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Stay Curious. Stay Humble. Stay Connected.

Adventures with WiFi printers Can Humble the Most Experienced Engineers

This is not my original first-of-the-year story for 2022. I wrote a different story about difficulties I had installing a specific manufacturer’s networked all-in-one printer in my daughter’s new business location. I spent hours trying to make that printer work and had endless problems in getting the overly finicky software to function. In the end, we shipped the printer back and I bought another for my daughter – a much more expensive printer, a $280 Epson EcoTank ET-4800 printer, purchased locally at Target. 

Epson’s EcoTank printers dispense with the tiny, expensive, ever-thirsty, plastic ink cartridges in favor of large, permanent ink tanks. The ET-4800 printer’s ink tanks hold 90 mL of ink per color (black, cyan, magenta, and yellow). That’s supposedly enough ink to last as long as two years. When they’re empty, you refill them with a plastic bottle filled with one ink color. You only refill the individual tanks as they empty, and a complete replacement set of refill bottles filled with ink costs less than $20. If the printer lasts a few years, it pays for itself in ink savings.

I’d like to say that everything went great with the new printer’s installation, but it didn’t. I was able to get the printer working reliably over a USB cable with my daughter’s MacBook, but I had no luck in getting the printer’s WiFi connection to work. I was able to connect the printer to the guest WiFi network my daughter uses in her office. That part was easy enough. But Epson software running on my daughter’s MacBook and on my Lenovo laptop could not see the new Epson printer over the guest WiFi network. 

With the previous printer, the one I’d returned, I’d started to suspect that the guest network was the culprit. My daughter arranged to get her Internet access over a guest network from an adjacent office. (It’s all above board.) The guest network allows WiFi connection, but it does not let the various connected devices talk to each other. They can talk only to the Internet. I didn’t know this going into the journey. Now, I know.

The previous printer manufacturer’s software was particularly unhelpful in isolating this WiFi problem. “Unidentifiable Error” was the best clue it could offer. Unhelpful. At least the new printer’s software allowed me to troubleshoot and isolate the problem to the WiFi network fairly quickly.

The first printer I bought was made by HP. A surprisingly large number of negative Amazon reviews for this printer specifically call out networking problems. Inability to connect with the printer appears to be a common challenge. I wondered how many of the other reviewers experienced connection problems caused by network configurations and unhelpful installation software rather than the printer’s own WiFi networking shortcomings. There’s no way to know.

However, even with the problem identified, the need for a solution remained: How can I circumvent the problem of printing through the protected guest network?

I investigated further and determined that the most likely way to solve this problem was to set up a WiFi network router specifically for my daughter’s office that used the guest network from the next-door office for Internet access while acting as the main router for my daughter’s laptop, mobile phone, and printer. That way, all of these attached devices could see each other through my daughter’s local WiFi router, and all devices would access the Internet through the guest network connection.

My first attempt (that’s a loaded and carefully chosen phrase) involved digging a Linksys WRT54GL WiFi switch out of my junk box. This WiFi switch box became famous many years ago for being eminently hackable. Loading alternative firmware like DD-WRT or openwrt into the WRT54GL mutates the WiFi switch box into a much more capable WiFi router. Versions of DD-WRT open-source firmware compiled specifically for this Linksys box add numerous features, but the new feature of specific interest to me was a WiFi repeater function. A WiFi repeater allows you to create an independent WiFi network and to get Internet access from another wired or WiFi network router. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Well, times have changed, and DD-WRT has gotten far more sophisticated since the last time I took a look at it. As a result, it’s also grown much, much bigger. Too big for the old, old, old WRT54GL. Although you can still buy used Linksys WRT54GL routers from various vendors on eBay or even Newegg, the hardware design of this WiFi switch goes back to 2002, and WiFi has changed a lot since then. There are many new wireless security protocols, and the 5 GHz band has been added. You can also get far better routers now, including mesh routers. 

