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How Printers and Computers Connect Across a Network

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Businessman plugging in printer in office
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Printers that come ready for networking typically have a network adapter installed. Check your printer’s manual for more information, but printers that are ready to be connected to a wired network have a special jack called RJ-45 installed, which looks similar to a regular phone jack, just bigger.

In simplest terms, printers connect to wired networks through the router. One of the plugs goes into the router, and the other end goes into the printer’s jack. When all the pieces are restarted, you’ll need to install a print driver on all the PCs that will use the printer. This can usually be found on the CD that came with the printer (as well as on the manufacturer’s Web site).

Wireless

If your printer is wireless-enabled, you don’t have to connect any cables to it at all. You will need to get it recognized by the network, meaning that if you have security features enabled on your wireless router (and you should), you’ll need to share those with the printer. Consult the printer’s manual for the details, as this process is different from printer to printer. For a more detailed look, try The Basics of Wireless Networking.

Print Servers

Even printers that aren’t network-enabled out of the box can often be networked by using a print server, a device that connects to your router and your printer. This lets the printer be shared by any computer on the network.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless protocol that many PCs and cell phones use (for a wireless headset, for example). You can find many printers that can be Bluetooth-enabled as well, so you can print from your phone or (if you're not too far away) your laptop. It's unlikely that a printer will come with Bluetooth built in, so you'll need an adapter. These are thumb drives that plug right into the printer's USB port. If you intend to print from your phone, Bluetooth is a handy option.

Sharing a Printer

The Printing Preferences menu for your printer will give you an option to share the printer if it’s network ready. This process is usually quite simple: open the printer’s properties (in Windows you’ll open the Control Panel, choose Printers and Other Hardware, and then View Installed Printers) and look for a tab called “Sharing.” You’ll need to give the printer a name so that the other computers on the network can find it.

If you're using Windows 7 and want to share a printer on a home network, follow the links at How to Share a Printer on a Home Network with Windows 7.

Bottom Line: If you have multiple computers that need to access a single printer, make life easier for yourself and look for a printer that’s network ready out of the box. It’s an add-on for many printers, so make sure you pick up any networking accessories that aren’t included.

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