Gears & Gadgets

We put the paper back into a ChromeOS paperless office

A little less than $  350 buys you a solid color laser printer, scanner, and fax machine that works flawlessly with Android and ChromeOS devices.
Enlarge / A little less than $ 350 buys you a solid color laser printer, scanner, and fax machine that works flawlessly with Android and ChromeOS devices.
Jim Salter

With social distancing and isolation, many of us are having to find ways to do more with less—in terms of equipment and technical support, as much as anything else. Today, we’re going to take a look at one success story in a less-traveled but suddenly very relevant workflow—scanning and printing with a ChromeOS device.

Enter the Chromebox

Chromeboxes are just like the Chromebooks that American schools have almost unanimously adopted as student computers. They’re simple low-powered devices that run ChromeOS—which doesn’t look much like an “operating system” at all to the user. The only difference is that, while a Chromebook is a laptop form factor, a Chromebox is a tiny standalone PC that can be bolted right to the back of a standard monitor.

For people who do most of their work online, ChromeOS devices are great—they’re inexpensive, they cold boot in seconds, and they manage all of their own software updates. They’re also nearly impossible to get infested with malware. The worst “malware” problems I’ve ever seen on a ChromeOS device are spammy browser notifications, caused by a user clicking “allow” when some ad banner requests the privilege.

Trying to figure out how to print—and scan—from a ChromeOS device is a little more difficult to figure out. But if you’re careful with your purchases, it can be done—and it works quite well.

Bringing paper back into the paperless office

Like most Arsians, I tend to be the de facto tech support person in my family. So when my father-in-law kept having problems with malware and confusing sets of applications and drivers on his Windows computer several years ago, I asked him a few questions about what he did with his PC.

After hearing all he wanted to do was get online and edit the occasional Word document, I set him up with a Chromebox bolted to a 24-inch monitor. The Chromebox seemed to be a great success—there weren’t any more malware problems, and my father-in-law took to the G Suite office functionality built into ChromeOS without a problem.

What I didn’t realize—because I failed to sufficiently explore the problem space!—is that, while he mostly just wanted to “get online,” my father-in-law still had some occasional legacy business needs. Although he’s officially retired, he still keeps busy with the occasional contract—and rather than bother me when plugging his old printer into the Chromebox didn’t work, he just started going to Staples to print and scan documents there.

Eventually, my wife found out about the Staples trips—and told me we needed to get an all-in-one printer, scanner, and fax machine for the Chromebox.

Adding hardware to a driverless system

ChromeOS devices very deliberately eschew the normal hardware ecosystem—you can’t just buy any random thing from the store, plug it in, and expect to stick in a CD-ROM (or download a driver) and make it work. So the key to finding my father-in-law a workable system was going to be direct integration with Google cloud services—not the Chromebox itself.

I knew that many printers would support Google Cloud Print, which would in turn make printing possible from either ChromeOS or Android devices. The ugly question revolved around scanning. Typically when setting up network scanners, they either scan to SMB—shared Windows folders—or to email.

Scanning to SMB was definitely going to be out for a Chromebox, and email didn’t sound like much fun either—Google has made Gmail accounts notoriously difficult and unreliable for simple SMTP services to access, and I more than half expected I’d need to set up a “relay” account on a Postfix server running in a VM so that the scanner could send emails to the Gmail account by way of the Postfix server in the middle.

Happily, it turned out to be a much simpler proposition than that—several of Brother’s all-in-one MFC devices support scanning directly to a Google Drive account. No email, no SMTP relay, just put in your credentials and go—and have the images show up exactly where a ChromeOS user will be looking for them in the first place!

Brother MFC-L3710CW to the rescue

After a little more careful questioning, we determined that a color printer was also in order, not just black and white. Brother has two under-$ 500 laser printers that fit all of our needs—the $ 330 MFC-L3710CW, and the $ 370 MFC-L3770CDW.

Normally, I’d strongly prefer the MFC-L3770CDW. The extra $ 40 or so buys you faster printing, an automatic duplexer, and a wired Ethernet jack. The Ethernet jack wouldn’t help in this case, since the router wasn’t in my father-in-law’s office, and he wasn’t going to move it, and we weren’t going to run cable.

Adding insult to injury, the MFC-L3770CDW was out of stock on the day I was shopping—so I sighed, ordered the cheaper model, and called it a day.

If you don’t want an All-In-One device

If you end up preferring a standalone printer, any device offering Cloud Print support will do—and those are much easier to search for. You can take care of occasional scanning needs surprisingly easily and well with a smartphone and the Adobe Scan app, which is available for free in both Android and iOS app stores.

Adobe Scan allows you to take photos of paper documents at nearly any angle and skew—making it easy to avoid casting shadows. The app automatically detects the paper’s edges and near-instantly transforms the raw photo into a clean scan that looks like it was taken with a real photocopier.

In addition to single-page scans, the app allows up to 25 pages to be assembled into a single PDF. PDFs created by Adobe Scan can then be accessed via an Adobe Cloud account or downloaded or emailed directly via the phone itself.

