Have you ever wanted to place an inkjet printer in a central location in an office where you couldn’t, or didn’t want to, connect it to a network or a computer configured as a print server? If so, you’ve probably wished that somebody would develop an easy wireless printing solution that would allow you to place a printer wherever you want it. Well, wish no more, because the folks at AmbiCom recently unveiled Wireless Printer Kit, a new product designed to basically make a printer act as a stand-alone device.

Printer Proviso

Before I begin extolling the features and benefits of the AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit, I need to point out that at the time of this writing, the number of printers officially supported by this kit is limited to specific USB inkjet printers from Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, Epson, and Canon. A complete list of those printers supported by the Wireless Printer Kit can be found in the official Printer Compatibility Chart, which is regularly updated and available as a PDF file on the AmbiCom site.

How it works
The AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit, which works with Windows 98/Me/2000/XP systems as well as with Mac OS X v10.2, basically consists of the two components shown in Figure A. These components work together to create a virtual USB cable via the Bluetooth short-range radio technology.

Figure A
The AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit basically consists of two small adapters.

Each of these components incorporates the Bluetooth OneChip technology developed by Microtune, a silicon and subsystems company that develops and manufactures radio frequency (RF) solutions for the broadband communications, transportation electronics, and short-range wireless connectivity markets.

The Bluetooth OneChip technology integrates a 2.4-GHz radio, baseband processor, flash program memory, and USB interface into a small circuit board embedded into the adapter, as shown in Figure B. (This cut-away image comes from the Microtune site.) This complete integration means that the Wireless Printer Kit doesn’t require any additional software or extra configuration. In other words, it’s truly a plug-and-play solution. Let’s take a closer look.

Figure B
The Bluetooth OneChip technology combines everything you need in a neat little package.

The slightly larger component (roughly three inches long) in the bottom of the image is the Master Adapter and is designed to connect to the printer via a Type B USB interface. The component in the top of the image is the Slave Adapter, which connects to a computer via a Type A USB interface.

Of course, this wireless printer solution requires a power source. As you can see, the Master Adapter has a jack that connects to a small 5-volt AC power adapter, which also comes with the kit. Also included in the kit are two USB extension cables, which allow you to connect the adapters in tight quarters. The 20-inch Type A USB extension cable is for connecting the Slave Adapter to a computer; the five-inch Type B USB extension cable is for connecting the Master Adapter to a printer.

Once connected, the Wireless Printer Kit instantly allows you to print at speeds comparable to a direct USB cable connection on the majority of the supported printers. When talking about speed, it’s important to point out that while the USB 1.1 standard can transfer data at 12 Mbps, the Wireless Printer Kit tops out at 340 Kbps. If we were talking hard drive data transfer, this would be a big drawback; but when it comes to printing, the difference is imperceptible.

On the other hand, a few of the supported printers may actually print a bit slower when connected via the Wireless Printer Kit than if they were connected via a cable. (For a list of the makes and models that fall into this category, see the Printer Compatibility Chart.)

As for the distance range of the Bluetooth-based Wireless Printer Kit, AmbiCom’s and Microtune’s specifications list a range of at least 100 feet in most environments. In very open environments, that range can reach as far as 200 feet.

When experimenting with the Wireless Printer Kit in a cubicle-based office setting, I was able to verify a 60-foot range. In another setting, with several walls between computer and printer, I was able to verify a 45- to 50-foot range and was even able to maintain a connection between the first and second floor within that range. Of course, at the longer distances, printing speed was a bit slower than when closer with a fairly good direct line of site.

When evaluating the range of this wireless technology, keep in mind that all sorts of things in a typical office environment can cause interference or limit the range. As such, your mileage may vary.

You can purchase additional Slave Adapters to create a dedicated, wireless print network. AmbiCom’s specifications state that each Master Adapter can maintain communications with up to 30 individual Slave Adapters.

Security issues
In this day and age, talking about wireless networking devices brings up the topic of data security. Fortunately, the Wireless Printer Kit provides a very secure environment. Each adapter has an embedded code that is used for authentication. These codes are paired such that print data will go only to the Master Adapter that is paired with the Slave Adapter. Furthermore, since the Bluetooth software used in the adapters is proprietary, intercepting a print job would be a very difficult operation.

As far as computer security goes, again there’s not really any danger of gaining access to the data stored on the hard disk via the Wireless Printer Kit’s Bluetooth connection. Again, the Bluetooth software used in the adapters is proprietary and not compatible with other Bluetooth devices. And, since the Bluetooth software is embedded in the adapter rather than being installed on the computer, there’s no way to directly access the computer. Furthermore, the Bluetooth software used in the adapters must work through a print driver, which further narrows the hacking ability.

Making the connection
As I mentioned, the Wireless Printer Kit is truly a plug-and-play solution. To begin, you’ll need to deal with the printer driver. The manual covers several scenarios when it comes to configuring the printer driver, and the one you choose will depend upon your situation.

For example, if the printer is currently connected to the computer via an existing USB cable, and the printer driver is already installed, then you’re all set to go. If it’s a new installation, you need to install the printer software on the computer and ignore any error messages pertaining to the printer not being detected.

Once the printer driver is installed, you connect the Slave Adapter to the computer’s USB port, as shown in Figure C. The green LED light on the Slave Adapter will glow for about two seconds to indicate a good connection, and then it will shut off.

Figure C
Once the printer driver is installed, you connect the Slave Adapter to the computer’s USB port.

As you can see, in this case, I’m connecting the Slave Adapter to a laptop system. However, connecting the device to a desktop system is an identical procedure. Now, you might be wondering about connecting the Slave Adapter to a USB hub rather than directly to the computer. While doing so will, in fact, work, AmbiCom recommends that you connect the Slave Adapter directly to your computer in order to ensure a reliable connection.

At this point, you’re ready to connect the Master Adapter. First, you’ll connect the AC Power connector to the Master Adapter and then plug the AC Power adapter into a power outlet. The green LED light on the Master Adapter will blink once to indicate that it’s receiving a power connection, and then it will shut off.

Now, you’ll connect the Master Adapter to the printer. As you can see in Figure D, I needed to use the included USB extension cable, since the USB port on this printer was deeply recessed and not wide enough for both the Master Adapter and the power plug to fit.

Figure D
Using the USB extension cable makes it easy to connect the Master Adapter to the printer.

As soon as the Slave and Master Adapters recognize each other, the LED light on both adapters will glow green and remain on. You’ll also see an alert message pop up on the computer that indicates recognition of a new USB device.

Once the connection is established, you can begin printing documents as you normally would. While the document is being wirelessly transferred, the LEDs on both the Slave and Master Adapters will blink continuously to indicate data transmission.

Getting the kit
The AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit carries a suggested retail price of $69.99; the individual Slave Adapter, $39.99. AmbiCom initially made the AmbiCom Wireless Printer Kit available through CompUSA. However, it’s now available at several other online computer stores as well.