Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Printing from the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch on the road (no router and no sockets required)

OK, so if you - like me - couldn't find anything definitive on the web about how to print from iOS wirelessly without a router to a genuinely mobile printer (i.e. battery-operated and small), then read my story and relax - it is possible after all :-)

Recently I wanted to do something I thought was relatively straightforward and the kind of thing I really should be able to do with an iPad. How wrong I was ...

I've run a full 17-piece big band for the past ten years and right from the outset we've backed up all our music by scanning into PDFs. A few months back I became the proud owner of an iPad and took advantage of having those PDFs lying around by playing in rehearsals and gigs from an app called UnrealBook - brilliant, but until all the band follow suit (currently, five of us are doing it) I've still got to deal with paper.

Well now, I thought, I have all this music available electronically and Apple introduced AirPrint with iOS 4.2 - let's see if there is an AirPrint compatible mobile printer ... one that I could bring along to gigs/rehearsals and when a part goes missing (as they often do - we're talking 6000-7000 pages of music here) just whip out the iPad and a battery-powered printer and wait for the admiring gasps from the band.


Don't make me laugh - 9 months after AirPrint was introduced, the range of AirPrint compatible printers was laughably small - 25 being your lot, and not one among them could even remotely be considered anywhere near mobile.

Apple strike again with their penchant for excelling in many areas with their products but having huge blindspots in others - they'll happily tell you that the facility is there, it's not their fault the printer manufacturers haven't caught up yet ... but that's absolutely no help to you or I. And so I set about looking for another, non-AirPrint, solution ...

My Requirements
  • Small and portable printer (preferably battery-operated)
  • No extra kit required (i.e. no router involved)
  • Print A4 PDFs in black & white
  • Quality/speed aren't necessarily issues *
  • Permanently store several thousand PDFs on the iPad
The key point to note is that with the above printer I was able to setup an AdHoc network and on the iPad I needed to manually specify an IP address in the same subnet as the wifi network of the printer. That removed the need for a router sat in-between the iPad and the printer.

In fact, you just need to satisfy a couple of generic requirements with whichever printer you decide will meet your mobile-printing requirements:
  1. Printer needs to be able to operate in AdHoc mode
  2. Connect to that AdHoc network with your iOS device and assign an IP address manually in the appropriate subnet
So, connectivity sorted - onto the actual music ... all our PDFs are on my Dropbox account. Inside UnrealBook, I sync'd all the folders and so have every chart on the iPad with a naming convention of "Chart Instrument.pdf" e.g. "Ain't That A Kick In The Head Trumpet 1.pdf".

To print someone's part, I get on the H470's network, open up the music in UnrealBook and use the "Open In" facility to send it to the free HP ePrint app ... from there the H470 magically appears, I press "print" and then it's me that's gasping admiringly as it very quickly spews out an excellent quality copy of the music.

Another generic point - whilst I happily use the free app provided by the printer manufacturer, I could just as easily use one of the mobile printing apps by EuroSmartz (e.g. PrintCentral - EuroSmartz Ltd) - the key thing here is that something on your iPad needs to know how to talk to a printer - EuroSmartz claim their app can talk to virtually any printer - YMMV. For convenience, here's a few that should get the job done:
Note: Apps change regularly, so do check the description to make sure it's going to do the job...

In my quest to see if this whole thing was possible, I read so many blogs/forums from people from various walks of life (truck drivers wanting to print from their rig or salesmen wanting to print an invoice in front of a customer for e.g.) but nowhere could I find anything definitive that told me it was even possible - so I wanted to blog about how, after much research, I took a leap of faith and bought a 2nd hand H470 from eBay, a new WiFi dongle for it, crossed my fingers and hoped.

A leap of faith which sent me soaring way past Apple's own wireless iOS printing options ...

* As it turns out the H470 has excellent reviews all-round and so excels as a mobile printer but performs very well as a regular printer (colour printing, photographs etc.) - I have it attached by USB cable and fed power at home when it's not out at band (and it's still sat in it's case, so all I do is unplug it and carry it out the door).

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