Review: SEH InterCon PS03a USB Ethernet Print Server
April 8, 2008, Brad Berson
http://www.seh.de / http://www.seh-technology.com
InterCon as a brand of Germany -based SEH Computertechnik.
Quick opinion: Performance and reliability of the hardware and software is excellent and the flexibility of the package overall is excellent as well. Other models with traditional LPT ports or WiFi built-in make these print servers truly do-it-all solutions, future-proof with IPv6 and now available at Gig-E speeds too. SEH boasts specifically of regular firmware updates, but the documentation to use them comes up short and the web site isn't kept sufficiently current. The skeletal nature of SEH's US -based support leaves us skeptical of their seriousness about markets outside Europe.
Ever since my purchase of an Epson R1800 inkjet printer a year ago, I have been looking for an Ethernet USB print server that would support Epson's Status Monitor software for monitoring ink levels, etc. The printer has been connected to an HP en3700 which works fine for all kinds of USB printers, and works fine on the Epson too, except that you never can predict when one of your print jobs will suddenly be missing a color or two.
Every month or so I'd go searching the Internet for new solutions and all I would ever find was other people with the same problem - an R1800 or similar, a LAN, and frustration with the Epson Status Monitor software. There were unconfirmed rumors that one of Epson's EpsonNet external USB print servers might work, but for some reason they're only available in the UK and they're quite pricey too. In February my quest finally turned up a product by Belkin that promised to solve the problem. It was an Ethernet to USB hub with a client software component that would create virtual USB devices, making hardware plugged into the hub accessible via the network.
Unfortunately, user reviews of Belkin's F5L009 Network USB Hub were overwhelmingly atrocious. It didn't help that Belkin's original advertising material idiotically billed the F5L009 as a wireless solution, "wireless router not included", and I can comfortably ignore the naive people who thought it would give their USB hard drives NAS -type functionality, but the drivers were said to be notoriously unstable and the throughput was alleged to be dismal, and Belkin's offshore technical support wasn't exactly winning anyone's praise either. With a $120 street price and spotty availability, I decided this would be a risky purchasing decision.
The USB to Network or UTN functionality of the Belkin device set me on a new search vector for competing products, and that's how I came upon the InterCon print server family.
Whereas the Belkin device was a generic Ethernet USB widget that happened to include a driver for arbitrating access to printers, the SEH products are print servers only. Very comprehensive print servers in fact, supporting pretty much every known networked printing protocol and all the common printing and administration tools from most common platforms, with the icing on the cake being an available UTN driver and the necessary software for arbitrating USB printer access from multiple network nodes.
Given the customer base that SEH boasts on their web site, including many US government contracts, I was intrigued that I had never heard of SEH and don't ever recall having seen their print servers or any other products. Scouring the Internet I found no reviews anywhere, formal or otherwise, and in fact precious few mentions at all, just a couple of press releases and a few online retailers' product pages. An email to SEH's US -based representative asking about their print servers and the US marketing went unacknowledged. After waiting a few weeks for a response I decided to take a chance anyway, and picked up the InterCon PS03a model which features an Fast Ethernet port and two USB printer ports. The available retail sources were fairly limited - I bought this one on-line from Provantage.com for a fairly competitive $128 plus shipping.
Small and light, the German -made unit measures just 3-13/16" x 3-1/8" x 1-1/8" not including the teeny rubber feet. It comes with two sets of very thin self-adhesive hook and loop strips for attachment to a printer or nearby surface. The CD sleeve has a piece of double-sided tape on it too, so you can be "old skool" and keep it stuck to the side of the printer. The package does not include Ethernet or USB cables.
Power is supplied via a small inline brick measuring 3" x 1-1/8" x 1-15/16", not a wall-wart, so that should make life easier at the wall or power strip. Energy consumption was measured at a meager 3 Watts, but no PFC meant power line loading of 6 VA. Both figures are roughly comparable to the HP JetDirect en3700 this unit was meant to replace. Heat output is modest - where the ambient temperature was a fairly warm 82F, the hottest point on the case was 106F and the hottest point on the Chinese -made brick measured only 101F.
