The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from. This definitely applies to wireless printers. When buying a printer, you’ll find that most printers support a variety of different printing standards.

These standards have arisen because of how messy printing — even wireless printing — can be. They all aim to make printing easier, but they’re all different and work in different ways.

Wi-Fi Printing

RELATED: 4 Easy Ways to Remotely Print Over the Network or Internet

Standard Wi-Fi printing is essentially a wireless form of standard wired USB printing. As with USB printing, it requires printer drivers.

Wi-Fi-enabled printers can connect to your wireless network, making themselves available to other computers and devices. Computers on the network can then print over the network. This also makes it easy to share a single printer between multiple computers. However, this process can still be rather messy. You still need to install the appropriate printer drivers before your computer can print to it.

This can be a problem. For example, let’s say you want to print to a wireless printer from an iPhone, Android phone, an iPad, or another type of tablet? How are you supposed to install printer drivers on your phone or tablet?

Bluetooth Printing

RELATED: More Than Headsets: 5 Things You Can Do With Bluetooth

Some printers support Bluetooth printing, although this is nowhere near as common as Wi-Fi printing. To use this, you’d need a phone, tablet, or laptop with integrated Bluetooth. You’d then have to pair your device and the printer. This happens over a local, short-range Bluetooth connection, so the devices must be close enough to each other for this to work.

You could then send documents to the printer over Bluetooth as long as you’re near it, just as you could use Bluetooth to pair a headset or transfer files between nearby devices.

Bluetooth printing can work, but it’s inconvenient. Many printers don’t include Bluetooth radios and, when they do, this requires you enable the Bluetooth radio on your device, go through a pairing process, and get close enough to the printer before you can print. With a Wi-Fi-enabled printer, any device on the same network can use the printer, even if they’re far apart or don’t have Bluetooth radios.

Apple AirPrint

AirPrint is Apple’s solution to the mess of printer drivers and Bluetooth pairing. Printers that support AirPrint will be advertised as AirPrint compatible. Most printer manufacturers make printers that are AirPrint-compatible while also supporting other wireless printing standards. You don’t have to buy a special Apple-device-only printer to use AirPrint.

To use an AirPrint printer, you’d simply connect it to your wireless network like a typical Wi-Fi printer. Next, you’d take your iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, or Mac computer and select the Print option in any program. You’d then see a list of AirPrint-compatible printers on your local network. To print to a printer, just select the printer from the list.

That’s it. You don’t have to install printer drivers or go through a pairing process. Apple devices will automatically detect AirPrint printers on the same network and can print to them without any further configuration.

AirPrint is very convenient, but the big downside is that it only supports Apple devices. You can’t print from a Windows PC or Android device using AirPrint — at least, not without unofficial hacky solutions that may not work. Luckily, AirPrint-compatible printers will generally also support other types of wireless-printing standards, so you can also print to them from non-Apple devices.

Google Cloud Print

RELATED: How (and Why) to Get Started with Google Cloud Print

Google Cloud Print is Google’s answer to the wireless printing mess. When you use a Google Cloud Print-enabled printer, it connects to your wireless network like another Wi-Fi-enabled printer. You then associate your printer with a Google account, which it communicates with over the Internet.

You can then print to your printer via Google Cloud Print from any device just by logging in with your Google account. Google Cloud Print offers integration with Android and Chrome, as well as apps for Apple’s iOS and integration with the standard Windows printing system. When you print to a Google Cloud Print printer, your document is sent over the Internet to Google, who sends it to your printer.

This means that you can do some more advanced things with Google Cloud Print, like print over the Internet without needing to mess with port-forwarding or easily share your printer with other people via their Google accounts.

Unlike Apple’s AirPrint, Google Cloud Print is available for many different operating systems. You can even use the Google Cloud Print connector to make your existing printer function as a Google Cloud Print printer, allowing you print to it from mobile devices.

iPrint, ePrint, and Other Manufacturer-Specific Solutions

Not to be outdone by Apple and Google, printer manufacturers have created their own wireless printing standards. This includes Epson iPrint, HP ePrint, and others.

The idea behind these standards is that you can simply download the associated app — for example, an Epson iPrint app or HP ePrint app — from your mobile device’s app store. The app can then wirelessly print to one of the manufacturer’s printers over the network.

These can be useful solutions, especially if you have a Wi-Fi-enabled printer that doesn’t support other standards like Apple AirPrint or Google Cloud Print. However, they’re just not as integrated with the underlying system and may not be able to print every type of document you’d want to print.

If you want to print from your iPhone and you can choose either Apple’s integrated AirPrint or the Epson iPrint app, you’re probably much better off going with AirPrint.

One name noticeably absent above is Microsoft. If you have a Windows Phone device, you’ll have to use a manufacturer-specific app as Microsoft hasn’t developed their own standard for easily connecting to wireless printers.

The wireless printing space is a bit of a mess, and is unnecessarily confusing. However, the good part is that these standard aren’t mutually exclusive. You can easily get a new printer that supports standard Wi-Fi printing, Apple AirPrint, Google Cloud Print, and the printer manufacturer’s own solution. Then, you can choose the type or printer connection that works for you on whatever device you’re using at the time.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »