wall-wart” power supply, two very small plastic dongles that contain the guts of the system (more on this below), and a short USB cable extender. The instruction manual is a very small brochure (real paper, not a PDF!) that is mostly for PC-based computers. The Macintosh installation section is combined into the PC section, but is drop-dead easy. As usual, PC owners have much more to do.

WPK installation took about 30 seconds. More time was spent rooting around under the desk, fishing out and unplugging the USB printer cable than time spent installing the WPK. The Master Adapter plugged into the USB port on my Hewlett-Packard PSC 750 multi-function printer scanner copier. I did need to use the included USB cable extension, as the USB port on the PSC 750 is too deeply recessed for the Master Adapter USB plug to reach. The Slave adapter plugged into a USB port on my Dual 1.42 Power Mac running Mac OS X 10.2.8. AmbiCom recommends against plugging the Slave Adapter into a hub.

Once each Adapter was plugged in, a small green LED on each dongle showed a steady green light, indicating the WPK was ready to go.
I fired up Safari, loaded the Apple Computer home page, hit the “Print” button, and held my breath. With no more delay than cable printing, the HP 750 printed the page with no fuss. Nothing was different; same sounds, and with virtually the same time for the print job to be spooled.

Note that I did NOTHING DIFFERENT to print wirelessly; all that had changed was that the USB cable had been replaced with the Wireless Printing Kit dongles at the Mac and printer end.

So, the easy part was done. Scanning would be the acid test. Even my press contact at AmbiCom was not sure if the scanning feature of the PSC 750 would work. AmbiCom supports a long list of Epson, Canon, and HP printers, but no multi-function units or scanners are currently supported.

I placed an 8 x 10 photo on the HP 750’s platen, set the scan for 300 DPI, and used the HP Scan software in the normal way. After a longer than normal delay, the scan started! The scanning speed was clearly slower, but the scan finished normally. I was quite pleasantly surprised. Given the much-reduced bandwidth of the Bluetooth-based WPK adapter, I wasn’t sure if the software could handle the slow data transmission. Scanning moves much more data than printing, and the WPK simply can’t move the bits as fast as a USB cable.

Having proved that the WPK would handle scanning, I wanted to quantify how much slower WPK scanning is than USB scanning.

Timing a scan using the WPK, a preview scan of an 8 x 10 color image took 24 seconds, and a 300 x 300 DPI color scan at 24 bits/pixel needed 3:17 from beginning to end, creating a 24 MB JPG file..

After re-attaching the USB cable, the preview took 15 seconds, and the scan took 15 seconds to create the same 24 MB JPG file.

USB 1.1 can transfer data at 12 mbits/second. The WPK specifications page says the Wireless Adapter can transfer data at 340 kbps/second. That’s a BIG difference. The slower speed of the WPK is completely invisible for printing, but it will be a factor if you frequently scan large images. Given that AmbiCom does not explicitly support scanning, criticizing the WPK for slow scanning is akin to complaining that a dog that’s able to walk upright can’t dance.

I don’t scan frequently, and I’m willing to put up with slower scanning speeds for the convenience of USB cable-free operation.

AmbiCom advertises that the WPK has a range of theoretical maximum range of 100 feet. I hauled the PSC 750 about 25 feet away with one thin wall between computer and the printer (more distance would not have worked in my location) I printed and scanned with little or no reduction in speed.

Next, locating the printer about 55 feet with several walls between computer and printer showed printing and scanning still worked perfectly, but speed was somewhat slower. I would be surprised if any real world user would get much performance at maximum range. It seems that wireless equipment manufacturers are addicted to quoting range figures that are obtainable only in a lab, not in the real world. Apple’s Airport/802.11b range claims for G4 Titanium laptops are certainly exaggerated.

AmbiCom supports multiple slave adapters connecting to one printer, which is great in an office environment. Since the supplied review unit had only one Master and one Slave, I was unable to test this feature.

To wrap up the testing, I tried plugging the WPK Slave adapter into a USB 2.0 port on a USB 2.0 PCI card installed in the Power Mac. USB 2 and USB 1 use the same fittings, so the adapter slipped right in. Bingo! Perfect operation served to show that USB 2 is backwards compatible with USB 1, and the WPK had no trouble talking to the USB 2 card at speeds limited by the Bluetooth protocol. Note that OS X versions before 10.2.8 do not support USB 2 without special drivers from USB 2 card suppliers. (Save for the Power Macintosh G5, which supports USB 2 in Mac OS 10.2 and up)

Conclusion: The AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit does everything the manufacturer says it will, and then some. Installation and operation was completely trouble-free. The list of supported printers is long, and odds are good that many officially unsupported printers will work, as my HP PSC 750 worked perfectly. Scanning is not supported, but I had perfect, albeit slow, results.

If you want to cut down on USB cable clutter, or locate your USB printer away from your computer, the AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit is the perfect unit.

The suggested list price of $69.95 is a bit steep, but other solutions are considerably more expensive. But ease of use and simplicity are worth some dollar premium. Wife acceptance factor should be taken into account when making your purchase decision, since you may be able to get the printer out of sight!

MyMac Rating: 5 out of 5


David Weeks

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