Having glanced at the manuals on-line before I even purchased the unit, I felt confident immediately plugging it into my LAN, the only preparation beforehand being a reservation on my DHCP server to remove any IP address guesswork and obviate any silly ARP/PING adventures. Actually I did take a moment to glance at the two slender booklets included with the unit... I dismissed the Hardware Installation Guide immediately and the 16 English pages of the rather abbreviated and thoroughly international Software Quick Installation Guide almost as rapidly. The on-line documentation is far more extensive, but the included booklet does touch on Windows (of course!), Netware 4 through 6, UNIX with specific references to AIX. HP-UX, SINIX and SunOS, also MacOS and AS/400.
The print server seemed to take a while picking up an IP address when I plugged it in, but eventually it came around. I fired up Internet Explorer and opened up the print server's status page and discovered that the firmware (or is that software? - more on that later) on the unit seemed a bit dated. That's when I glanced at the driver CD it shipped with and noticed the September 2005 date. That's about two and a half years old! In computer years that's middle-aged, sprouting grey hair and a paunch.
Naturally the first thing I do in this case is visit the web site and download all the latest published firmware, software drivers and utilities. Once I got past their obtuse terminology stew - BIOS, firmware, software, kernel, protocol stack, etc. - I was able to download (or is that upload?) the new firmware (or BIOS) and software (or protocol driver), and I ended up with a print server that would no longer boot up. Ooops..!
Phone support is based in Germany and is available during their normal business hours only (Central European Time), making support calls from the US potentially expensive and awkward to time. Not too bad if like me you work in New York, but you will have to wake up awfully early if you work in Pacific time. I did try to call - my Speakeasy VoIP makes German land-lines a free call, thanks - and the phone rang un-answered so I left an email instead. The email was responded to in about three hours, and the response was literate, thorough and effective. The only thing that worried me was that if I could not bring the print server back to life, their suggestion was to ship the unit to the very same US -based rep that never bothered to respond to my original email in February.
The email reply from SEH included a newer version of the InterCon NetTool administration software than what was posted on the web site, and crucial instructions missing from all the printed and online manuals for invoking BIOS mode (which I had figured out on my own) and for resetting the print server to factory defaults (which I never would have figured out without guidance - see below). That last step was the key to restoring the print server's functionality after the firmware uploads.
Invoke BIOS mode:
Switch the Print server off. (Unplug the power pack).
Press the Status button (black or blue) of the Print server and keep it pressed.
Plug-in the power pack into the power connector.
The LEDs start blinking simultaneously (Activity *yellow* and Status *green*).
Hold the Status button until the Activity LED is flashing without the Status LED.
Reset to Factory Defaults:
Switch off the printer (or remove the power pack from the external print server).
Press the status button (black or blue) of the print server and keep it pressed. Switch on the printer (or plug in the power pack into the external print server).
The LEDs start blinking simultaneously (Activity *yellow oder red* und Status *green*). Only let them blink for 5 times.
Release the status button for about 2 seconds. The LEDs (Activity and Status) now blink alternating.
Press the status button once again and keep it pressed. The Activity and Status LEDs start blinking simultaneously until after a few seconds only the Activity LED will blink. You can now release the Status button.
The reset will be finished with a restart (cold reset) of the printer or (external) print server.
Now that I had a working and up-to-date print server I could get on with my evaluation.
Those of you accustomed to and irritated by HP's bloated software packages and incomprehensible procedures will absolutely adore the InterCon approach. All the pieces are in a few small packages which install rapidly and without pointless questions, and without installing anything that wasn't absolutely necessary to get the job done. In fact, the Printer Wizard doesn't even require installation. Just run it! On the other hand the installation CD's menu may be a bit too sparse, leaving neophytes wondering what they're installing and why. But since these print servers clearly are not marketed to the mainstream, I don't think that's a significant concern.
The 1.5MB SEH Print Monitor package adds a new port to the typical list of ports in Windows, such as the Standard TCP/IP Port. Installation and removal can be performed without reboots.
