First and foremost, it’s important to understand that you absolutely do not need to add a separate print server device to your network in order to make a printer accessible to all your computers. Any time that a printer is connected to a Windows system and shared, that Windows system is acting as a print server, and will be get the job done without the need for any additional hardware.
With that in mind, you may be asking why anyone would bother adding a hardware print server to their network at all. The simple answer is that when your printer is connected to a computer, you can only print documents if the computer that it’s connected to is up and running. If the computer has been powered down, other systems on the network can’t communicate with it, and therefore can’t print.
A hardware print server saves you the hassle associated with leaving a PC up and running all the time for the single purpose of being able to use the attached printer. All you need to do is connect the print server’s Ethernet port to an available port on your network hub or switch, and then connect your printer(s) to its USB or parallel port(s). The configurable settings of most print servers are accessible via a web browser, where you can assign settings like a password, IP address, port settings, and so on. If the model you choose doesn’t include web-based management, it will typically use a standalone software utility instead.
Besides avoiding the need to leave a PC on all the time, using a hardware print server gives you more flexibility as to where you locate your printer(s) and helps to reduce print-related bottlenecks. For example, rather than the printer being attached to a PC stored in a particular room or office, it could be placed in a more convenient and accessible location for users on your network. On the performance front, a print server is dedicated to tasks like spooling and processing print jobs, relieve a PC-based print server from having to perform these tasks.
Print servers come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s worth doing a little research prior to running out to buy one. Some include ports to attach multiple printers, while others connect to one printer only – be sure that the device you choose uses the same connections as your printers. Shop around for a good deal, as prices on print servers vary widely depending on their features and capabilities.