8 tips and tricks to make best use of your printer

Utilitarian workhorses of the computing industry, our printers are ignored until they run out of ink. Then we replace the tanks as quickly (and as cheaply) as we can and don't think about the devices for another few months. And as with monitors, we replace them only when they fail completely. A five-year-old printer? That’s no problem. An ancient dot matrix? It’s still functioning!

This collection of tips and tricks shows you how to keep nozzles clear, print sharper pictures, test out your document formatting easily, and more.

1. Prevent clogs with a humidifier

An unpleasant fact of life for inkjets is that nozzles can and do clog. Anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered from reader emails (and supplemented by similar complaints on the web) suggests that they are more likely to clog if you live in an area with particularly low humidity. That's not a problem UK citizens are going to experience, but American readers who live in cities built in the middle of the desert (with humidity levels as low as 10 or 15 percent) will be affected.

If you live in an area with low humidity, and you're having a problem with clogging nozzles, you may be able to solve it by adding a humidifier to the room where you keep your printer. Not in a humid area but experiencing clogs nonetheless? Unfortunately, you'll probably need to replace the cartridge. After you do, think about printing a page or two every few days to keep things running more smoothly.

2. Fix smeary printouts

If you use an inkjet printer and see smearing on a page, it's typically caused by something sticking to the printhead. If your printer includes the nozzles in the cartridge, and you see smearing immediately after changing a cartridge, remove the cartridge and check to make sure the protective tape over the nozzle is completely removed. If some of the tape is still attached, remove it, being careful not to touch the nozzle plate.

3. Print in the right order

Most laser printers print pages so they come out face down. For a multipage document, this puts the pages in the right order when you turn over the stack. Most inkjets print pages face up, which will normally put the first page on the bottom of the stack, so you have to reorder the pages. A few inkjets default to reversing the print order, so the last page prints first and the first page prints last, and everything's in the right order. Many don't have that feature, however.

For those inkjets that don't have a reverse print feature in the driver, some programs offer printing in reverse order. In Word 2013, for example, click on the File menu, then Options at the bottom of the left-hand pane, then click on the Advanced tab and scroll down to the Print section, where you’ll find the Print Pages in Reverse Order box – tick this.

An alternative approach for Word is to tell the program to print the range in reverse order. To print a 24 page file in Word, for example, instead of searching for the Printer Pages in Reverse Order option, you can just choose File > Print, and in the Pages text box, tell Word to print pages 24-1.

This alternative approach may also work for some programs that lack a reverse print option, but offer the option to print a range of pages. Don't try using both approaches at the same time, however, or use either with a driver that also reverses the order. Just as two negatives equal a positive, two commands to reverse order will cancel each other out.

4. Reduce bloatware

Of course, these days installing a printer with Windows 8 is (or should be) as simple as just plugging it in. But if you’re running an old version of Windows, there are some points to bear in mind regarding bloatware. Some printers (particularly all-in-ones) come with a lot of software that you don't necessarily use and may not want. The possibilities range from a utility that automatically checks for driver updates to a graphics program that you don't need. To minimise unnecessary software, look for a Custom option when you install your next printer, rather than using the Typical or Recommended option, and then pick only the software you want to install – the minimum requirement being the driver itself. It’s also worth searching for and downloading a minimal installation file from the manufacturer's website – if you can find this you can just skip the disc installation altogether.

5. Test out formatting

It's often useful to create a text document in Word, to test a printing or formatting feature, for example. To create as much text as you need quickly, simply type =rand(p,s) in a paragraph by itself, with “p” indicating the number of paragraphs you want and “s” the number of sentences in each paragraph – then hit Enter. Word 2003 will create the text using the sentence: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Word 2013 uses different text, but if you prefer the earlier version, use the command =rand.old(p,s). Word 2013 also offers another variation of dummy text – the command =lorem(p,s).

6. Print monochrome documents as black-only

Few printer issues are as annoying as trying to print a monochrome document in a hurry and getting an error message that the printer won't print because it's out of some other ink colour. Before you take a sledgehammer to the printer, take a careful look through the driver. Many – unfortunately, not all – printer drivers include an option to print using black only, or equivalent options to override the refusal to print. If your printer's driver doesn't offer a black-only option, you can always make sure that you have a supply of ink cartridges on hand.

7. Improve quality with the right paper setting

One of the most common reasons for complaints about inkjet output quality is that the driver is set for the wrong type of paper. Different papers require different amounts of ink and different proportions of ink colours to produce the correct final colours. Setting the paper type tells the driver which colour tables to use. Some inkjets are supposed to recognise the paper type automatically, but the feature doesn't always work. So if you're not getting the results you expect, don't give up on the printer until you've made sure you're setting the driver manually for the paper you're using.

8. And speaking of the right paper…

The paper you print on can make a real difference in how your output looks. All other things being equal, whiter, brighter paper makes text and line graphics crisper and colours more vibrant, because the human eye sees colours differently depending on the surrounding colour – in this case the paper colour. For inkjets, the paper also determines how much of the ink gets absorbed into the paper, and whether it bleeds into the surrounding area or stays in the spot where the drop hits the paper. So if you care about how your output looks, stay away from cheap copy paper, and invest some time and money experimenting with other choices.

For more printer advice, see our top 10 printer troubleshooting tips.