Being the curious type, I download tons of information from the Web. Normally, I copy and paste the text into a word processor, and then I save it for leisurely reading. But there are times when a printed version is much better; it's easier to read, carry around, and show to others.
Printing from Web pages, however, is no easy task: cut-and-pasted text is often a mess of random line breaks, spaces and unconverted ASCII symbols. Some Web sites don't allow you to copy text at all. And while you can print pages directly from Web sites with your browser, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer have lousy page setup and formatting controls.
Printer vendor Hewlett-Packard has a solution: Web PrintSmart 2.0, a software utility that gives you excellent control over printing Web content. The software is available in a free, basic version and a $US29 Plus version; I tested the latter, which has more flexibility in the kind of elements you can collect and organise for printing.
This software comes integrated with Internet Explorer and provides a scrolling collection list of your Web documents, along with commands for finding, formatting, and printing them. People who have Netscape Navigator can also use PrintSmart.
Collect and print
Web PrintSmart gives you lots of flexibility in acquiring documents. You can drag entire Web documents and their subordinate pages into your collection lists. With the Plus version, you can also collect individual frames, graphics, and text blocks from Web pages, as well as text from e-mails.
Web PrintSmart allows you to select which documents to print from your collections, and lets you decide if you want to print graphics as well. You can also tell PrintSmart to generate a cover page and a table of contents for your printouts or a list of URLs in your collections.
The Plus version gives you exquisite control over formatting, based on the documents' HTML tags. I tried applying several formats to a 270-page collection of documents; PrintSmart took between 10 and 15 minutes to apply the formatting and display the print preview. The free version has fewer style sheets and more limited formatting capabilities; so, ironically, this process may be quicker with the free software.
You can also e-mail your collections to a colleague or post them on a server. Your colleague will need PrintSmart to view your collections but since the standard version is free, that's no burden. There is one possible problem, though; you can't lock a collection to make it read-only, so anyone can rearrange or delete your collected items.
No paperless Utopia
What's not to like about PrintSmart? My main gripe is that it doesn't save the text (or images) from a Web site as documents on your PC. Instead, it saves the URLs for those pages, unless you have saved a specific text selection, which is stored in your collection. So if the source site for a Web page changes or disappears, the information you see changes or disappears as well.
That's similar to a book in a library evaporating when its publisher goes out of business. Of course, saving just the URLs is a very economical use of disk space.
Also, you can't access your PrintSmart collections without a live connection to the Internet, so it could get expensive for people who pay for a connection by the hour. It could also be inconvenient for dial-up users with one phone line. And without the text and graphics stored in a local database, you can't annotate, reuse, or conveniently search through your documents when you're offline.
However, PrintSmart Plus users might find the lack of a permanent archive a benefit for some applications, because you can schedule the software to access Web sites and download refreshed data automatically. For example, you could set up PrintSmart Plus to retrieve the front sections from news sites and print them out each morning before you arrive at the office. And PrintSmart can log on to some sites that use HTML forms to check your ID and password.
Web PrintSmart is useful, but do you really want to burn so much paper? Philosophically, I'm a little wary of software that encourages big paper output. That being said, we've not yet reached the point where we can do without hard copies of documents. And Web PrintSmart has features that can eliminate graphics, pack pages more tightly, and actually provide smaller printouts. Web PrintSmart does a great job of converting information from the Web into a form that you can mail, fax, or take with you on the road.