Review: Four Apps for Printing with the iPad
When the iPad first launched, some wag at a consulting firm posted a blog item about how to get around the device's apparent inability to print. It featured a photo of an iPad lying face down on a fax machine. Har har.
Others commentators wondered why you would want to print from a device intended primarily for listening to music, watching YouTube videos and looking at digital images.
It's clear now that the iPad will be used in businesses, big and small, and that means printing becomes more than a nice-to-have feature. Apple has already announced that printing on the iPad will be supported with the upcoming release of iOS 4.2, but details of when that will happen have yet to be disclosed.
In the meantime, several developers have launched apps that in various ways work around the lack of a native printing capability in first-gen iPads. Or try to. We tested four.
Cortado Workplace is a free online file storage/sharing app that, like the much slicker alternatives such as SugarSync and Dropbox, provides online storage (only 1GB, though) and allows users to access files stored in their online Cortado workplace using a dedicated iPad app.
The big difference - and really the only thing to recommend Cortado over similar product/services - is that it's possible to print from the Cortado iPad app to most Wi-Fi printers. It can also print local files that have been downloaded from workspace to app.
I set the service up in a matter of minutes and tested it with a three-year-old low-end HP OfficeJet printer. Cortado found the printer on my local network almost immediately and correctly identified it, but then wasn't sure which printer driver to use. (The company has implemented a surprising number.) It presented a list of drivers by manufacturer. My specific model wasn't there but there was a generic OfficeJet driver that worked.
Printing is a multi-tap process. Tap the filename in the workplace folder, tap the tools button, tap print, wait for the software to find a local printer, tap the one you want to use, tap the correct printer driver if it doesn't find it automatically, tap print. A little cumbersome, but it works.
One glaring flaw in Cortado Workplace: in the PC interface, for reasons known only to the company, it's not possible to select multiple files for upload to the workplace - you have to upload them one at a time.
Print Magic HD
Print Magic HD, from Taiwan-based Wellala Inc., is an app that theoretically does let you print local files - Web pages and photos stored in iPad's native photo app. And it's free.
It will also - again, theoretically - print PDFs, if you're willing to pay ($7.99) to upgrade, which you can do from within the app. In my testing, the free features worked so poorly I didn't bother trying PDF printing.
When you launch the app, it immediately goes looking for printers. It found my OfficeJet and also a Samsung color laser printer, but then apparently did not have drivers to make them work.
It also automatically opens what it calls the 'pasteboard,' which appears to be whatever Web page is currently displayed in Safari. Display was so slow in my testing that the app was unusable. And even if you select another category - photos, say - it continues trying to load a Web page.
When I finally did get a Web page displayed - after minutes of waiting in some cases - and tried to print to either of the printers, Print Magic returned error messages. Give this one a miss.
MobileToolz ($9.99) from Ndili Technologies isn't a huge improvement. It's an iPhone productivity suite that allows you to create documents or download them from the Internet and then print, fax, e-mail or even snail mail them from its unified interface.
I was mainly interested in the print functionality. It's frustrating again that you cannot access existing documents on the iPad to print. You can't even open and print photos stored in the native Photo app as you supposedly can with PrintMagic. You can, however, open DropBox (cloud stored) documents in MobileToolz, and then print them.
And the built-in browser (which MobileToolz calls the Downloader) works much better than Print Magic's, accessing and displaying pages about as quickly as Safari does.
Once you have a Web page displayed, you can choose the Download button to store it in MobileToolz on the iPad. I tried this a couple of times without success. After I keyed in a filename, the app reported that the page was successfully saved. However, when I tried to open it from the Downloads folder where its filename appeared, the file was empty.
With any type of document open in MobileToolz, including DropBox documents or Web pages, you can also press Print to print directly. Most times I tried this with an open Web page, the app crashed back to the iPad home screen.
On a few occasions, it did present me with a list of available printers. At one point, it recognized both the OfficeJet and Samsung as printers but did not have a driver for the Samsung. Later it did not even recognize the OfficeJet and I had to add it manually by selecting a generic OfficeJet driver from a list.
On a couple of semi-successful attempts to print directly from displayed Dropbox documents or pages, MobileToolz printed only one page of several. This app is a slight improvement over PrintMagic, but another miss.
PrintCentral for iPad
So far, not so good - but we've saved the best to last. Unlike the other apps here, PrintCentral ($9.99) from EuroSmartz is (almost) all about printing. And it does a fairly decent job.
PrintCentral incorporates an e-mail client you can set up to receive mail from POP and IMAP accounts. You can then print messages from within the app. (But why would you want to do this?) Like PrintMagic and MobileToolz, PrintCentral has a built-in browser and lets you print displayed Web pages. And you can select and print images stored in the iPad's native photo app.
Best of all, you can clip documents or snippets from other iPad apps and add them to PrintCentral's Clip archive, from which you can then print them. So if you wanted to print the text of an iWork Pages document, for example, you could use the Select All and Copy commands in Pages, then exit the app, launch PrintCentral and add the clipboard contents as a new file to the Clip archive.
In whichever PrintCentral module you're working, the Print button is always available at the top of the screen. Tapping it the first time launches a search for Wi-Fi printers.
PrintCentral found both my Samsung and HP OfficeJet printers. It managed the process of sending a test print to the Samsung, which failed - PrintCentral apparently doesn't have a driver for this printer either. After that, the Samsung printer no longer showed up in the list of available printer. PrintCentral was able to print to the OfficeJet.
The pop-up print dialog includes information about the document to be printed and the printer and let me set page orientation, page range to print and paper size - although it may only provide these settings for some printers.
When printing from the Web, PrintCentral put a strange border around the page and duplicated text near the bottom of a page at the top of the next page - which is better than the alternative of skipping text. Other print jobs came out more or less as expected, although text size in printed emails was almost unreadably small.
Printing remains a weakness with the iPad as a business tool. PrintCentral goes some way to remedying this. If you can't wait for Apple to issue the iOS update, it may be an acceptable stop-gap measure. Based on my experiences with the rest of these apps, I'd recommend staying away from them.