Monday, February 28, 2011

Printing “on the road”

If you’re like me, you’ve run into the problem of needing to print something while traveling.  Of course, nobody packs around a printer these days, so what do you do?  If you’re staying in an upscale hotel, they might have a “business center” that provides services like printer access along with copiers and other amenities.  But if you’re traveling on a budget, your local Motel 6 doesn’t often provide such luxuries.  What to do?

Well, I’ve run across a couple of options that help.

First, if you’re not really concerned about the quality of the printout – say, you just need some notes printed to have on hand for the big meeting, or you want to print the directions to the local theme park – you can hook up your fax modem in your laptop to the phone in the hotel room, then use Windows’ fax program to “print” the document to the fax modem.  Different versions of Windows work differently, but in Windows 7 you can use the “Windows Fax and Scan” program.  If it’s installed on your system, it includes a virtual printer that you can just print to, and the output goes out through your fax modem.  To make sure it’s installed on your system, look in the Control Panel under “Programs and Features” and click on the “Turn Windows features on or off” to bring up the list of Windows options you have installed.  Under “Print and Document Services” you should see this:


If “Windows Fax and Scan” isn’t checked, check the box and click OK.  (You may be prompted for your Windows install DVD, so do this BEFORE you hit the road!  I make this a part of every Windows installation I perform, just in case.)

Once it’s set up, you can use the “Windows Fax and Scan” program from the Start Menu to bring up the application:


This is where you manage your incoming and outgoing faxes and scans in Windows 7.

Now look in the Start Menu under “Devices and Printers.”  If you open that up, you should see something like this:


Notice the 2nd item under “Printers and Faxes” – that item named “Fax” is your fax modem.  Print to that “printer” and you’ll be able to send faxes.  When you print you’ll see something like this:


Just select “Fax” and click “Print.”  You’ll then see this:


Fill in the recipient’s fax in the To: field, give it a subject such as, “Call room 202 when you receive this, please!” and put whatever notes you need to include in the bottom box.  Click “Send” and it’ll go.

WARNING: before you plug your modem into the hotel phone line, make sure you have a “data” port on your phone.  DO NOT plug it directly into the wall!  Digital phone systems run at somewhat higher voltages than the average home phone system, and those voltages are quite capable of frying the modem.  Since the modem is 99.44% of the time a direct component of your laptop’s motherboard, fixing a fried modem will require replacing the motherboard in your laptop.  The cost of that is high enough that it’d be cheaper to just replace the laptop, so unless you’re absolutely sure where you’re connecting, ASK SOMEONE AT THE HOTEL FIRST!

Another on-the-road option is to use the eFax service.  See for details.  One of the beauties of this service is that it lets you not only send faxes, but receive them as well – through your email!  Your account will come with a dedicated phone number, which others can use to fax to you.  When a fax is received via that number in the eFax service, the fax will be converted to a .efx file and sent to your email account. 

You can get a free account which lets you receive up to 10 pages a month, but you have no choice as to the phone number you’re assigned.  In my case, although I live in the 951 area code, I got a 928-area-code phone number.  The down side of this is that even if your next-door neighbor is sending you a fax, it’ll probably be a toll call for him.  But if you’re only rarely receiving faxes, this shouldn’t be too big a deal.  If you want a local fax number, or if you plan on receiving more than 10 pages a month, get a paid account.

You can also send faxes through eFax.  Regardless of the account you have, you have to pay per fax since the cost of sending a fax – the phone charges – are “hard” expenses for eFax and they have to recoup that.  I think you get a certain amount of sending credit on a paid account, but if there is it isn’t much.  The process of sending a fax through eFax is similar to that in Windows, except you use the eFax printer.  In the 3rd illustration above, you can see the “eFax 4.4” virtual printer.  Just use that when you print, and follow the prompts.

The advantages of using this method are (1) you don’t even need to hook up your modem to the hotel phone line; and (2) you can use it anywhere you have an Internet connection.

One other option I use for “printing” is in the case where I see something on the web which I want to capture, but I don’t need to have a paper copy of the information.  In such cases I use one of three options: (1) send the contents of the web page to OneNote, which lets me work with the data later but doesn’t always preserve the formatting as it appears on the web page; (2) print the web page to OneNote, which preserves formatting but won’t let me do anything with the data later on; or (3) use a print-to-PDF program to capture the output to an Adobe Reader (PDF) document.

In the latter case above, I use pdfFactory, which is a paid-for program.  There are others, such as NitroPDF which comes as part of the NitroPDF Reader application (free).  All of these create “virtual printers” just like the examples used above.  Print to one of those printers, and the output comes out as a PDF document for use later.

A fourth option for road warriors who need to print on the go is to use the FedEx Office’s “Print Online” service.  (This is a holdover from the old Kinko’s service, but has been significantly enhanced since FedEx took over Kinko’s a few years ago.)  Again, no phone required, just an Internet connection. 

This isn’t for casual printing, though – it’s purely for business.  I’d recommend this if you have to print a bunch of copies of a document for an important meeting, for example, and don’t have time to hunt down a color printer that you can use for 100 copies or whatever.  The details of the service can be found at along with a document explaining how to use the system.  As with eFax, a program is installed that gives you a virtual printer to use.  (I’ll leave it to FedEx to provide you with the details on how this system works, as they provide detailed instructions and examples on their web site.)

I hope the above gives you some options you didn’t know you had before.  As always, if you have questions or comments, please feel free to drop me a note.

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As always, I believe in full disclosure.  I have no financial or other connection with any of the vendors or companies listed in this blog post, other than that of a customer.

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