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Top 10 printer troubleshooting tips

Printers are baffling, often frustrating devices. Fortunately, many printer-related glitches are easy to resolve. And with a little know-how, you can improve the speed, quality, and cost-effectiveness of your printing, and the quality of your scans if your printer is a multifunction device (MFD). Here are some of the more common issues printer users may face, and ways to troubleshoot them and improve your printer's performance.

My printer won't print

If the printer doesn't respond when you try to print a document, as ever, the first and most obvious step is to make sure it's turned on and that a cable hasn't come loose. For both USB and network-connected computers, the printer driver must be installed on the computer you're printing from. Occasionally the driver may become corrupted and have to be re-installed.

You can either do this from the disc supplied with the printer or by downloading the driver from the manufacturer's website. Printer makers generally have a page for which you can download available software for different models and operating systems. (You may also have to update the driver so that it's compatible with a new operating system, as many consumers buying Windows 8 computers have discovered).

Not sure if your computer already has a driver installed for the printer you want to use? With Windows, it's easy to check. Just open the printer folder from the Start menu or Control Panel. Depending on the version of Windows, it's either called Printers, or Printers and Devices. It will show a list of available printers, with offline printers greyed out. If your desired printer is offline, make sure it's properly connected to your PC or network. The default printer has a green tick next to it. You can set another printer as the default by right clicking on it and following the prompts.

Right clicking on a printer and clicking on Printing Preferences will reveal the driver settings. By tweaking them, you can adjust a number of functions, including but not limited to paper size and type, default paper tray, print quality, and duplex printing (if available). The printer software installation disc almost always includes a convenient interface to access printing functions, but it's faster to work straight from the driver.

Most new printers include a quick-start sheet, and many include a user manual. You should keep the installation disc and user manual in a convenient place. A growing number of printers include a user manual as a PDF file on the installation disc, or make it available from their website. It's always a good idea to download it to your PC.

My printer is too slow

Not all printers are created equal. Laser printers are generally much faster than inkjet printers, and waiting for some budget inkjets to finish a job can be like watching paint dry. If you've outgrown your printer, it may be time for an upgrade. But even with your current machine, there are some tricks you can use to speed up printing, though there may be trade-offs involved.

Quality is one example. Printing documents in draft (or normal) mode should be faster than in high quality mode – but at the expense of resolution. If you're printing documents for routine in-office use, this may be an acceptable trade-off, but for formal reports or other documents with which you want to make a good visual impression, you'll want to switch back to high quality mode.

If your printer has an automatic duplexer, which lets you print on both sides of a sheet of paper, it can save a lot of paper. However, as the duplexer has to flip each sheet over to print on the reverse side, it takes longer – sometimes considerably so – to print a given document in duplex than in simplex (one-sided) mode. If speed is paramount, you'll want to keep your printer in simplex mode.

Another trade-off involves drivers. Many higher-end lasers – and some inkjets – come with a choice of drivers, including PostScript, PCL, and/or the manufacturer's own (host-based) driver. PostScript usually produces the highest quality – especially for documents like newsletters containing both text and graphics – but PostScript printing is often slower than with the other drivers. You can speed up printing by using one of the other drivers, but you may still want to switch to PostScript for the final copy.

There isn't usually a dramatic difference in print speeds between connection methods – USB, Ethernet, or Wi-Fi. That's because the time spent transferring the file to the printer is generally only a fraction of that required by the printer to process and print the file. It can't hurt, though, to experiment with connection types and see their effect on print speed. If there is a difference, usually it's Wi-Fi that's slowest. Sometimes this can be remedied by moving the printer closer to the router. If not, try one of the other connection types.

I'm getting paper jams

Printers are subject to the occasional paper jam, and some models will dutifully warn you of the problem with an error message. Many printers just give a generic error warning, such as a flashing red or orange light, which may or may not be accompanied by beeping; as often as not, it will be a paper-related issue.

The good news is that with consumer printers, and even most business printers, clearing a paper jam is much easier than with a floor-standing copier, as the paper path is much shorter. Usually by removing the paper tray or opening the back (or whatever the error message's instructions may indicate), the location of the errant sheet(s) will be obvious, and their removal easy enough. (The trickiest part may be trying to extract a sheet that's been caught in the rollers without it ripping, but even that is relatively rare with most of today's printers).

It's possible that misaligned paper (see the next section) was responsible for the jam; frequently, simply removing the tray, making sure the paper is aligned and positioned properly, and reseating the tray will put an end to the jamming.

Something is wrong with the paper tray

It's not uncommon to get a paper jam warning, but find that there's no miss-fed sheet. You open and close the paper tray, but you still get the warning. Or you may get an error message concerning the tray itself (perhaps indicating that it's out of paper, even when it isn't). In either case, the paper may not be positioned correctly. Remove the stack of paper and gently tap one end of the stack, and then one side, on a flat surface until it's squared off. Remove any damaged or sticky sheets. Then replace the paper in the tray, making sure that the paper is positioned correctly and the guides are snug against the paper.

You may also get an error warning if there is too much paper in the tray – or too little. Be sure that the tray isn't jam-packed, or almost empty.

If your printer has multiple trays, it's possible that the printer is set to feed from the wrong tray. Check the driver settings to make sure that the paper is feeding from the tray you desire, and that the right size paper is selected.

I'm running out of ink too quickly

Probably the most common printing-related complaint is the high cost of ink. We could write an entire article on the subject of dealing with this issue, but here are a few quick tips in a nutshell.

Cartridge capacity and cost varies considerably between printers, and we include a printer's running costs with our reviews. Generally, the more expensive the printer, the lower the cost per printed page will be. Higher-end printers usually support higher capacity ink or toner cartridges; although you'll have to pay more up front for them, they'll last longer and save you money in the long run. Lower priced inkjets often have low capacity cartridges and high running costs.

Look to your printer driver to help reduce ink or toner consumption. Printing in draft mode will save ink, and many printers have ink or toner-saving settings. Preview your documents before printing and reformat them if necessary, as they may print with extra white space.

You're bound to get warnings saying that the ink in your cartridge(s) is running low. The accuracy of these warnings may vary greatly between manufacturers and printer models; in some cases, the warnings may start well in advance of when you actually need to replace the cartridge. Hold off on replacing the cartridge and see how long the ink lasts – you may be able to squeeze much more ink out of it than the often dire-sounding warnings may lead you to believe.

Finally, think before you print. Do you really need a hardcopy of that report, or the 152 comments that follow the opinion column you want to print out? The paperless office may still be out of reach, but you can save ink, paper, and clutter by only printing the documents that you really want or need.

Something may be wrong with my ink

Some consumers save money by using third-party ink instead of the manufacturer's branded ink. Sometimes this strategy is successful, but it may come at the cost of degrading print quality. Common complaints are muddied colours and frequently clogged nozzles. If you're tempted to try third-party inks, do some research to see what other users have said about the brands that you are considering.

As for buying the manufacturer's own ink, one disadvantage of getting high capacity cartridges is that over time, particulates may condense out of the ink and clog the nozzles. Cartridges don't have an infinite shelf life. If you're only doing light-duty printing and seldom run out of ink, you may want to use lower capacity cartridges to avoid clogged nozzles and degraded print quality. The cost per page will be higher, but that's less of a factor if you print infrequently.

Text looks poor

If the quality of your inkjet printer's text output degrades over time, with fading or filled letters, you should try cleaning the nozzles and realigning the print head. The Maintenance or Setup section of your printer's menu should show you how to do this by following the prompts. Complete instructions should be in the user manual.

With a laser printer, the toner may have settled, and you may see faded spots or streaking on the output. Remove the cartridges and shake them gently side to side, and that will usually alleviate the problem. You may get several reprieves in this fashion, though sooner or later you'll have to replace the cartridges.

One way to get better looking text is to switch to a higher quality print setting, but that usually comes at the expense of print speed. Check to see that the nozzles are cleaned, the print head aligned, and/or the toner is evenly distributed before resorting to this.

My photos look abysmal

Photo quality – as well as text and graphics quality – varies considerably between printers, but all inkjets (and many lasers) can print photos at least suitable to be displayed beneath a refrigerator magnet. But should your printed photos look atrocious, first make sure that your paper and your print settings are correct. Photos print best on photo paper; although third-party photo papers may be acceptable, we recommend using the printer manufacturer's own branded photo paper. Photos printed on plain paper will look worse. It's important to be sure that the driver is set for the type of paper you'll be using.

Photos printed on the finest photo paper may look lousy if the driver is still set to plain paper.

If the colours in your photo prints start to look a bit off, an ink cartridge may be running dry. If your printer has an ink-level indicator (as most new printers do), check the levels of the various colours and replace as necessarily. Otherwise, make your best guess, based on what colour is lacking from the prints, as to which cartridge(s) to replace. If it's a laser (or LED) printer, the toner may have settled; remove all the cartridges and rock them gently five or six times, and then reinsert them.

The scanner in my MFP won't work

If the scanner in your Multifunction Printer (MFP) does not respond when you send a scan command, first make sure that the cable is connected correctly or, if you're using a Wi-Fi connection, that your printer is connected. Next, try reinstalling the MFP software on your PC, as it can get corrupted. (Such corruption seems to affect scanners more frequently than printers). If that doesn't get the scanner up and running, check the manufacturer's support page. If it's a hardware problem, the MFP may have to be repaired or replaced.

Images scanned with my MFP look lousy

Scanning quality can vary wildly between multifunction printers (MFPs), but you can often improve the look of your scans by tweaking the settings. Photos usually benefit from higher resolution scans. If your scan is for the web, you won't need as high a resolution as for a print document, though. The scanner part of the MFP's software interface frequently provides editing tools for your photos, and some are surprisingly good.

Choose the format (most offer at least PDF and JPEG) that's appropriate for the document you're scanning. You'll also want to make sure that the scans are properly aligned in the flatbed, especially with multi-page documents. Some MFP scanners provide cropping and aligning tools in their software, but if yours doesn't, it's important to preview scans if you have any doubt as to whether the document to be scanned is aligned correctly.

Incidentally, we mentioned our printer reviews earlier in this article, and if you’d like to check out some of the latest printers we’ve cast our expert eye over, see our reviews of the Epson Expression Premium XP-800, HP Photosmart 7520 e-All-in-One, and Dell C3765dnf Colour Laser Printer.