None of these new DD-WRT features were achievable with the WRT54GL’s aged hardware. There just isn’t enough room in the box’s EEPROM for the firmware, nor the required RAM capacity. It’s been more than ten years since a full-featured DD-WRT firmware image could even fit in the aged WRT54GL’s limited memory. In my case, I had to load a DD-WRT image that’s a decade old and no longer supported.

After spending several frustrating hours working with the hacked WRT54GL, I can report that I never got things working well, or even right. Even something as simple as changing the hacked router’s IP address seemed to fail. After spending way too many hours experimenting with the WRT54GL switch and DD-WRT firmware, bricking the box twice, and recovering it both times, I abandoned this path. My daughter is a dancer and Gyrotonic instructor, not a network engineer. The last thing I need to do is hand a janky science project like this Frankenrouter to her. If it broke, she couldn’t fix it or replace it directly. Heck, I’m not even sure I can always fix the thing after bricking it twice.

A new approach was needed, so I hit the oracle: Google. It turns out that in the last few years, exactly the right sort of networking device has hit the shelves. It’s called a travel router. That’s a small box that is designed to connect to a WiFi network in a hotel or coffee shop so that it can provide Internet access while also creating a WiFi LAN that’s completely under your control. It seems these travel routers are also popular for creating little personal VPN WiFi hotspots on the road, but I didn’t need that function.

One very intriguing travel router offered by Amazon is the GL.iNet GL-MT300N-V2 (Mango) Portable Mini Travel Wireless Pocket VPN Router. This diminutive box measures about 1x2x2 inches and is filled with just the right software, preloaded, including OpenWRT (like DD-WRT, but different) and a special GUI designed for non-engineer users exactly like my daughter. I watched some YouTube videos about the Mango router and it looked like setting up a repeater network using this router would take me or my daughter all of three minutes. Best of all, Amazon was willing to ship me one of these routers for $23.92 plus tax. Retail is closer to $30. How could I go wrong? I ordered the Mango and it arrived a couple of days later. I then made arrangements with my daughter to install the Mango in her office.

When I arrived at my daughter’s office, I pulled the Mango from its box and plugged it into a USB power brick from my junk box (a power brick was not included for the low $23.92 price). A small LED started blinking on the router, and the YouTube videos I’d seen suggested that the boot process would take about 40 seconds. A minute went by and the LED kept blinking. Two minutes. Three minutes. Five minutes.

The damn LED on the Mango router would not stop blinking.

Worse, the promised WiFi signal didn’t appear. The Mango router should start radiating its own preconfigured SSID after the booting. Neither my Windows laptop nor my daughter’s MacBook could see a WiFi signal emanating from the Mango.

“OK, we’ll do this the hard way,” I thought to myself. The Mango might not have included a USB wall wart, but it did include a short Ethernet cable. My daughter’s MacBook has no Ethernet jack (ya’ just gotta’ love Steve Jobs’s form over function aesthetic) but my Lenovo laptop certainly does have an Ethernet jack. I’d spent a lot of time using that port to try to get the WRT54GL switch/router working.

I coupled my laptop to the Mango with the Ethernet cable and typed the Mango’s Web interface address (192.168.8.1) into a browser. That’s the magic incantation you need to access the Mango’s inner fruit, its configuration page.

Nothing happened. My Web browser reported no response and the Mango’s single LED continued to blink at me, accusingly.

I cycled power on the Mango. Same result.

I held the reset button in for 10 seconds. One YouTube video had called this move the “Hail Mary” reset. Still nothing.

I now suspected the USB wall wart, so I connected the Mango router to a USB port on my laptop using the short USB cord provided in the Mango’s box. 

By now, I really needed a bathroom break. When I returned from the break, the LED on the Mango had stopped blinking and there were two solidly lit LEDs on the top of the router. Better yet, the Mango’s WiFi SSID was detectable on my laptop. 

OK, it was a really slow initial boot, but at least the Mango seemed to have booted.