This print monitor, aside of facilitating access to the print server by the manufacturer's other utilities, offers similar functionality to the Standard TCP/IP Port, additionally supporting TCP/IP via IP or via hostname (a most welcome improvement!) and HTTP printing, as well as SNMP monitoring.
The SEH Printer Wizard is a 3MB utility which as I mentioned does not even require installation. It's purpose is to help users get their printer drivers properly installed and assigned to the print server. This software requires the SEH Print Monitor software to be installed, and installs your printers using the SEH Print Monitor ports. Experienced users who know their way around network printing architecture will probably ignore this and configure their printers manually, but if you have any doubts then this software will be very helpful.
InterCon NetTool, whose installation package weighs in at less than 4MB and which can be installed and removed without reboots, also requires the SEH Print Monitor to function. It has the ability to see un-configured SEH print servers and assign them IP addresses, then can assist in complete configuration of the print server as well as performing firmware updates and diagnostics. This to may be installed and removed without reboots.
This is pretty much the only piece of software that can talk to an SEH print server that is in BIOS mode, and it's the easiest way to give your print server an IP address if your network segment does not support DHCP. It's also a fine tool for easy administration of multiple print servers, although it lacks the enterprise -level features that you would find in HP's rather portly 150MB Web JetAdmin package.
UTN Manager, which must be downloaded from the SEH web site, is the software that enables Windows to see a printer connected to the print server as if it were connected to a USB port on your own PC. The UTN Manager functions perfectly well without the SEH Print Monitor or any other software related to the print server, and it may be installed and un-installed without reboots.
Since this print server supports all the common printing protocols, if your intent is to use the UTN Manager for all your printing needs you could probably get away with not bothering to install the SEH Print Monitor, but the Printer Wizard and InterCon NetTool both require it.
Mac users may be disappointed that UTN functionality is currently only available for PCs running Windows XP and Vista. SEH's technical support says that a Mac version is under evaluation but will take some time. Since UTN functionality is the differentiating feature of this hardware and is the goal of this review, we will not be able to test the print server's performance via Mac or Linux machines.
It must be pointed out here that you can't have your cake and eat it too. Enabling UTN mode on a port on the print server will disable all other methods of printing to the device attached to that port, so all clients MUST then use the UTN software to access that printer or multifunction device. Therefore anyone who needs to use this print server to share a printer between PCs and Macs via UTN will be frustrated. This is one situation where Belkin actually has the advantage.
I installed the UTN Manager on two PCs running Windows XP SP2, and neither seemed able to communicate with the print server. This time the email turnaround wasn't quite as snappy, mostly because I sent it at about 9pm CET. As usual the reply was timely, thorough and accurate, with plenty of screen shots and explanations, and again the reply included a later version of the software than what was posted on their web site. Interesting trend here. I had downloaded 1.0.5 from their web site and the email included version 1.1.2. This time the fault turned out to be mostly my own - the necessary instructions for enabling the UTN mode on the print server were on page 209 of the PDF manual on SEH's web site.
The UTN Manager is fairly well-behaved, consuming negligible CPU resources but actively taking about 16MB of RAM while reserving about 80MB total from virtual memory. It creates a virtual USB port, and if your printer drivers are already installed and the printer is turned on and connected to the print server, then Windows' Plug'n'Play subsystem will immediately detect the printer and will install it for you.
The arbitration software that makes up the visible element of the package is a user -mode program which must be running to facilitate printer access. It does not default to auto-start and it does not automatically enable printer access either, but has easy to find dialogues to set all those options. I have no particular problem with any of this, finding the manual configuration steps consistent with the professional intentions of the product, with the goal appearing to be to cause as little initial disruption as possible. Some may find this annoying, but unless you're deploying the software to an entire floor or shop the impact is limited. The program can be closed easily and when doing so, warns you about losing printer access only if the printer is "activated" at the time. This I consider worrisome. Otherwise the software minimizes unobtrusively to Windows' system tray when not in use.
