One of the things I’ve always liked most about working with Macs is how easy printing is – or, was. For most of the last decade, printing was as easy as plugging your machine in with USB and hitting the right button.
Sure, you might have to download a “driver” (special printer software) from some weird website once in a while, or go on a wild goose chase for software for a more venerable printer, but overall things weren’t too bad at all — especially compared to PCs.
Unfortunately the advent of wireless printing has created new hoops to jump through. While many manufacturers have tried to come up with new standards to make things the same across the industry, the number of new “standards” has created a bit of an issue in itself.
Here are a few main types of printer connections you’re likely to run into outside of simple plug and play with USB.
This is the most common form you’re likely to see. In this case, the printer joins your existing wireless network, and any computer on that network can see it, similar to if it were plugged in with USB or part of an ethernet network.
In these cases, you’ll still need an appropriate driver to use the printer. In most cases your Mac will be able to select one for you automatically, but you might have to go hunting online for printers that are very new or fairly old.
The major catch with these in my experience is how finicky they can be to set up on the tiny screens many printers come with. You’ve got to navigate a bunch of confusing menus to find the Wi-Fi Connection screen, enter your often-complex Wi-Fi password, and hope you have enough signal strength to get going.
It’s not usually too bad if the manual is half-decent, and once it’s set up, you should be good to go outside of a power outage or router update that might require you to re-join the printer to the network.
Probably the most common issue I see is printer interfaces so confusing that people end up using this by accident. Wi-Fi Direct essentially creates a private Wi-Fi network between the printer and a single other device, like a lone Mac or PC.
This usually works ok and is often easy to do without entering passwords, but it means you have to disconnect from your usual Wi-Fi network just to print. It also means your next-door neighbour might be able to connect to and print on your printer, whether you gave them permission or not.
This isn’t really a standalone system as much as a variant of Wi-Fi Printing. You still have to connect your printer to your wireless network, but once you do, you can print easily from any Apple device with one click or touch (provided the printer supports AirPrint.)
This Apple-designed system doesn’t require any driver software or other downloads, making it super easy to use. The catch is that you don’t usually get the same level of granular options when printing, including any special features of your printer, like duplex or collation. I recently ran into an HP printer that didn’t offer any drivers for Mac at all outside of AirPrint, so be conscious of that possibility if you are hunting for a machine with special features like that.
There are a few other options, like Bluetooth and NFC (Near-Field Connectivity), but these are pretty niche and probably not useful unless you have a specific need for them. In general, the best advice is to read your printer's setup guide and try to follow the steps as best you can. You also usually don’t need to insert or use any accompanying CD (into your nonexistent CD drive) — your Mac should have the correct drivers already in most cases.