Among other things, the iPad is a great way to save paper: it lets you carry around digital documents that you might otherwise have had to print out.

But from time to time you may still need to print data that’s on your iPad – business documents that you created in Pages and Numbers, for example, or directions to hand to someone who’s not packing silicon. Printing from the iPad can be easy if your needs are modest. But even if they’re more complex, there is, as they say, an app for that. (The following steps work for any iPad, including the iPad 2, and for both WiFi and 3G models.)

The basics

Even though you can add a USB port to your iPad with Apple’s iPad Camera Connection Kit, plugging in a USB printer is useless because iOS doesn’t know how to talk to printers via USB. Some printers have built-in WiFi (a natural match for the iPad). But for the rest, you’ll need a computer or other proxy device to serve as a conduit for iPad print jobs. Your iPad connects wirelessly to your Mac (or other device), and that in turn connects to the printer.

PrintCentral works with local printers and lets you print remotely via WePrint

But the communication channel is only part of the picture; you also need software that knows how to send data to the printer in the right format. Starting with iOS 4.2, Apple built printing support into the iPad with a technology called AirPrint. Any app that has been updated to take advantage of AirPrint can print wirelessly to a compatible printer. It just takes a couple of taps.

For reasons that only Apple knows, the initial implementation of AirPrint works with just a handful of newer HP printers that support something HP calls ePrint. If you happen to have such a printer and it’s on the same local network as your iPad, the iPad will be able to see it and print without any special configuration. (That’s not all ePrint can do for you, it also gives your printer a private email address. So if you send a message to that address with a document attached, the attachment will be printed.)

Activate AirPrint

If you don’t have an HP ePrint-compatible printer, you can still use AirPrint with most printers. All you need is a bit of extra software that runs on your Mac: Collobos Software’s FingerPrint ($8 [£5]; www.collobos.com) or Ecamm Network’s Printopia ($10 [£6]; www.camm.com). Install either one on a Mac on your network, select the printer(s) you want the iOS devices to be able to use, and you can print to those printers from your iPad as if they were HP ePrint printers. Both apps also let you use the Print command to send documents to Dropbox or to a folder on your Mac in lieu of a printer.

The two applications do have their differences. FingerPrint requires Mac OS X 10.6 or later, and it has an option to ‘print’ directly to iPhoto on your Mac. But before a printer appears in FingerPrint, you must share it by enabling a setting in the Print & Fax system preference.

Printopia supports OS X 10.5 or later, works with any printer (shared or not), and can send files from your iPad to a PDF or PNG file on your Mac (much like OS X’s print-to-PDF capability). As of version 2.0, it also lets you ‘print’ not only to iPhoto but to any Mac application. It enables you to save files to any number of folders on your Mac. And you can launch any PDF workflow that’s on the Mac (click the PDF pop-up menu in any OS X Print dialog box to see all the options) and configure printer settings. For all of those reasons, we prefer Printopia to FingerPrint.

Another option exists, too, and it’s free (though payment is requested): Netputing’s AirPrint Activator (www.netputing.com/airprintactivator). But even though AirPrint Activator serves the same basic purpose of enabling AirPrint to use any printer your Mac can connect to, its setup process is tedious, and it doesn’t offer a way to print to Dropbox or to a folder on your Mac.

Print with AirPrint

Once you have either an ePrint- compatible printer or an AirPrint enabler set up, printing from your iPad is easy.

First, look for the Print command in an app. Assuming that the app has been updated for AirPrint support, the command is in there somewhere, although the location varies – sometimes it appears when you tap a button with the word Print or a printer icon on it, and other times it may be in a pop-over that appears when you tap a Tools, Send, or Action icon. (When in doubt, check the app’s help.)

Next, if this is your first time using AirPrint, or if you want to switch printers, tap Select Printer and then tap a printer name. The printer you select becomes the new default printer; you can skip this step next time if you want to use that printer again.

To change the number of copies, tap the plus-sign (+) or minus-sign (-) button. For multi-page documents, you can limit which pages print by tapping Range and selecting start and end page numbers. When you’re ready, tap Print.

Your document will begin printing. While that is in progress, you can double-tap the Home button and then tap the Print Center icon to view and manage your print jobs; Print Center disappears when printing is done.

In Pages, tap the Tools icon and then tap Print to display printer options

Print without AirPrint

AirPrint is certainly easy to use, but it may not meet all your needs. Some apps, and some printers, don’t support it. Plus, AirPrint offers no control over things like paper size or print quality, and it doesn’t work when your selected printer is not on your local network.

For these reasons you may want a different sort of printing method. Of the many other third-party printing apps, we prefer the following three:

Avatron Software’s Air Sharing HD (£5.99; www.avatron.com) is a multi­talented file-transfer app that can print directly to any shared printer on your local network (with or without AirPrint), and it gives you access to all your printer’s standard options.

Microtech’s ePrint (£1.79; www.e-workshop-dev.com), like Air Sharing HD, can directly access printers on your local network. Among the many things it lets you print are documents transferred from other iOS apps, web pages, data from the Calendar and Contacts apps, and the contents of the Clipboard.

One of several iOS printing apps from EuroSmartz, PrintCentral for the iPad (£5.49; www.eurosmartz.com) communicates directly with WiFi- and AirPrint-compatible printers. You can also install EuroSmartz’ small helper application WePrint on your Mac; this lets PrintCentral work with almost any printer. WePrint even lets your iPad print remotely by using an email account, an iDisk, or a WebDAV server as a channel for print jobs.