Tangerine Fusion

USB Printer Sharing: GrayShare 2000

- 2000.06.16

Apple's newly released USB Printer Sharing 1.0 has a revolutionary new feature for non-networkable USB printers: it allows them to be networked!

But wasn't there something like this a few years ago?

Yes indeed, and it was the late and very unlamented GrayShare. Introduced with the StyleWriter II, and subsequently added to Apple's non-PostScript laser printers, GrayShare allowed people to network printers without adding any networking hardware to the printers themselves.

With GrayShare, the printer wasn't connected to the network. Instead, it was connected to one of the computers on the network, which became a print server. With GrayShare, all the other Macs on the network could print through that computer.

John Kadyk, Larry Pina, and Randy B. Singer, in The Macintosh Bible, 5th edition, called GrayShare "backassward", and for two good reasons. First, the printer was a slave to the server computer, so if that computer was shut down, crashed, or simply lost power in some way, the printer went into Sculpture Mode. Also, since it was the server computer's job to handle the spooling of the printer, the computer simply bogged down whenever any of the computers on the network needed to print. (Back then, the fastest Mac available was the Quadra 840AV, which had a 40 MHz processor.)

Believe it or not, Apple actually benefited from GrayShare! It allowed Apple to save money over making real AppleTalk/LocalTalk printers, and gave users more incentive upgrade or replace the Mac they used with the printer, to reduce the slowdown when printing.

The problem with USB Printer Sharing is that, in execution, it works exactly like GrayShare! The printer connects to the computer's USB port, and then other computers access the printer over the network - and that's where the similarities end.

USB Printer Sharing is a 100% good-natured program. It allows USB printers that don't have an ethernet port to be used with an ethernet network. Not only that, it can also be used with AirPort, since you can connect AirPort to ethernet networks. You can use both AirPort and ethernet simultaneously, connect the printer to a computer that's connected to either, and have full access to that printer by both networks at the same time!

The program is currently your only option to attach a non-ethernet printer with USB connectivity to an ethernet network.

One problem from GrayShare persists, however, and that's the slowdown of the printing computer. Computers are a lot faster now, right? Yes, but that's not necessarily the issue now. The lingering problem lies in the Mac OS's cooperative multitasking. Since the Mac OS doesn't work very well processing two things at once, a background printing job can cause the computer to become noticeably sluggish, even on the fastest Mac presently available, the Power Mac G4/500.

For example, when I'm printing a three-page text document on my Epson Stylus Color 740 and typing another document at the same time, it will actually take a half-second for a letter to show up on the screen after I type it in! (I'm using an iMac DV!) Programs will also take longer to launch while printing takes place, and digital audio (like MP3s, AIFFs, and Audio CDs on newer Macs) will often go dead if you play them and print at the same time.

Until Mac OS X, with its more efficient preemptive multitasking, is released, USB Printer Sharing (and background printing in general, for that matter) will always make the host computer much slower while printing. Still, USB Printer Sharing is a very versatile program, and it is free.

This is the first column I've written with Z-Write, a new "nonlinear" word processor. I'm very impressed with it! Check out Charles W. Moore's review of it for more info.

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