I later watched a YouTube video about initial booting problems that GL.iNet made for another of its travel routers, which specifically recommended using the USB cable supplied with the router. So the longer USB cable I’d been using might well have been the root cause of the boot problem that I experienced. There might have been too much voltage drop in the first USB cable I’d tried. That’s a scary thought, but there you have it. Don’t repeat my mistake.

After the successful boot, I got into the Mango’s user interface and configured the existing WiFi guest network as the Mango’s Internet connection. You need to know only two things to get this bit working: the SSID of the host network and the password. Generally, this is all you get when you check into a hotel, so that’s why the Mango’s repeater setup is so simple. This is something that any WiFi user should be able to handle.

Establishing the connection to the guest network took much longer than I expected, but after 15 or 20 seconds, I was rewarded with a connection to the WiFi network and the great beyond – the Internet.

Next, it was time to rename the Mango’s local WiFi network using the name of my daughter’s business. I could see the field for editing the name in the user interface, but it was grayed out. Some studying of the owner’s booklet (printed in tiny mouse type for younger eyes or stronger eyeglass prescriptions) indicated that I needed to scroll to the bottom of the configuration page where a “Modify” button awaited me.

Bad user interface! If a critical button is hidden off screen, that’s poor design in my book. Nevertheless, I scrolled the page, clicked on the button, and could suddenly edit the name and password fields. (Again, I learn from my mistakes.) After saving the new configuration and waiting for another overly long period of time, the Mango’s WiFi SSID changed as directed, but the password failed. Tick, tick, tick. After another few seconds, it succeeded.

What happened subsequently seems like a denouement. First, I had to manually connect the printer to the Mango’s WiFi network. It was a painful process to key in the password using the printer’s tiny LCD screen and front-panel arrow buttons (Holy 1990s, Batman! No touch screen.), but you only need to do it once. After another overly long wait, the printer’s WiFi icon on the tiny LCD lit, indicating that the printer had successfully connected to the Mango’s WiFi network.

I then restarted the installation software for the printer on my Lenovo laptop and, after five days of working on this challenge (two printers, two routers, very little luck), I was rewarded with the printer software on the Lenovo actually seeing the printer on the WiFi network. Better yet, the software installation succeeded and I was able to print a test page from my Windows laptop. Installing the printer software on my daughter’s MacBook was similarly successful, with a few stressful periods while the software slowly, slowly connected to the printer.

Not satisfied, my daughter wanted to print wirelessly from her iPhone as well. She entered the name of the Mango’s WiFi network into her phone but did not need to enter the password. Apparently, if you live in Apple’s walled garden, your iPhone already knows all of the secrets that your MacBook knows, and vice versa. Hmm. I wonder if the FBI knows about this.

In the end, I’d spent another couple of hours with this installation, and I finally succeeded in the end. Wiser, more educated, and much, much humbler.

I’ve been connecting printers to computers over all manner of interfaces since the 1970s, from RS-232C serial and Centronics parallel ports to IEEE-488 and Ethernet. It never seems to get much easier, with the exception of USB.

Shouldn’t it?

3 thoughts on “Stay Curious. Stay Humble. Stay Connected.”

  1. OMG your article just triggered so much PTSD for me…

    “Nightmare” is the only word to describe what even many mainstream manufacturers have created wrt to WiFi connectivity. And one usually experiences this living horror show in the context of trying to help friends or family, which just amps up the frustration level 10x. How are these consumer products?

    1. I do not know why this level of technology poses as consumer gear, except that it’s built down to a price. User interfaces in the form of buttons and displays cost money.

  2. logical and complete user control with fully-defined function is the design philosophy that I would not mind paying for and would gladly endure more clunkiness in the implementation of….instead, user control is minimized and awkward if it is not toward a purchase decision

    with wireless in the linkage and no specialized analytical gear, there is no way to verify that what you THINK is SUPPOSED to be happening is actually the case

    more than enough to kill the joy of things humming along : maddening….and all because a bunch of serfs aren’t going to call the shots on a proven business strategy

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