Remote setup, onsite installation

The next challenge was getting everything set up before it arrived at my father-in-law’s house. My wife wanted to do the delivery and setup herself, and I wanted it to be as close to plug-and-play as we could manage. Fortunately, we already have Chromeboxes at the house for our kids—and we also have access to the Gmail account the printer needed to be set up for.

Print setup

Initially, I set the new printer up using Google Cloud Print—it’s an easy, driverless way to add any printer which supports the service, and doesn’t depend on any local hostnames or static IP addresses. Unfortunately, it’s also on the way out the door—I missed the memo when our own Ron Amadeo reported on the ten-year “beta” service’s impending decommissioning in December.

Happily, Chrome Remote Desktop is a thing, so even though my wife had already delivered and set the printer up, a quick call with my father-in-law got me connected to set the printer up without Cloud Print. First, I walked him through going to remotedesktop.google.com, generating an access code, and reading it out to me. From there, it only took a moment to go to Settings, search them for “print”, and click “Add Printer”—the Brother showed up immediately as an available local printer.

After adding the local instance of the Brother printer, the next step was backing out to a normal Chrome window, selecting Print, and going to “More…” in the printer selection menu. The local instance of the Brother that I’d just installed showed up here—so I selected it and did a test print. The test print came out fine—and more importantly, after that first successful print job, the local printer isn’t hidden behind “More…” anymore, it’s right there front and center.

The other nice thing here is that the local print setup didn’t use the printer’s IP address—it used a NetBIOS hostname. So my original plan of setting the printer up at my own house before my wife delivered it to my father-in-law would still have worked—its IP address would change between my network and his, but the hostname would not.

Scan setup

Setup for scanning to Google Drive was also pretty painless. The majority of the process (documented in the image gallery above) is done on the touchscreen of the printer itself and is finished in under 10 steps. Once done, a user can tap a shortcut directly from the printer’s main menu which begins the scan process using the Google Drive account, folder, file type, and scanning options selected during setup—which is ideal for older or very non-technical users who need fewer steps.

If you’re not a particularly technical user yourself, this still isn’t a difficult process to get through. Unlike many all-in-one setup processes, this doesn’t require a single visit to the printer’s own Web interface. Every last step for both print and scan setup took place either on the printer’s own touchscreen or in a user’s Google account online—no fussing around with IP addresses or hostnames required.

Conclusions

I ended up very happy with the Brother MFC-L3710CW. It didn’t cost a ton of money, it’s a color laser with decent supply costs and print speed, and the scan quality is good.

More importantly, it worked flawlessly inside the very limited ecosystem at my father-in-law’s house. He is now able to print and scan confidently, without having to fall back on a Windows or other general-purpose computer—and we got rid of his old fax machine while we were at it, since the MFC-L3710CW does that, too.

The setup process was also great for my wife. Instead of having to hunt through all the settings and read manuals with her father and little brother looking over her shoulder and making helpful suggestions, all she needed to do was connect it to their Wi-Fi.

Before she left, I removed her father’s Gmail account from my daughter’s Chromebox and then added it back again—this allowed her to see exactly what she would when she logged into his real Chromebox, at his house 1.5 hours away.

With all of the account-setup stuff done, this just amounted to printing a single document and clicking “See more…” under the printer selections—the printer automatically populates in that list, since it has already been registered to the account.

We also have Chrome Remote Desktop available to provide screen and keyboard/mouse-sharing support later, if necessary—but so far, we haven’t needed it.

Update: the very day this article published, I needed that Chrome Remote Desktop support—to reconfigure the printer for local printing rather than the soon-to-die Google Cloud Print. oldmanyellsatcloud.jpg

The Good

  • Going ChromeOS means no more malware, no more confusing software installations, no more hunt-the-driver wackiness
  • Printing and scanning work flawlessly and simply—if you carefully shop for the right device first
  • Printer autodiscovered instantly on the local network, using CUPS setup
  • Going Chromebox instead of Chromebook costs more but gets you access to a full-size monitor, mouse, and keyboard of your choice
  • Incredibly fast cold-boot time (under 5 seconds typically) on ~$ 150 devices
  • Native cloud storage (no backup requirements, multiple device access)

The Bad

  • Going ChromeOS means no more third-party software (beyond browser extensions) and no more third-party hardware (that requires driver installation)
  • Printing and scanning on whatever you find lying about is likely to be a no-go—particularly over USB (our LaserJet 4000n works fine as a CUPS printer, though)
  • Without working, high-quality Internet access, a ChromeOS device isn’t much more than a paperweight

The Ugly

  • Deliberately buying a Chromebox so kids can’t “get in trouble” with a webcam the summer before COVID-19
  • Virtual school from home after COVID-19
  • Never-ending Google Hangouts with teacher and class, “Record a video of…” homework assignments, and more
  • Trying to find a USB webcam in stock after social isolation began, to correct my own lack of foresight
  • Google not warning users that Cloud Print is scheduled to die in December while they’re setting up a new printer on it

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Tech – Ars Technica

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