Can paper survive in a world gone digital?
The consumer printer industry isn’t in great shape, and paper seems to be getting eliminated every which way you look. Yet, BERG design consultancy principal Matt Webb spent the last year building Little Printer, a white box with orange legs that costs more than your Deskjet. It prints a tiny “newspaper” each day filled with your schedule, to-do’s, friends’ birthdays, news headlines, and even the most-liked Instagram picture from your feed that day — all in black and white, of course. It’s an art project that wants to be useful, and to be a nostalgic relic of an age passed.
“We are at the crossroads of media, technology, and experience, playing with what each medium allows in letting you tell stories in new ways,” Webb once told me. “The next place to be transformed is the front room or table top.” In the end of November, Little Printer went on sale for £199.00 (about $312), which feels closer in value to a 3D printer than something from your local Best Buy. Little Printer may have already convinced me that “paper lives,” but is the final product worth your money, and worth the valuable space on your bed table?
There are no drivers to install, computers to plug into, or product registrations to fill out
Little Printer comes in a beautiful Apple-esque package, but takes ten minutes to unfold, unbox, and open. It’s not unlike the printers of yore that require you to unwrap power bricks and cables, but at least Burgopak makes it all look good. The big pieces here are the Little Printer itself, which comes completely assembled and is about the size of a big stack of Post-It notes, and the "Cloud Bridge," a square plastic box adorned with LED lights that plugs into your router and communicates wirelessly with Little Printer. The device comes with a roll of standard-issue thermal receipt paper rolled up inside it that should last several weeks, as well as a replacement roll.
Fortunately, once Little Printer’s physical pieces are arranged, the hard part is over. Unlike your Deskjet, there are no drivers to install, computers to plug into, or product registrations to fill out. As long as the Cloud Bridge is connected to your router and Little Printer is connected to a power outlet, the devices pair automatically — which is a relief. Pressing the black button on the top of Little Printer prints an authorization code, which you enter it into BERG’s web app from any device. This procedure pairs Little Printer with a new account you create, which lets you pick a variety of "publications" to print each day from BERG’s mobile website.
BERG's selection of publications is limited, at best, and feels region-coded for the UK
But first, you must choose between four faces that change Little Printer from an emotionless plastic gadget into an always-grinning desk pet. The printed face you choose gets printed on the tail-end of each printout. After ripping off a printout, the face remains, meaning Little Printer’s front surface is never blank — it's a charming touch. From BERG’s web app, you can begin setting up publications: 384 x 800 pixel snippets with headlines from news sites, Sudoku feeds, Foursquare updates, a mini-series on butterflies, or even your Google to-do list. Some print each morning, while some can only be printed on Wednesdays (at the publication creators' choice), and for some you can choose exactly when and at what time they’ll print.
BERG’s selection of publications is limited, to say the least. They vary from a batch of The Guardian news headlines to a daily Sudoku puzzle, and some let you customize a few things about them. The Guardian News publication lets you choose two sections among "Main News," "World News," "Politics," "Media," and others. We’re still waiting for the launch of any US newspapers like The New York Times, however. In some ways Little Printer just doesn’t feel coded for use outside the UK. It’s pretty easy for any site to plug into BERG’s API and create a publication of its own, but each publication must be approved directly by BERG. But hey, at least BERG ships a US power outlet head inside the box.
Waking up to Little Printer each day is kind of like waking up to a dog that drops newspapers on your lap. Except most of us don’t subscribe to paper newspapers anymore, and Little Printer doesn’t fetch the whole newspaper — it merely brings a couple pages of it. Like the golden retriever, it’s plenty cute and charming, but Little Printer’s usefulness ends there.
Each morning at an hour you specify, Little Printer’s light illuminates, meaning your newspaper is ready. Press the black button (the device’s only button), and it’s off printing. Moments later your newspaper will hang idly off your bedtable (or front-room table, or wherever you choose), ready to be torn off and taken with you.
Little Printer's low-res black and white images are the most fun part about it
During a week with Little Printer, I most enjoyed the images it printed — the tiny digestible snippets of things like Daily Instagram; British Butterflies (an image a day); Exploring Type (cool illustrations showing how letters were created); Pixel Presidents (pixelated portraits of presidents); Monster of the Week, and Constellatio (a sketch of a constellation you might see above you). Like Polaroid’s fun i-Zone camera (which printed small pictures with sticky backs you could mount on a refrigerator door), Little Printer prints images you can give away, stick in your wallet, or leave lying around the house to be discovered by a friend or family member. While Little Printer’s black and white images are admittedly low-res, they’re the most fun part about it.
