With social distancing and isolation, many of us are having to find ways to do more with less—in terms of equipment and technical support, as much as anything else. Today, we’re going to take a look at one success story in a less-traveled but suddenly very relevant workflow—scanning and printing with a ChromeOS device.
Enter the Chromebox
Chromeboxes are just like the Chromebooks that American schools have almost unanimously adopted as student computers. They’re simple, low-powered devices that run ChromeOS—which doesn’t look much like an “operating system” at all to the user. The only difference is that, while a Chromebook is a laptop form factor, a Chromebox is a tiny standalone PC which can be bolted right to the back of a standard monitor.
For people who do most of their work online, ChromeOS devices are great—they’re inexpensive, they cold boot in seconds, and they manage all of their own software updates. They’re also nearly impossible to get infested with malware. The worst “malware” problems I’ve ever seen on a ChromeOS device are spammy browser notifications, caused by a user clicking “allow” when some ad banner requests the privilege.
Trying to figure out how to print—and scan—from a ChromeOS device is a little more difficult to figure out. But if you’re careful with your purchases, it can be done—and it works quite well.
Bringing paper back into the paperless office
Like most Arsians, I tend to be the de facto tech support person in my family. So when my father-in-law kept having problems with malware and confusing sets of applications and drivers on his Windows computer several years ago, I asked him a few questions about what he did with his PC.
After hearing all he wanted to do was get online and edit the occasional Word document, I set him up with a Chromebox bolted to a 24″ monitor. The Chromebox seemed to be a great success—there weren’t any more malware problems, and my father-in-law took to the G Suite office functionality built into ChromeOS without a problem.
What I didn’t realize—because I failed to sufficiently explore the problem space!—is that, while he mostly just wanted to “get online,” my father-in-law still had some occasional legacy business needs. Although he’s officially retired, he still keeps busy with the occasional contract—and rather than bother me when plugging his old printer into the Chromebox didn’t work, he just started going to Staples to print and scan documents there.
Eventually, my wife found out about the Staples trips—and told me we needed to get an all-in-one printer, scanner, and fax machine for the Chromebox.
Adding hardware to a driverless system
ChromeOS devices very deliberately eschew the normal hardware ecosystem—you can’t just buy any random thing from the store, plug it in, and expect to stick in a CD-ROM (or download a driver) and make it work. So the key to finding my father-in-law a workable system was going to be direct integration with Google cloud services—not the Chromebox itself.
I knew that many printers would support Google Cloud Print, which would in turn make printing possible from either ChromeOS or Android devices. The ugly question revolved around scanning. Typically when setting up network scanners, they either scan to SMB—shared Windows folders—or to email.
Scanning to SMB was definitely going to be out for a Chromebox, and email didn’t sound like much fun either—Google has made Gmail accounts notoriously difficult and unreliable for simple SMTP services to access, and I more than half-expected I’d need to set up a “relay” account on a Postfix server running in a VM, so that the scanner could send emails to the Gmail account by way of the Postfix server in the middle.
Happily, it turned out to be a much simpler proposition than that—several of Brother’s all-in-one MFC devices support scanning directly to a Google Drive account. No email, no SMTP relay, just put in your credentials and go—and have the images show up exactly where a ChromeOS user will be looking for them in the first place!
Brother MFC-L3710CW to the rescue
After a little more careful questioning, we determined that a color printer was also in order, not just black and white. Brother has two under-$500 laser printers that fit all of our needs—the $330 MFC-L3710CW, and the $370 MFC-L3770CDW.
Normally, I’d strongly prefer the MFC-L3770CDW. The extra $40 or so buys you faster printing, an automatic duplexer, and a wired Ethernet jack. The Ethernet jack wouldn’t help in this case, since the router wasn’t in my father-in-law’s office, and he wasn’t going to move it, and we weren’t going to run cable.
Adding insult to injury, the MFC-L3770CDW was out of stock on the day I was shopping—so I sighed, ordered the cheaper model, and called it a day.
If you don’t want an All-In-One device
If you end up preferring a standalone printer, any device offering Cloud Print support will do—and those are much easier to search for. You can take care of occasional scanning needs surprisingly easily and well with a smartphone and the Adobe Scan app, which is available for free in both Android and iOS app stores.
Adobe Scan allows you to take photos of paper documents at nearly any angle and skew—making it easy to avoid casting shadows. The app automatically detects the paper’s edges and near-instantly transforms the raw photo into a clean scan that looks like it was taken with a real photocopier.
In addition to single-page scans, the app allows up to 25 pages to be assembled into a single PDF. PDFs created by Adobe Scan can then be accessed via an Adobe Cloud account or downloaded or emailed directly via the phone itself.