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Print 2.0: Must-have technologies for your next printer

Remember when “printing” meant watching a dot-matrix printer zip back and forth against a stuttering ribbon of tractor-feed paper? So do we, and nostalgia for those glorious accordions of paper aside, we’re glad they’ve over. These days, even the most rudimentary printer can crank out school essays, pie charts and photos without breaking a sweat, no fuzzy stubs needed. But as the baseline moves ever higher, printer companies have pushed the boundaries even further.

Think you had the market figured out when you discovered the difference between inkjet and laser printers? Think again. Here’s a look at some of the emerging features and trends finding their way into the modern printers that Gutenberg never would have dreamed of.

LED Printers

You can buy LED flashlights, LED televisions, and now, LED printers. Though they’ve actually been around for over a decade (OKI Data produced the very first model in 1983), limited resolution has slowed their popularity beside the laser printer, which has become an almost ubiquitous office staple.

Both laser and LED printers use toner applied by a rotating drum, but LED printers use a strip of fixed LEDs as a light source to set the image, rather than a laser and rotating mirrors. This gives them fewer moving parts, but also produced the aforementioned limit on resolution — you have to cram 600 LEDs into an inch if you want to print at 600 DPI.

OKI Data went a long way in minimizing that issue with the development of a semiconductor print head in 2006, and a now a number of other companies have begun producing LED printers due to their small size, energy efficiency, low noise, and speed. Dell, for instance, just introduced the 1250C, a color LED printer that looks like a dwarf beside most color lasers and retails for only $319.

Built-in Wi-Fi

Networking a printer just makes sense — after all, a household with five computers should never need five printers. In the past, this has usually meant locating printer near your wireless router so you can string a length of Ethernet cable to it and tie it in, but more and more printers, even low-end ones, now include Wi-Fi built in, so you can place it somewhere convenient, hook it up to power, and have documents pouring out from computers all over the house in no time. The same functionality that would have cost $300 a few years back can now be had for under $150 with printers like HP’s $60 Photosmart C4795 or Epson’s $70 WorkForce 40.

Mobile printing

As consumers turn away from desktops and laptops to do more and more of their surfing on smartphones and tablets, manufacturers have started building printers to accommodate. PictBridge got the ball rolling on mobile printing back in 2003, but since no one really wants to physically connect a phone or tablet to a printer, Bluetooth has helped bridge the wireless gap by shuttling pixels from phone to printer. Polaroid’s pocketable PoGo printer, for example, allows you to print directly from a Bluetooth phone for digital camera, and runs on batteries so you can quite literally print from anywhere.

Other companies have taken a different approach. HP’s iPrint application, for instance, works with a staggering number of its existing networked printers, and allows users to print directly from an iPhone, iPod or iPad. If you would rather not use an app, the AirPrint feature in Apple’s recently released iOS 4.2 upgrade will also work natively with 10 HP printers. Other third-party apps exist as workarounds to print to networked printers just like a PC would, such as PrintCentral for iOS and PrinterShare for Android.

Print from your printer

Sure, you can run upstairs to grab a laptop, let it boot up, open Chrome and load Google Maps to print a set of quick directions, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that directly from the printer? A handful of companies are taking the next logical step from allowing you to print from memory cards and instead allowing you to print from the Web.

HP’s ePrint line, for instance, lets you print coupons, recipes, greeting cards and more directly through the printer as if it were a kiosk — no phone or PC needed. The company will take it even further this coming year with the eStation C510, which actually includes a 7-inch breakaway Android tablet with full Web browsing, weather, e-mail access, e-books and more.

3D Printing

Yes, 3D printing. As in, “printing objects” not “printing 3D photographs.” A gear, a sculpture of a rabbit, a piece of personalized jewelry; you name it, they can print it out of plastic. Maybe even another 3D printer, one day.

Though 3D printers have existed for some time for commercial prototyping, they’re just now starting to migrate to the home. At this point, you’ll still need a deep pockets or deep patience to start cranking out the frog paperweights you’ve always dreamed of, but for the tinkerer or dedicated early adopter, the possibilities are limitless.

The UP! Personal Portable 3D Printer retails for $2,690, while the open-source MakerBot CupCake will reward anyone handy enough to assemble their own from a kit with a 3D printer for only $650. Want something pro-grade you can use right out of the box? The V-Flash personal 3D printer for $9,900.

OK, so the practical applications of 3D home printing are still far on the horizon, but don’t be surprised if you download and print your next set of dishes one day.

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