I soon realized that most of the best Little Printer publications don’t have anything to do with news at all — like Daily Instagram, which displays the most liked Instagram photo in your feed, and On This Day, a daily dose of history. I also like Little Printer’s ability to ping a friend’s Little Printer with a short message, which is delivered inside one of five cute themes like Telegram and Airmail. Nobody I know has a Little Printer, though, so I was limited to printing brief insults at my roommates and pinning them on the fridge.
You're not meant to print whatever content you want, which is a problem
Ultimately, news publications aren’t much fun, since you can’t tap on any of them for more information or to share or retweet them. The novelty of carrying around a newspaper again did not outweigh the frustration of not being able to tell anyone about the news I was reading. Sharing a ripped off printout from Little Printer can be fun, but involves actually being in the same room as the person you want to share with. The "A Song A Day" publication is another example: it prints a daily music suggestion from This Is My Jam, yet there’s no way to listen to the song that’s suggested. A Song A Day brings to light one of the issues with Little Printer — its features might work just as a well in daily email digest form, like calendar service Sunrise. Ironically, Sunrise has recently become available as a Little Printer publication, and can print your daily Google Calendar schedule each morning. But if you’re not using Google Calendar and Google to-do’s, Little Printer can’t help you — so far, at least.
Some publications, like comic strip Fokke & Sukke, feel perfect for Little Printer, but these publications are few and far between. You can email just about any HTML web page to a custom Little Printer address and have it print the page, but this method is not for novices. Little Printer is designed to be "hackable," but I didn’t have the patience to learn how to hack it. IFTTT integration would be pretty compelling, but is apparently far from stable.
You’re not meant to print whatever content you want, which is a problem. I found myself wishing I could print a whole stream of pictures from one weekend and staple them together for a friend, and I wanted to make my own flipbook. Developers could certainly build these kinds of applications on their own, and I’ll bet BERG hopes they do, but for now, you’re stuck with scheduled and inflexible publications. I yearn for a Game Boy Printer, which is more than a decade old but lets you have fun printing whatever you want to print.
But Little Printer was never meant to be Game Boy Printer. Piles, or rather rolls, of Little Printer newspapers cluttered my desk, and after a while I tossed them all out. What I kept were the Pixel Presidents printouts, Instagrams, some butterflies, and a few Word Of The Days. Little Printer might’ve been useful before our phones literally became extensions of our bodies — things that we check the last moment before we fall asleep and the moment we wake up. In the Twitter and iCloud age where up-to-date information, to-do’s, and appointments can be accessed often in less than five seconds, there’s no "news" to be had in Little Printer’s newspapers. And that most of all leaves me wanting something more — a tiny printer I can use to AirPrint anything I want, from text message conversations to Instagram photos to Photo Booth pictures to emails and doodles. I might even want to print my schedule if I have a particularly busy day. When there are several AirPrint options far more capable for less than $100, all you're left with is Little Printer as eye candy on your bed table.
Little Printer’s capabilities feel intentionally crippled by its creators — a sacrifice made seemingly to fulfill its goal as a piece of art more than as a useful gadget.
There's a reason paper's being eliminated
At £199.00, Little Printer should be purchased by one kind of a person: the Moleskine-touting design nerd in the Little Printer promo video who prefers a newspaper instead of Twitter during the morning train commute — and that's not to say Little Printer produces newspapers. For the rest of us, Little Printer is a beautiful toy, the MoMA Store’s dream come true. It’s a beacon of optimism about paper in a time when paper is being eliminated at every turn, and there’s a wonderfully inspiring story behind it. But there’s a reason paper’s being eliminated, aside from the fact that it’s a waste of trees: paper takes time to print, and whatever’s on that paper is old news by the time it gets to you. Even your daily schedule has likely changed by 10 AM, at which point your printout is old.
Little Printer is indeed "a gadget with character" that works well, but is lacking the ecosystem and integration that would make it all that fun or useful. But since Little Printer’s capabilities can be updated from the cloud at any time, and BERG seems set on building out its publication ecosystem, Little Printer might not be far off from being the tiny all-purpose printer I’m looking for. "There are still plenty of gaps," the company said in a blog post, "but we’re adding more all the time." Until then, Little Printer falls short of its potential not only as a client for web services, but as an internet-connected modern art piece.
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