If you are sharing the printer connected to the print server you can elect to configure UTN Manager to automatically connect to ("activate") and disconnect from ("de-activate") the printer. This is necessary because with UTN you cannot have two people simultaneously accessing a device - the USB protocol does not allow it.
The ability to automatically connect to and disconnect from the printer works fairly well, with the only side-effect being that your printer will always look to your computer like it is offline until you actually try to print.
At the risk of being informal I'll start by saying that I could not discern any difference in the printer's output performance via the PS03a, using a variety of draft B&W and presentation quality color prints. I used what I believe would be the most typical setup, which is to set UTN to start automatically and have Auto-Connect turned off but Print-On-Demand turned on. With this arrangement I experienced a somewhat bothersome delay of several seconds before the printer connection would activate. Just long enough to make skilled and impatient people (like me) glance at indicator lamps and print queues to see what's wrong.
Simply probing printer properties - such as firing up the Epson Status Monitor - is not sufficient to initiate automatic activation of the printer connection. An actual print stream is required. Once printing is under way, the Epson Status Monitor works just fine. Of course one can always manually activate the printer from the UTN Manager if all you want to do is check the ink or perform other printer maintenance chores.
I'm just happy I no longer have to disconnect the printer from the old JetDirect and connect the USB cable to one of our PCs just to find out exactly why the ink light is blinking on the front panel of the Epson. And as you can see in the screen capture on the left, it's often a very good thing to know!
Once the printer is activated in UTN Manager it really does behave entirely as if were connected directly to one of your PC's own USB ports.
If you don't intend to share the printer with other workstations, or if you simply need to generally pre-empt other users until they really need printer access, you may configure UTN Manager to keep your connection activated permanently. In this case you'll get warnings about connection time, but these warnings can be disabled in the UTH Manager's options.
While the printer is activated on your workstation, other users will not be able to activate their own connections to the printer. If those other users are not nearby, it should be mentioned that there is no way for UTN Manager to signal the owning workstation that someone else needs access to the printer. Users will have to resort to a phone call or an instant message of some sort to get the point across. UTN Manager will tell you the IP address of the owning workstation, but not the hostname.
Pushing the Envelope
My curiosity got the best of me - I just had to see if UTN Manager could also perform with non-printer devices. I didn't dare risk any of my USB flash memory, but I did take a stab at plugging my Marks & Spencer USB Missile Launcher into the PS03a. UTN Manager seemed to identify the device and recognized it not to be a printer, and when I activated the device Windows' Plug'n'Play did try to install the drivers, but one of the launcher's two device drivers would not function correctly via the print server (showing a yellow exclamation point in Device Manager) and so the launcher would not function at all. So like a stated before, this is just a very capable print server.
SEH bills UTN Manager as being for XP and Vista. While most software billed as such will also function in Microsoft's Windows Server products, I could not get UTN Manager to function in Windows 2003. Signs of impending doom were the driver installation security alert about the "UTN bus" driver software. A subsequent glance at Device Manager revealed the driver there but with a yellow exclamation point. Luckily this was not a disruptive failure, and I was able to remove the software as easily as I had installed it. I did not attempt to test UTN Manager on Windows Server 2000.
While the SEH Print Monitor software appears to be Citrix and Windows Terminal Services -friendly, UTN Manager's inability to function on a server platform makes it impossible to utilize the UTN functionality of this product from Terminal Services and other server -based environments.
The SEH InterCon PS03a USB Ethernet print server is a clear winner in a very small niche market for fully capable USB print servers, and I feel comfortable stating that the rest of their print server family probably deserves just as much respect. There are one or two flies in the ointment, such as the lack of UTN software for the Mac or Linux, and the fact that UTN and the other more traditional network printing protocols are mutually exclusive, but the software appears to be rock-solid, and that's no small concern when you're trying to keep your business running. Support quality is excellent but with SEH having gone through the considerable expense of obtaining FCC approval, I'm surprised not to see support options better geared to North American customers' timetables.
SEH print servers are guaranteed for three years from the date of purchase, and registering the product grants and additional two years but "the customer agrees to receive SEH marketing and promotional material on an irregular basis".