Tech Talk

I don't normally do tech talk here, but on the chance this will help someone else, I'm going to put up the most boring post ever. (Well, in the top 100, anyway.) There have been trials and tribulations resulting in a new computer, which also meant a new operating system, moving up to Leopard (10.5). For the most part this was smooth because it's been around a while and programs have been updated and all is peachy keen. But it also came with brand-new Snow Leopard (10.6) in the box, ready to install, and SL breaks quite a few more things. One of those things is AppleTalk, an old networking protocol that goes back to the first Mac. Probably about 5 people still use AppleTalk, but I'm one of them. And in SL it's finally gone.

Back when we started this whole working from home thing, we borrowed a boatload of money to get nearly the fastest computer thinkable for graphic work – a PowerMac 7100. It came with a 100MB hard drive, an amount we thought, in those pre-digital photo, even pre-worldwide web days, that we could never fill up. The computer and monitor were so expensive (around $4000) that we put off getting a printer for a while, instead driving off to the Kinkos when printing a job was really necessary. (We also went to the corner gas station to fax things, until we got our first fax modem.) When that got old, we took the plunge and bought a fine laser printer, the HP LaserJet 4MP. It prints Postscript files, and it's a workhorse. 15 years of constant use and absolutely no maintenance later, it's still going strong and putting out documents that look as crisp as the day we got it. But as time marches on, it gets harder to keep it connected to my new flashy computers. The last time it broke was when parallel ports went away, on my PowerMac G4 dual. This caused some panic until I learned I could network the printer in through an Ethernet bridge, a little magic box that with a minimum of fuss kept things running the past 8 or 9 years. But it was a magic box that came in through AppleTalk, and in figuring out potential issues with SnowLeopard, I found out that its magic will be gone.

Scouting around for a new solution, I learn that there are cables that adapt parallel port connections to USB (which I'm pretty sure didn't exist yet when I put in the ethernet bridge solution). Notably flaky, but worth a try, and people with the same printer seem to have gotten it to work. So I get a good deal at eBay on a Belkin cable (I don't know what Keyspan is, but people complain about their cables mightily, so I stuck to a brand I've had success with), the cable arrives promptly, and off I go.

Sort of. The Mac sees the cable and knows what it is, but getting documents to the printer is a very chancy thing. Sometimes they go, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I need to restart the printer, sometimes that doesn't work. Flaky. And not productive. So I need a better solution, which is where the beauty of OS X's Unix underpinnings once again shines. (I didn't even need to get into the Terminal or DarwinPorts, and if those words scare you, don't worry about it.) So, if you're trying to keep an old AppleTalk-style printer alive by making it a USB printer, here's what you do:

  1. Buy the aforementioned Belkin USB Parallel Printer Adapter.
  2. Connect the printer through a USB port (direct to computer or a powered hub; I didn't have luck coming in through the Cinema Display's port).
  3. Go here and download usbtb, which provides what is called a CUPS backend for USB printing. This is an open-source project that supports hundreds of printers, and claims to do it faster than OS X.
  4. Install usbtb (double-click the "Install usbtb" package). It will then scan for USB printers. Your printer's name may show up, or it may be called "Unknown Unknown," in which case select that. Then you will get a list of printer drivers. The HP LaserJet 4MP is not on that list, so choose its closest relative, the 4M. Quit usbtb.
  5. You could be done, but the 4M's driver doesn't provide that Postscripty crispness you've been accustomed to, especially in graphics. So go to System Preferences>Print & Fax, choose the printer you just installed, choose Options & Supplies, click the Driver tab, and now replace the print driver with the 4MP driver (which is included in Leopard and Snow Leopard). And it works. Now you're printing through the CUPS system using an official HP driver, and it all works beautifully.
  6. If you've been sharing this printer, you'll need to delete it and then add it again on the other computers. Also, you will continue to see your shiny new cable listed in the Print & Fax list (mine shows up as "Belk USB Printing Support IEEE-1284 Controller") – just leave it.
  7. Bonus: By getting rid of the Ethernet bridge, you've freed up space for another transformer on your power strip.
On one of the boards, someone said, "Dude! Just buy a new printer!" Well, why? I doubt that any printer I buy today will work as long or as cheaply as this fantastic machine (which cost about $1000 at the time, by the way), and I see no reason to landfill something that's working just perfectly. I solved this problem for $10, an hour of research, and an hour of experimenting.


More bikes and ballet.
Geek! Kidding...its all good.

Interesting to see that even the Mac world has a few glitches. My daughter has a MacBook Pro 13" laptop that was a 18th birthday gift. Fortunately she was given a 3-year extended warranty as well, since the logic board had to be replaced 4 times, and her hard drive had to be replaced twice in the first 2 years. She uses it over 18 hours every day...and 7 days a week, so that really is not as bad a record as one would think. Her hard drive crumped again at the end of September, and when she went to the Apple store with it, they actually replaced the entire laptop with A BRAND NEW TOP-OF-THE-PRE-BUILT MacBook Pro 13" laptop! With Snow Leopard installed, and a refund for the Snow Leopard upgrade she had purchased the day before! They also gave her a refund for the unused portion of her 3-year extended warranty and then gave her a decent price for her new 3-year extended warranty on this new laptop.

I am impressed by Apple, impressed with her MacBook, and almost wishing I could trade my 17" Sony Vaio laptop for a 15" MacBook Pro. Maybe some day, but for now at least I understand how to deal with all the Windows issues.

And good for you, making the time commitment necessary to make your laser printer keep chugging along - if it ain't broke, don't give up on it! They made things to last back then, while now we're truly a throw-away society.

Cool to hear, Sharon. I've had good service from Apple and one unreasonably bad one, but in general the Mac world is just much much easier to deal with. Laptops just get so HOT that I'm amazed they last at all, but my wife's four-year-old Powerbook is still doing just fine.

did this with a 6MP in snow leopard ... "the printer is not responding!"
any ideas?

None yet -- I've been afraid to upgrade to Snow Leopard for this reason and a couple of other software glitches that aren't ironed out yet.

I did have a problem a couple of weeks ago where the printer stopped responding. I ended up deleting it (and the cable) from the list of printers, disconnecting the USB, restarting everything, and then reinstalling the printer. You might give that a couple of tries.

I'm actually thinking that I may put the 4MP onto an old networked iMac and just use that as a print server

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This page contains a single entry by Carl published on October 22, 2009 6:21 AM.

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