A small but growing percentage of computer users today reap the benefits that Linux offers: cost savings, improved security, and more flexible, customized working environments.
Linux has long included strong support for PostScript-based printers (which includes most laser models), because PostScript is the default printing subsystem on UNIX, the operating system from which Linux is derived. But while most PostScript printers are generally supported under Linux, some advanced features can sometimes be missing because the manufacturers don't always make specific drivers available.
However, the necessary drivers are now finding their way into Linux distributions. Drivers sometimes become available as the open-source community engineers a Common UNIX Printing System driver and then makes it available online. (CUPS is the printing system used most often in Linux.)
Printer manufacturers are starting to provide Linux drivers for users to feed to CUPS. For instance, Lexmark now provides Linux drivers for its workgroup and departmental imaging products. In addition, Hewlett-Packard's Linux Project provides printing support for over 350 of its laser printers, plus office, photo, and multifunction inkjet printers. Helpfully, the site includes a full listing of what's supported for each model.
Asked about the project, an HP spokesperson explained that support for its new printers are released to the open-source community near the release date of those printers.
HP does not currently ship Linux software on in-box printer software CDs since the printing software needed by Linux customers is most often already included in their version of the operating system. Customers simply need to attach their printer.
Printing with Linux is getting easier, but there's always likely to be a few problems. If you're having issues getting your printer to work with Linux, you should be able to get help from one of the following sites:
Gutenprint (formerly Gimp-Print): This open-source suite of printer drivers supports many printers from Canon, Epson, Lexmark, Sony, and Olympus, plus PCL-based printers from other vendors.
LinuxPrinting.org: This fantastic resource explains all there is to know about printing under free operating systems, including Linux. The site features lists of supported printers; links to downloads, forums, and articles; tutorials on driver configuration; and detailed guides on installing driver packages and dependencies.
Incidentally, because Apple's Mac OS X is built upon a UNIX foundation, it also uses CUPS. So if a printer works on OS X, it's very likely to work on a modern Linux distribution.
For more Linux tips, plus reviews, browse Matthew Newton's Free Agent columns.