We haven’t reviewed a printer in TidBITS for almost five years, when Josh Centers wrote “Why the Brother HL-2270DW Laser Printer Sucks Less” (5 September 2013). In part, that’s because printers simply aren’t that interesting anymore. Hardware quality is generally good, upfront printer prices are usually quite low, print quality is acceptable for most uses, and consumable costs are almost always usurious. So it’s hard to say much more than that.
But today I want to tell you about the Canon Pixma iP110, a printer that is unusual, even though it too could be described as being reasonably priced, printing well, and using expensive ink cartridges. What sets it apart from the pack and makes it worthy of examination, is that it’s small, portable, wireless, and can run on an optional battery pack.
If a Printer Prints in the Woods… -- One of my hobbies is managing the timing and logistics for track meets and running races, an activity that may rely on a great deal of technology in major situations like the Olympics but is often still extremely low-tech in small community events. The opportunity to improve races for the Finger Lakes Runners Club by careful application of technology is part of what attracted me to timing. (It’s also a great excuse to hang out with friends for a while, see the best part of a race, cheer for friends and family, and get volunteer cred for a few hours of socializing broken up by a small amount of work.)
The tricky part comes with providing results to runners during the race. Everyone wants to know how they — and their friends and competition — did, and they want to know as soon as possible after finishing.
Back in the day, FLRC would solve this problem by tearing off the bottom of the bib numbers that runners wear (the numbers are made of Tyvek, with a perforated strip on the bottom), pinning the numbers to a corkboard that had been marked up with a grid of finish place numbers, and then writing finish times on the tear-offs with a Sharpie. It works, but it’s labor-intensive, requires an additional volunteer, and is prone to error, and the effort doesn’t help with posting results on the Web for posterity.
The race management solution that I eventually chose for FLRC was a system called Webscorer, which combines an online registration Web site with an iOS app (also available for Android) for timing. I can write more about Webscorer if people are interested, but regardless, immediate race results continued to be a problem even after we switched to Webscorer.
That’s not Webscorer’s fault because the Webscorer app is free, so anyone can download it to their phone and use it to load results from any Webscorer-timed race. Those results can even be real-time, if the timers have selected that option and there is Internet access to sync times to and from the Webscorer servers. It’s a slick system.
Realistically, however, most runners don’t have their smartphones with them after races, and many of our trail races take place in wilderness areas with sketchy or nonexistent cellular coverage. Plus, Ithaca not being in Silicon Valley, most people aren’t that technologically involved and wouldn’t think about there being an app for that. As far as I know, in the years I’ve been timing with Webscorer — and advertising that fact — no one has ever pulled up the results while at a race.
Other possible solutions include a volunteer showing people results on an iPad or displaying the results on a larger screen hooked to a device that could download the results. Nice ideas, but an iPad may not be able to get Internet connectivity and is too small for more than one person to view at a time, and bringing an iPad or other display out into the woods where it could be wet and there’s no power is a tough sell. I think it could be done — I’ve seen battery-powered displays that can be weatherproofed — but it’s not a trivial problem.
The most obvious solution — printing the results — has largely replaced the writing of finish times on bib tear-offs at most races. But it’s fraught with problems too. Printers generally require power and USB-cable connections, and they’re not designed to be schlepped around and set up on rickety tables in the woods.
In fact, for a year or so, I used a standard inkjet printer to print heat seeding sheets and results at our track meets. That was possible because tracks almost always have power outlets at the finish line and because it never rains at indoor meets. But that printer was hard to transport and finicky, in part, I suspect because printers are designed to be stationary devices. And that approach worked only at track meets — without bringing (and smelling and listening to) a generator, or buying an appropriate battery, there would be no way to print from such a printer at a trailhead in the woods.
Enter the Pixma iP110 -- Happily, there are still a few oddball printers out there for niche markets, and with some sleuthing, I discovered the perfect printer for FLRC’s needs: the Canon Pixma iP110, a portable inkjet printer for road warriors. With its paper feed and output flap folded up, it’s a small, boxy package that weighs 4.8 pounds (2.2 kg) and is about the size of four stacked MacBook Airs — 12.7 inches wide (32.2 cm), 8.0 inches (20.3 cm) deep, and 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) high. The printer lists for $169.99, but is readily available for $150.
What sets the Pixma iP110 apart, though, is that you can buy an optional LK-62 lithium-ion battery ($99.99 list; available for $85) so it can run without being plugged in, solving one of my main problems with normal printers. (The weight and depth measurements above include the battery, which screws onto the back of the printer, as you can see in the photo.) Canon says you can print up to 290 sheets on a single charge, and it automatically goes to sleep when you’re not using it. I never print anywhere near that much in a single session, but I always make sure to charge it before I need to use it — it takes 3 hours to charge a completely empty battery. Note that if you fly with the printer, you may need to put it in your carry-on bag because of the battery.
If you end up carting the Pixma iP110 around, you might want to get a case for it. I didn’t know such cases existed until I was researching this article, so I have no experience with them. Casematix offers a hard-shell case lined with foam for $35, and co2CREA sells a nylon case for $24. I’ll be buying one of these for FLRC’s Pixma iP110 soon.
