Hooking up to a printer is among the very few things that act as a very severe weak point for Chromebooks and a serious point of contention for many Chromebook owners. Google's development efforts on that front haven't really been lax but there are two primary ways to get connected and neither is really as simple as might be hoped -- depending on the machines in question.
Neither is guaranteed to work either, although using Cloud Print should work under most circumstances and that's actually easy enough to set up, albeit not intuitive.
Put simply, there are a variety of factors ranging from the age of the hardware involved to any of a dozen or so other factors we won't get into here.
In advance, it's worth noting that if neither method works, it may just be time to invest in a different or newer printer. Now, there's a veritable maze of options available on the printer hardware front and that can make things a bit daunting for the less technologically inclined. The wireless method to directly connect a printer contains a step that might make it easier to determine which printers will work but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
If all else fails, setting up a printer via Google Cloud Print brings the disadvantage of having to connect to a Printer through another machine via Google's servers. That's not a paid service but it does mean having another computer, signed in and connected to a printer, and turned on when it's time to print. We'll cover that process here too.
Caveats ...or when it might be a good idea to just use Google Cloud Print
Some printers, although not all, will work when plugged in via USB port. Others will work using Wi-Fi. Regardless of which setup is in question, the process will effectively be the same using a more direct connection. This will undoubtedly be the best method in either case if the printer in question is supported by the Google-built OS's vast library of available drivers.
We won't be addressing the process to install a printer where the driver isn't already included in that list since that's going to vary substantially from printer to printer and it isn't immediately clear which driver should be chosen from the manufacturer. Without sugar-coating matters and despite massive improvements over the years, in every instance where I have tried to use a driver downloaded from the OEM, that has failed to work properly at all.
That all comes down to whether or not the drivers are set up to work with Chrome or Chromebooks. Most aren't and won't show an option for that when they aren't already included in the list. Although other drivers from the company and indeed third-party drivers can sometimes work, that's not guaranteed to work and isn't necessarily the safest route. That's setting aside how big of a pain that can be to accomplish.
In some cases, such as with certain HP printers and those from a few other brands, printer apps are downloadable from the Play Store or as extensions that can help get directly connected via either Wi-Fi or USB. In others, those types of solutions can help get users connected via an OEM-hosted server.
Success with that will vary widely depending on the manufacturer of the printer and how they've set up their applications. The older Canon Pixma MX430 series printer used in this guide -- isn't fully compatible with any of those easier methods.
In those cases, the second method for getting connected -- using Google Cloud Print -- is almost certainly going to be easier to accomplish.
Plug the printer in or connect a Wi-Fi printer via Cloud Print
Looking past all of the potential problems that might be encountered, the first step to setting up a compatible printer with a Chromebook is going to be to make sure the Chromebook and the Printer are on the same Wi-Fi network.
After that, users will need to navigate to the settings menu and find the printer section. That can be accomplished by tapping or clicking on the clock on the Chrome OS shelf -- at the bottom-right-hand side by default -- and then selecting the gear-shaped settings icon.
Within the settings menu, the search bar at the top of the page can be used to search for "print" and the first option that appears should be "Printers" under the subheading "Printing." Scrolling down to the Printing subheading located under the collapsible "Advanced" section works too but it is faster to just search for a given setting.
Any printers that are already set up will be listed with options for adjusting settings on those tucked beneath three-dot menus but to add a new printer, the "Add Printer" button should be selected. A search will be initiated for "nearby" printers that are connected to the local Wi-Fi or hard-lined into the current network. If one is found, clicking "Add" should add the device unless it isn't immediately recognizable to Chrome OS.
The same process works for USB printers, which will be noted in the list via a "(USB)" designator and all subsequent steps work effectively the same way.
For printers that aren't immediately or entirely recognized by the OS, a secondary page will appear with a form to search for compatible printers. Typing in the manufacturer name will crop up an autocomplete list and selecting the appropriate OEM, that was Canon in our case, populates the remaining drop-down menus on the form. If the proper printer is listed, selecting that and clicking "Add" will add the printer to the list.
Using printers with compatible drivers that aren't listed is as straightforward as navigating to the printer's manufacturer website and searching for that specific printer to discover the support page and downloads. Then the file for the driver will need to be located within the Files application and the printer added as normal.
Conversely, advanced users can add printers manually by inputting the name, IP address, protocol, and queue information for their specific printer.
That's going to be an entire process in and of itself. For most printers, the latter two fields can be left at their default since most printers use that protocol and queue respectively but the manufacturer may need to be consulted on that front as well. The IP address is the identifying address of the printer on the internal network and steps for finding that will vary too.
So it's not necessarily something the average user will want to attempt.
Using Google Cloud Print with cloud-ready devices
For printing via Google Cloud Print with a cloud-ready computer, which is generally a much easier process but also heavily reliant on exactly which model of printer is being used, there are effectively two methods for connecting. Which of those needs to be used depends on what kind of printer is being used.
To Google's credit, the company does keep an extensive standing, and more importantly searchable, list of printers that will be easiest to connect to in Chrome or with a Chromebook. "Cloud-ready" printers found on that list will be much easier to set up, regardless of whether they're cloud-ready version 1.0 or version 2.0. So those will be the best printers to buy if a new printer is being purchased or to search for a printer that's currently owned.
Printers that are cloud-ready with version 1.0 will each have their own set-up instructions to follow. Those are actually found on the same Google-maintained listing page linked above. Users just need to find their printer on the list and then sign in.
For version 2.0, users will need to be in Chrome, whether on a Chromebook or other computer and navigate to the URL "chrome://devices" in the Omnibox address bar while on the same Wi-Fi network as the printer. New printers will appear under the "New devices" subheading at the top of the page. After clicking the "Manage" option next to the desired printer and then the "Register" button in the "Confirm registration" box that should appear, steps will be displayed on-screen to get the printer set up.
Returning to the "chrome://devices" URL will now show the printer under the "My devices" section of the same page. Although that process may seem a bit longer, it's mostly automated and once registered, printers can be managed from the same URL while logged into the same Chrome account. The device management dashboard may be used as well.
Once connected, cloud-ready printers will be able to print without another gadget such as a Mac or Windows computer signed into and connected to the printer via Chrome -- which the other method actually still requires.
The 'Print' interface
The interface used for printing is another area where it's easy to get tripped up. That's because although the UI is familiar and is relatively straightforward, it doesn't start out with a network printer selected by default. Instead, it defaults to saving items as a PDF file.
All of the usual options for adjusting print settings should appear as expected but unless that is changed, the file is simply going to save to the default folder.
Tapping or clicking on the drop-down arrow next to "Save as PDF" for the "Destination" setting will bring forward any printers that happen to be connected. If the printer doesn't appear it is likely either offline or the computer it is syncing through is offline or not connected to the printer.
Clicking "See more..." provides more details and quick access to printer management.