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Non-Printer Printer Drivers
By Thiravudh Khoman

When it comes to totally unsexy software, printer drivers are leading contenders. If you're lucky, someone has already installed your printer drivers for you when you bought your computer and printer. Otherwise, if you're using an older printer, Windows should know enough about your printer to do the installation itself. Or with newer plug-and-play printers, Windows should at least be able to take you by the hand and prompt you to feed the diskettes it needs.

In a nutshell, printer drivers tend to be installed once and simply forgotten about (they aren't updated very often except when a new version of an operating system is released). The only time you'll need to perform this routine again is if you change or add a printer or reinstall your operating system.

Not all printer drivers are printer specific. Some print drivers can in fact be used within a family of printers. I have an Epson Stylus Color 800 inkjet printer but I now use an "850" driver because the latter has the ability to print multiple pages on a single sheet of paper. This mixing and matching sometimes works, sometimes it doesn't.

There are a number of Windows printer drivers which aren't tied to any specific printer at all. In fact they act like printers themselves because you can print to them as you would print to a real printer. I'm going to discuss a few such products.

ClickBook and FinePrint

As I mentioned, I sometimes print multiple pages per sheet of paper (drafts of all my articles are printed that way). While I can do this on my Epson printer at home, I can't do it with the HP LaserJets at work because the HP drivers don't have this feature. Thus, an external or add-program is required. Many programs exist which can perform such multi-page printing; however the majority of these only work with plain text files and are run from the command line.

There's another genre of software that installs itself as a kind of printer. Previously, I used a program called ClickBook from Blue Squirrel (https://www.bluesquirrel.com) but more recently I've turned my attention to something called FinePrint from FinePrint Software (https://www.fineprint.com). ClickBook has served my needs for many years, but FinePrint has certain features that I find attractive.

Let me focus on FinePrint first. After installation, FinePrint shows up as a printer in the Printers Folder. Like other printers, you print to FinePrint by issuing a print command from within any program and then select FinePrint as your printer (or you could set FinePrint as your default printer). FinePrint will intercept the print job and will apply a number of optional features before sending it to the real printer (figure 1).

The best reason to use FinePrint, of course, is to print multiple pages per sheet of paper. You can print 1-up (1 page/sheet), 2-up (2 pages/sheet), 4-up, and even 8-up. On my well used Epson, 4-up is surprisingly readable, but my preferred paper-saving format is still 2-up or 2 pages side-by-side. I suspect that forcing some environmentally unconcerned people to read even 2-up pages will already elicit howls of complaint.

(The only reason I can see for a 4-up is if you have a 500 or 1000 page document that needs to be printed on a minimum number of sheets of paper and that will be kept rather than used for reference purposes. 8-up's, I suspect, have more in common with micro-fiches than they do with printed pages).

FinePrint also allows you to add headers and footers as well as a watermark to the background (e.g. "Confidential", "For Internal Use", or whatever text you desire). Very useful in corporate environments.

Some users may wish to set FinePrint as their default printer. To bypass FinePrint or to select whatever "#-up" setting you want, all it takes is a single click and go. If you have multiple printers or want to set a different print resolution or to turn color printing on/off, these can be selected at the FinePrint screen as well. Thus, you don't lose anything by stopping at the FinePrint screen first except maybe a few seconds.

I haven't tried the latest ClickBook 2000 yet, but the older ClickBook v2.x is installed and used similarly to FinePrint (figure 2). One significant difference is that you have to create a ClickBook version of every printer on your system. Thus, if your computer has two printers installed (say, a local printer and a network printer), you will need to create "CB" versions of both of these printers, thus giving you four printers in all. I find this to be major pain and is one reason why I prefer FinePrint instead.

Printing 100+ page documents with ClickBook is fairly slow, even on a Pentium II PC, but I haven't tried the same with FinePrint yet so I can't offer any comparisons.

Evaluation versions of ClickBook v2.2 and FinePrint 2000 for Windows 9x/NT are available for download from their respective web sites. ClickBook 2000 sells for US$49.95, while FinePrint 2000 sells for $10 less at US$39.95. The evaluation versions add a line indicating their "trial" status and they may or may not cause you to lose a line at the bottom of the sheet depending on how you set your margins.

Adobe Acrobat

While both ClickBook and FinePrint can reduce the amount of paper you use, Adobe Acrobat can eliminate all printing entirely if you so choose. Adobe Acrobat v4.0 from Adobe Systems (https://www.adobe.com) allows you to print to a file (a so-called "Acrobat PDF file") instead of onto paper. The file maintains all of the text, graphics and formatting that would normally appear on hard copy and may be viewed by people who don't have the software that was used to create the original documents or even the fonts (figure 3). All they need is the free Acrobat Reader.

A great many companies distribute their product documentation in PDF format. Acrobat, for example, only comes with a flimsy "Getting Started" brochure. The full Users Guide and other technical notes are provided on the Acrobat CD as PDF files.

Installation is routine and when finished, two Adobe "printers" will be created: Adobe PDFWriter and Adobe Distiller. PDFWriter is used to capture output from simpler applications, while Distiller is better suited for capturing output from more complicated programs like desktop publishing. As a general rule, Distiller creates smaller files than PDFWriter does.

Acrobat is used the same way any printer is used. In any application, issue a print command and then select either Adobe PDFWriter or Adobe Distiller as the printer (or set either as the default printer). Depending on how they're configured, these printers will ask you a question or two (e.g. the name of the file to be saved) and soon you will have a PDF file that matches what you intended to print.

I use Acrobat often to capture web pages. It takes less time to print to a file than it does for me to turn on my printer and wait for it to warm up. And compared to paper printout, a PDF is so much easier to file away for later use. Acrobat also has the ability to "snake" its way through a website and save all the web pages from a given starting point or URL. Except for the very simplest sites though, this could generate hundreds of pages of output, and as a result I rarely use it.

The only "operational" problem I've found with Acrobat is that it sometimes has problems saving web sites with Thai text. In actual fact, special language packs need to be installed to handle Asian languages, but unfortunately no Thai language pack exists.

Even if you have no specific need for Acrobat, you probably can't ignore it because so much stuff comes out in PDF format these days. Fortunately, the Acrobat Reader is free and often comes bundled with many software titles. Or you can download it from Adobe's website for a wide range of operating systems (Windows, Macintosh, OS/2, Linux, numerous flavours of Unix, etc.). The most current Windows version is 4.05 and is a 5.6mb download.

Unfortunately, the sofware needed to create the PDF's is NOT free. Far, far from it. At US$249 list price I consider it quite expensive for non-application software (of course, no one every accused Adobe of selling cheap software). In fairness though, Acrobat is a powerful program and I've only touched upon a fraction of its features. In that context it MIGHT be worth the asking price, but I'd be happier if Adobe were to create a cheaper, stripped down version which could only perform basic print saves. In my opinion, this would widen the use and acceptance of the PDF format, something Adobe no doubt strives for.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman