What's the best way for computer users to share a printer?

Well, the high-tech solution is a computer network that ties computers and printers together. But while this is easy with Macintosh computers, which all have a built-in network circuit, a network hookup for IBM PCs and clones can cost $250 to $800 per computer. There are alternatives.

The least expensive way to share a printer is to connect a single computer to the printer and have everyone else bring a floppy disk with their files on it to that computer. Sure, it's awkward, but it can work if one person in your office does all final document formatting and the bulk of the printing anyway.

A manual switch is a slightly more expensive but still cost-effective way to share a printer. These switches cost less than $50 and can connect two or four computers to one printer. You'll want to buy a switch with at least four positions, since a two-way switch isn't much cheaper. Anyone who wants to print a file flips the switch to his or her computer. It's still awkward, but at least you don't have to interrupt someone to print a document. Some printers -- particularly expensive laser printers -- can be damaged by a manual switch.

The best low-cost solution is a switch that senses electronically which computer needs to print and automatically connects it to the printer. The better automatic switches perform the switching without risk of damage to the printers and are not affected by whether the connected computers are on or off.

The lowest-cost brand-name automatic switch is the SmartPrint switch from Dresselhaus (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., 800-368-7737). SmartPrint switches can connect two computers to one printer for $129, four computers for $199, or six computers for $229. Different models handle serial or parallel port printers. Since a computer can generate information faster than a printer can put it on paper, Dresselhaus supplies software with its switch that can turn a computer's memory or hard-disk drive into a printer buffer. The buffer accepts information quickly from the computer and passes it to the printer slowly, leaving the computer free to take on a new task. More expensive switches often come with buffer memory built in, but for most applications, a software-controlled buffer works just as well. -- Cary Lu