The Pixma iP110’s other superpower is that it incorporates its own wireless hotspot, supporting 802.11b/g/n. It doesn’t connect to the Internet, of course, but computers and smartphones — it supports Apple’s AirPrint — can connect to its network to print. It also sports a standard USB port, which I use when connecting it to my MacBook Air because doing so is easier than changing Wi-Fi networks, but when printing from Webscorer on an iPhone, the wireless AirPrint approach is essential. I’ve never had any trouble connecting to it from an iPhone, and my devices all remember its password, though a fellow timer’s Android phone never managed to make a connection.
More prosaically, the Pixma iP110 is a perfectly functional color inkjet printer that prints in black at 600 x 600 dpi, and with “9600 x 2400 maximum color dpi,” whatever that means. I printed a test photo on it once, which was acceptable, and for the sheets of mostly black text that I regularly print, its print quality is totally fine. It does suffer from one of the standard problems of inkjet printers — replacement cartridges that are relatively small and expensive. A PGI-35 black ink cartridge retails for $14.99, a CLI-36 color ink cartridge costs $18.99, and you can save about $7 by buying a “value pack” that includes one color and two black cartridges for $41.99.
Luckily, it doesn’t suffer from another standard inkjet problem: cartridges drying out with lack of use. I regularly leave the Pixma iP110 in my timing bag for months in between uses, and while it wastes some ink cleaning itself, I’ve never had problems with a cartridge drying out. Nonetheless, I always carry replacement black and color cartridges, since ink is guaranteed to run out at an inopportune time. Canon claims that the black ink cartridge is good for 191 pages of mixed text and graphics, and the color cartridge would last for 249 pages in that usage (that latter number drops to 104 pages if you’re printing 4-by-6-inch color photos). Although the Pixma iP110 reports low ink supplies to the printer driver, I’m never sure how accurate that information is.
As you can tell, I don’t print a lot with the Pixma iP110. For a trail race, I might print just 6 sheets of paper, and a track meet may need only 30–40 pages. The printer is not meant for large quantities of printing — the paper feeder holds only 50 sheets — and printed pages slide out onto the surface the printer sits on. They do come out quickly; a page of results prints in about 15 seconds. I never feel like I’m waiting for the printer, once it gets past its minute-long startup and print-head cleaning after powering on.
My most common complaint revolves around the printer’s physical interface. It has three lights, each associated with a button. The white Power light appears when you turn it on with the associated button, and flashes while it’s warming up and printing. The orange Alarm light turns on or flashes when some sort of error has occurred and the printer isn’t ready to print. The only way to figure out what’s wrong is to decode the number of flashes with the help of the Pixma iP110’s online manual. In the middle of a track meet, when a volunteer is printing seed sheets under time pressure, it’s difficult to remember what the orange light means and what to do — luckily, replacing an ink cartridge has always solved the problem. Finally, the blue Wi-Fi light indicates that its wireless hotspot is operating, and you can press the associated button to set up the Wi-Fi connection.
Because I use the Pixma iP110 only during stressful times — in brief breaks in finishers during a trail race, or when we need to publish heat seeding sheets to organize runners in a track meet — replacing an ink cartridge has always been a nerve-wracking event. But once I realize that the printer isn’t working and that the orange light is flashing, it’s merely a matter of opening the top cover to reveal the ink carrier, snapping the old cartridge out, snapping the new one in, and waiting a few minutes for the printer to prepare it for use.
The other notable negative is that setup is difficult. You can download Mac software from Canon that theoretically helps you set up the Pixma iP110, but I found it massively confusing, in part because when you’re connected to the printer via Wi-Fi, your Mac probably isn’t also connected to the Internet (in theory, an Ethernet connection would make that possible). There’s also a Canon Print app for iOS that nominally lets you manage the printer, but it’s no better. I ended up sticking with default settings and was able to get the printer working, but if you buy one, set aside time to set up the printer and connect to it well before you need it to work.
The main competition for the Pixma iP110 appears to be the Epson WorkForce WF-100 Wireless Mobile Printer, which lists for $299.99, but is available on Amazon for a bit less than $200. It has a built-in battery and offers a 1.4-inch LCD screen that’s likely more informative than the Pixma iP110’s flashing orange light. So it’s a bit cheaper than the Pixma iP110, and it’s also a little smaller and lighter.
However, the Epson WorkForce WF-100’s print speed specs are slower than the Pixma iP110’s, and several reviews on Amazon note that it guzzles expensive ink with self-cleaning if you don’t use it for a few weeks, unlike the Pixma iP110. At a recent conference I attended, Marsha Phillips, a digital printing expert and owner of F-11 Photo & The Print Refinery in Bozeman, Montana, confirmed this, telling me that Canon was known for inkjet printers that could go for weeks or months without being used. So if you don’t plan to print every few days, the Pixma iP110 is likely the better solution.
The Last Page -- In the end, Canon’s Pixma iP110 is a specialty printer, to be sure. It’s more expensive to buy and run than a standard inkjet, and while the print quality is perfectly acceptable, I’m sure that you can find higher quality printers for less. It’s not a printer for everyone.
But for less than $250 for the printer and its optional battery, the Pixma iP110 is a brilliant solution for portable printing. Repair people could use it for printing invoices from inside a van, traveling salespeople might use it to print proposals or estimates, and mobile professionals might appreciate not having to rely on dodgy hotel printers.