Sep 99 Online
Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 9
Column Tag: MacTech Online
by Jeff Clites, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you're anything like me, you have to face two persistent problems: old equipment and new equipment. Specifically, where to put the new and what to do with the old. The "where" you'll have to handle yourself, but part of the "what" is sure to be "network them". After all, it's hard to watch a good Mac go to waste. As someone who works on the technical end of computing, people tend to assume that I know a lot about the nuts and bolts of networking. The truth be told, I've always worked either on a lone machine, or on a network which was already set up-I've never even had to buy an Ethernet cable. But recently I decided to take up the challenge and put some of my "last generation" equipment to good use, and in the process discovered that it can take a little bit of work to get your printers to play nicely with others. In the end it turned out to be a fun little challenge, and I saved a bunch of money by teaching old dog new tricks, rather than getting new dogs. So this month, we'll tour around some places on the web which tell us what to do and where to get the right tools to get our printers taking to multiple computers. And even if you can't admit to yourself that it's fun, at least you'll learn some things that your friends and family think you already know.
Networking the Un-networkable
To rework an old cliché, there are two kinds of printers in this world-those you can network, and those you can't. But this isn't quite true; it's really just that some are built to be network-aware and others are not. Unfortunately, those low-cost-but-high-quality inkjet printers tend to fall into the latter category, so you are usually stuck with only being able to print to them from one computer, or using a switch box or some such kludge. But, if you happen to have a fairly recent Epson printer, you are in luck. There is a neat little shareware package called EpsonShare which lets you print to your inkjet from multiple computers across a network. It takes care of all of the details for you, but what happens, in essence, is that your client machine prints to a spool file, which just happens to be saved into a folder which is file shared from the server machine (i.e., the machine to which the printer is actually connected). Then, the server machine prints this spool file. So as far as the printer is concerned all printing is still local, but EpsonShare automates the process of getting the spool file to the right machine and telling this machine to print it. It's pretty clever, actually, and it makes you wonder why the Mac OS doesn't do tricks like this on its own. Maybe Tioga, Apple's forthcoming next-generation printing system, will.
As a side note, if you have a new Blue and White G3 then you don't have a serial port to hook up a serial-only printer, but by using an older Mac with EpsonShare you can save yourself from having to buy a USB-to-serial adapter, or any of the other hardware add-ons which provide a serial port.
LocalTalk and Ethernet: The Twain Shall Meet
Now that we've seen that you can finesse some serial printers into working over a network, you would think that the hard part is over. After all, if your printer is network-aware, there should be no problem, right? Well, not always. Most Macintosh network printers are LocalTalk printers, which means that they use the AppleTalk protocol running over LocalTalk hardware (essentially a serial port with the right electronics). But today, you'd probably prefer to use Ethernet to connect the computers on your network. Now, there's no problem with using AppleTalk (or some other protocol you printer might understand) over Ethernet, it's just that many of the popular mid-range laser printers, for example, don't come with Ethernet connectivity; to get this, you either need a high-end printer or you need to purchase an add-on attachment for your printer. And again, if you have a Blue and White G3 then you don't have a LocalTalk port anyway.
The solution to this dilemma is a LocalTalk-to-Ethernet transceiver, which lets you connect a LocalTalk device to an Ethernet network. The two leading hardware solutions are by Farallon and Asanté-you basically just plug things in and go. But if you have an older Mac sitting around ready to work, then you can get the job done without spending a dime. Apple has a free (but unsupported) piece of software called the LocalTalk Bridge which, as the name implies, serves as a bridge between a LocalTalk network and an Ethernet network. So, you connect your LocalTalk printer to a LocalTalk port on your Mac which is running the LocalTalk Bridge, and suddenly your printer is visible to the rest of your AppleTalk network. As I mentioned above, this software if unsupported, and it is believed to not be fully compatible with Mac OS 8.5, but nothing says that legacy Mac has to be running the latest and greatest-mine is quite content running Mac OS 8.1. It's certainly worth trying out.
So again, using an old Mac can save us from having to buy new hardware. Even more importantly for some, this setup will let you print to your LocalTalk PostScript printer from Mac OS X Server on a Blue and White G3, and is one of the few setups which will let you do this. Even if you don't need to network your printer it can be difficult to access it from this OS; although Mac OS X Server does support printing over AppleTalk, it only has minimal USB support (only enough to access Apple's keyboard and mouse), so a USB printer is out of the question, and you can't even use a USB-to-serial adapter to connect a local printer. Things will probably get easier after the release of the consumer version of Mac OS X, but until then our old Macs will have to help us out.
Farallon EtherMac iPrint Adapter
Apple - LocalTalk Bridge 2.1