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Linux Printing: A Curious Mix of Yuck and Excellence, part 1

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I've long been a fan of CUPS, which has been the standard printing subsystem on Linux for several years now. It networks printers automatically on Linux, and combined with Samba it does the same for Windows clients. But my affections are wearing thin; after all these years CUPS still does not provide a user- or admin-friendly interface or useful notifications, and setting up automatic driver downloads for Windows clients is still a black art. The printer interfaces in Gnome and KDE are useless duplications of effort that don't offer much that is really helpful, and the KDE printer manager has long been notoriously buggy, though it has improved a lot over time. We miss out on a lot of CUPS' useful functionality, such as printing over the Internet and connecting Windows clients without Samba, because the interface and documentation skip over the gnarly bits of how to actually set these up.

Part of the problem with Linux printing is the usual printer vendor hostility to non-Windows users. Even when there are good vendor-supported Linux drivers, they are often not feature-equivalent to their Windows cousins, and they act as though CUPS doesn't exist at all. But there are some exceptions to this, most notably Hewlett-Packard printers. So, in search of hope, I had a good conversation with Hewlett Packard's General Manager of Core Technology, Sam Greenblatt.

The HPLIP project is a mostly FOSS project that supports the majority of HP's printers. HPLIP drivers and software are licensed under BSD, MIT, and GPL licenses. Plus there are a few proprietary binary-only bits for some printers; I don't know which ones, but it's apparently a small number.

There are now at least three main Linux printer driver projects: Gutenprint, Foomatic, and HPLIP. Some distributions install the whole works by default, on some you must install them separately. Many printers are supported by all three, so you can try the different drivers to see which ones work best. TurboPrint is a proprietary option that costs money, about $30, and is a nice alternative for color printers when the other three don't supply good drivers.

The HPLIP project site includes a database of Linux-supported printers and exactly what features are supported. Mr. Greenblatt is proud of the quality of the HPLIP project, and claims that the HPLIP drivers are more secure than the CUPS drivers. HPLIP offers automatic network delivery of printer drivers, which is a lovely thing for those of us who are scarred by years of setting this up manually in our CUPS + Samba network printer servers.

But there are still some flies in the soup-- print jobs that disappear, and then reappear days later when you don't want them, lack of good user- and admin control panels, and little in the way of meaningful notifications, like is this printer really online now? Is my print job really getting printed? Is it low on toner or paper? Why, after all these years, are these basic features still lacking? What about professional-level color printing, and color profiling? Come back on Thursday and we'll answer some of these questions, and dig deeper into finding ways to make printing on Linux less vexing and more reliable. If it's any consolation, using Windows or Novell's iPrint as printer servers is worse. Linux offers an amazing level of reliability and functionality-- the trick is figuring out how.

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