Printers often get left behind when WiFi comes to a home -- the cables needed to link them to a PC may then wind up anchoring at least one computer to a desk. Printing from any other machine then involves fussing with printer sharing (always an adventure in Windows) or transferring individual files to the one machine wired to the printer.
Putting the printer itself on the wireless network ought to be an obvious remedy, allowing you to park the WiFi-enabled printer anywhere, then easily share it with every computer on the network.
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Until recently, however, built-in WiFi was a bit of a novelty in printers, confined to pricier devices largely intended for use in office networks. That's now starting to change.
Canon's Pixma iP4000R (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, $190 to $220) is the cheapest model we've found with built-in WiFi. Its initial setup could be easier: You must first connect the Pixma to a computer to configure it before casting it loose onto your WiFi network. After that setup, and an install of Canon's driver software on each computer, the iP4000R worked as if it were directly plugged into every machine.
This inkjet photo printer produced stunning color prints; text looked a bit fuzzy in the standard-quality mode but appeared fine at a slower, high-quality setting. An 8-by-10-inch color image took just under three minutes to print. Dual paper trays allow easy switching between letterhead and envelopes or white paper and glossy photo paper, while a USB slot lets you print directly from a compatible digital camera, no computer needed.
Hewlett-Packard's Photosmart 2710 (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS 9.1 or newer, $360 to $400) wears many hats -- it also serves as a scanner, fax machine, copier and memory-card reader. All of these functions are accessible from every computer on your WiFi network -- or, if you buy a small Bluetooth adapter, from a Bluetooth-equipped cell phone or handheld organizer.
The 2710's built-in LCD (normally used for previewing photos transferred via its card-reader slot or USB camera connector) allowed a cable-free setup; all the necessary work, including entering the network's encryption key, could be accomplished by selecting onscreen commands with a set of buttons.
In text mode, the HP easily outpaced the Canon, producing sharp text in its standard mode. The speed advantage flipped around for photos -- the HP took nearly four minutes to print the 8-by-10-inch color picture -- but the results showed excellent detail, even in shadowy areas.
Both printers include photo-management software (if you don't already use the likes of Adobe's Photoshop Elements, Google's Picasa 2 or Apple's iPhoto) and support such handy options as "borderless" prints that extend to the edge of the paper. The Canon is certainly a good printer, but the HP's extra features and smoother setup justify its higher cost.
What if you already have a perfectly good printer you don't wish to retire? A WiFi adapter -- often called a "wireless print server," in the odd belief that customers enjoy networking jargon -- can add it to your WiFi network. We also tested two of these.
Belkin's 802.11g Wireless USB Print Server ($98 to 110) includes two USB ports to link a pair of printers to a network; the Linksys WPS54GU2 Wireless-G Print Server ($80 to $90) accommodates only one. Both require Win 98 SE or newer.
Each adapter had to be configured by plugging it into a computer with Ethernet network cable, after which we had to install our printers' normal software on each computer at home. The Linksys unit took a little more work than the Belkin, but afterward printing from two Windows PCs worked fine.
Apple users, however, should note that neither adapter includes Mac OS X software, and the workarounds posted at some Mac-troubleshooting sites failed to work in repeated attempts.
Considering both adapters cost about the same, the Belkin unit wins out for its just-in-case option of running two printers.