How to set up and maintain your new printer

Setting up a new printer needn't be a daunting task. Although the exact steps may vary somewhat between manufacturers, setup is generally straightforward, and printer manufacturers supply you with cheat sheets and wizards to help you along the way.

Before getting started, though, there are a few other items you'll need – and there are a couple of pitfalls in the setup process you'll want to avoid. Furthermore, once the printer is up and running, there are things you should do to ensure that you're getting the most from it, and that your involvement with the device is a long and happy one.

Supplies

1. Buy spare ink cartridges

Most printers come with a single set of cartridges, usually starter (low capacity) ones, but even high capacity cartridges will run out sooner or later. Be sure to have at least one set of spares on hand; higher capacity cartridges last longer and tend to be more cost effective.

2. Buy paper

Most printer manufacturers sell their own photo paper (usually in several qualities and sizes) which is optimised for their printers. Retailers like Staples sell discount priced branded photo paper; you might want to test it against the printer maker's own paper to see if it is satisfactory. For everyday document printing, multipurpose paper will do, while you'll want to have higher grade paper on hand if you plan to print fancier documents.

3. Buy any necessary cables

Three kinds of cables are commonly used with printers: USB, Ethernet, and phone (for the fax capability). Many printers include a USB cable (with a type B connector for plugging into the printer), and nearly all multi-function printers (MFP) with fax capabilities come with a phone cable. Many printers that support wired networking, however, don't include an Ethernet cable. Check to see what cables are included with your printer, and buy any needed cables in advance.

Setup

4. Get the numbers

Write down the printer's serial number and the company's tech support number. The serial number is usually on a label on the back of the printer. It's better to have the number on hand (along with the printer company's service phone number) than to have to scramble to find it later, particularly if your printer is large or in a hard-to-reach place.

5. Follow the quick-start sheet

When all else fails, read the instructions. Follow the steps as the manufacturer details them on the quick-start fold-out sheet. Common steps include unpacking the printer, installing the ink or toner cartridges, aligning the print head, installing software, and setting up Wi-Fi and other functions. Some printers require you to perform the more advanced steps in a certain order. (In very rare cases, the setup instructions are convoluted. If something does go awry, tech support is only a phone call away).

6. Consider a custom software installation

When you’re installing the printer software, you’re generally given a choice of whether to go for a standard (or typical) installation, or a custom install which lets you select what you want. Though most users choose the standard installation, the downside is that they're likely to install bloatware – unneeded applications that take up disk space and can slow down your PC (particularly when a lot of it is installed on the machine).

7. Install drivers and interface

You'll always want to install printer drivers – these utilities enable you to print from the PC on which you install them. (A fax driver serves a similar function, but for faxing, obviously enough). In Windows, drivers can be accessed through the Control Panel, under Devices and Printers. Right clicking on the printer's name brings up a drop-down menu; from Printing Preferences you can change the driver's settings. Some laser printers come with multiple printer drivers; PostScript drivers usually produce higher quality graphics, often at the expense of speed, while PCL drivers tend to be faster but produce more mediocre output. Many printers (and most MFPs) have an interface program that simplifies access to settings and features. It's useful to have that installed, even if you generally change settings through the drivers.

8. Examine bundled software before installing

Your printer or MFP may also come with photo editing, photo album, OCR, document management, or other programs. This bundled software may be useful, or it may be unneeded bloatware. Install with care.

9. Save the user manual to your PC

Some printers no longer ship with a printed user manual, but a PDF manual should either reside on the installation disc or be available for download. In either case, download it to your computer so you have it when you need it.

10. Set up Wi-Fi and fax

Enabling Wi-Fi is usually an integral part of the setup process, but if you need to do it separately (say, if you first connect via Ethernet), it should be easy enough to do. In the menu system, there should be an item called Network Setup, Wi-Fi Setup, or the like, with a wizard to guide you through setup. It's usually as simple as selecting your network, entering the password, and testing the connection. Fax setup involves a few more steps, but it's simple enough when working through the wizard.

11. Save the installation and software discs

You may need to install the printer's software on another computer, or reinstall it on your current machine, down the line. Put the installation disc in a place where you can easily access it – and the same goes for any bundled software.

Maintenance

12. Shake laser toner cartridges before installing them

Toner tends to settle, which can degrade print quality, so when installing a toner cartridge it's a good idea to first rock it back and forth five or six times. Likewise, when printed output starts to look faded or uneven, it's time to take the cartridge(s) out and shake them again.

13. Note ink cartridge warnings

Printers have a warning system that tells you when each cartridge is running low and should be replaced. (The better systems will note the percentage of a certain colour ink or toner you have left). These warnings vary wildly in their timeliness (depending on printer and manufacturer), with some coming just before a cartridge runs dry, while others pop up well in advance. Notice how long it takes for print quality to actually start to degrade after you receive such a warning, and plan to replace cartridges based on that. If you replace them too soon, you'll waste ink and money, but if you wait too long, you may ruin an important print job.

14. Align print head/clean nozzle as needed

If you notice any degradation in print quality and your ink isn't running low, you'll want to align the print head and perform a nozzle cleaning. First, unseat and reseat the ink cartridges. From the maintenance menu on your printer's menu, choose Align Print Head (it will be called this, or something very similar) and run it. It will print out a test page. Then go to Clean Print Head (or Clean Nozzle) and run that. If print quality doesn't improve, try cleaning the print head or nozzle several times.

15. Clean your printer

Use a soft cloth. Though you can use a cleaning fluid, water is usually sufficient. Dampen the cloth and apply judiciously (being careful not to expose the printer's innards to water). If it's an MFP, gently swab any dust or dirt from the scanner's platen.

For more advice on printers, check out our 8 tips and tricks to make best use of your printer, and our top 10 printer troubleshooting tips.