Look, Ma Wireless Printing

You check into the office after a road trip with a laptop full of spreadsheets and memos to be printed. You face a daunting task. The alternatives--copying files to floppy disks, hooking your laptop up to a network, fumbling with cables--are all awkward. What if you could just point your notebook at your printer and have the pages come pouring out?

That day is here. OmniBooks from Hewlett-Packard and IBM ThinkPads have come for some time with ports that can send data to a printer using the same infrared light used in television remote controls. But until now, it has been like having a remote without the television. The new HP LaserJet 5P printer closes the loop, taking wireless commands from any device built to the new Infrared Data Assn. (IrDA) standard.

GROOVY GRAPHICS. The wireless link, a breakthrough for portable computing, is only one of many features that make the new LaserJet a standout in a crowded market. It is well-suited for use as a shared printer in a small office, thanks to two parallel ports that make it possible to hook the printer up to two PCs at a time without any sort of network or external switch. You can also get two Apple Macintoshes on the AppleTalk connector on a 5MP, the printer's PostScript-compatible version. The printer is smart enough to make one computer wait its turn until the other has finished.

Of course, what you care about most in a printer are the printouts, and the new LaserJet shines. It is a true 600 dots-per-inch printer, while lower-end machines offer 300 dpi. The difference is not all that noticeable on text but can really show on graphics, especially scanned photographs and other material where shades of grey are critical. The print quality of the 5P easily matches that of the much more expensive--and faster--LaserJet 4Ms that we use on BUSINESS WEEK's office network.

HP could have stopped there and had a hit. But the company also demonstrated a refreshing sensitivity to smart industrial design. Not everybody can keep a printer backed up to a wall to hide a hideous tangle of cables. And with so many connections available, the 5P could easily be particularly ugly. Instead, the connectors are hidden behind doors on the rear of the unit, and the cables and power cord emerge neatly from the back. The paper supply is well thought out, too. The pull-out paper tray slides out of sight under the printer, and the front folds down to form a second tray for paper or a stack of envelopes.

The new LaserJets are far from the cheapest four-page-per-minute laser printers you can find. The street prices are around $900 for the 5P and about $200 more for the Macintosh-ready 5MP. You can get a capable unit such as the new Canon LBP 430W for a bit more than half the price of the HP. But the HP is a good value, especially if you can take advantage of its versatility.

MANUAL LABOR. The only place where HP fell down on the job is in ease of set-up. Getting the 5P running is by no means difficult, but trying to ferret out answers in the manual can be confusing. I needed to call technical support to find out how to properly install the necessary software on my laptop so that it could link up with the printer. HP would do well to study the "visual guide" step-by-step instructional software that Canon supplies with its new ink-jet printers for the home market.

Printers, as dramatically as computers themselves, keep offering more and more at reasonable prices. While many of the changes are incremental, the infrared link is a fundamental improvement. So far, no other printer maker has announced plans to incorporate the wireless feature into its products. But IBM and Apple Computer, as well as Hewlett-Packard, were strong supporters of the IrDA standard that makes sure laptops and printers "understand" each other. Expect the laser link to quickly become standard on printers, laptops, and handheld products such as Apple's Newton MessagePad.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.