The ugly truth about computer printers

The ugly truth about computer printersThe printer is the source of pain and problems for every computer user.  The ugly truth about computer printers is that everyone has one and they all stink.

A printer is very mechanical, there are a lot of moving parts.  Every printer from the very simplest, to the most complex, has numerous gears, springs, and rollers that all need to move in perfect harmony in order for your printer to work.  

In understanding why computer printers are a source of frustration, let me explain some of the other components of a typical computer system. On your home desktop computer you have a large box that everything plugs into. I hear people call this box a CPU, some call it a hard drive.  Technically the CPU is one small part on the main circuit board that sits inside that box.  The main circuit board, as well as the CPU and memory modules that plug into are solid state, that means they are all electronic. Unless you get hit with a power surge or some external electrical issue, it is rare that the electronics of a computer wears out over time. Even hard drives that once were very mechanical are now becoming solid state, which means no moving parts and much more reliable.

Same thing with your display, what we used to call a monitor.  Back in the days of CRT Monitors, the CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) wore out over time, it degraded because it heated up. In my experiences over the years I've seen some monitor failures. Not so much with modern displays, like the computer itself, they are now all electronic and less likely to degrade over time.

Things like keyboards and mice still have a few mechanical parts to them, but they don't wear out often.  When they do wear out, they are simple to replace, and people don't get too excited when they need replaced.

But alas, the printer, the pain of every computer user.  You just typed that report and you need it now.  You are leaving for the movies and you want to print the tickets, and the printer won't work.  There is never a convenient time for the printer to break.  

Even the simplest of printers has a handful of gears, springs, and rollers, that wear out over time.  The paper tray gets banged around every time you fill it up.  Every time someone takes out a paper tray, they bend something, they twist something, a part gets knocked off.  With the need to lower the cost of the printers, many of these mechanical parts are made from very low quality metal and plastic.

And here is one element of printers that many people over look, the paper.  When the air gets dry, when the heat is on in the winter, the paper gets full of static electricity, so it jams more often.  Instead of taking the paper out of the tray, fanning it a bit, flipping it over, you bang the paper tray a few times.  Maybe you yank the paper out when it jams, bending and stretching the metal arms and guides on the paper tray.

When the weather is damp and humid, that will also cause the paper to jam. Do you close the wrapper on your paper when it is just laying around?  Or is it just thrown on a shelf outside the wrapper?  I have seen many print quality issues caused by paper. Having spent a long career in office automation and computer networking I could write a book on the subject of printer problems because of paper.  The hardest part in answering this was keeping it brief.

Types of printing technology

Another issue you have with printers is consumable supplies like ink and toner. Every freaking printer model has its own unique ink or toner cartridge.  When you try to save money by refilling cartridges it is a crap shoot.  More often than not I have seen refilled cartridges cause many problems.

In the early days of desktop computers the dot matrix printer was the standard.  They could be pretty noisy as the small needles in the print head fired through the ribbon creating dots of information on your paper. Ribbons faded over time, and copy quality was not great, but printer ribbons were fairly inexpensive compared to modern ink cartridges. The boxes of paper with the tractor feed holes seems a little primitive compared to the plain paper printers of today, but in many ways the tractor feed paper was a more problem free solution than many of the modern printers with paper trays.

Inkjet printers began replacing dot matrix printers offering higher quality. A less noisy printer with higher quality could be a blessing, instead the inkjet technology was more of a curse. The color inkjet printer uses multiple color ink cartridge that includes a print head as a part of a replaceable ink cartridge that adds to the expense of the cartridge. The cartridges themselves have very narrow inkjet nozzles that are prone to clogging, and they dry out over time. New technology intelligent ink cartridges that communicate with the printer add another level of complexity, and another potential point of failure

Laser printers have been around since the very early days of desktop computers. They are high quality printers, but were for many years, very high cost.  In the early days it was rare to have a laser printer on your home computer, but over the years the quality has increased, and the price has dropped dramatically.  You can get a low cost black print laser printer for less than a hundred dollars. That is what I have in my home office, I have given up on low cost ink jet printers. Most of the times I use my home office laser printer to print a document such as a receipt, or maybe my tickets for a movie or sporting event, I don't need color for that.

The price of a laser printer toner cartridge sounds expensive, the last one I replaced was over $50, but they last ten times longer than an ink jet cartridge. If you look at it on a cost per copy basis, a laser printer is significantly cheaper to own than an ink jet. If I really need a high quality color copy, I can take a document on a USB drive to a local shop and get one there.

Prices have been dropping in recent years, and color laser printers cost a fraction of what they once cost.  If you need a color printer and print more than a few copies a month, do some calculations on the cost per copy of a color laser printer.  You might be surprised to see that over the long haul a color laser printer is not as expensive to own as an ink jet.

It's not your fault for buying a crappy printer

Between having a home computer system as well as working in the field of office automation and business machines since the early 1980s, I have worked with numerous brands of printers and printing equipment. It is hard to recommended a specific brand or specific model of printer at any time because they are constantly changing. In a marketplace that is always shopping for low cost, often a manufacturer will cut corners to lower costs, and a usually reliable brand will have some really horrible models.  

We are discussing the computer printer here as a hardware device, but software issues such as finding the proper drivers for your current computer operating and getting Wi-Fi to work on your network can also create problems. Shop wisely, read over consumer reviews of the currently popular printers to see the potential problems for a model you are considering buying.

The primary reason for a printer being the most likely part of your computer system to cause you pain comes down to the printer having the most moving parts, but there are also many other issues dealing with the supplies such as paper, ink, and toner. Maybe you won't feel any better about all the printing problems you are having after reading this article, but at least you will know, it's not your fault for buying a crappy printer, they all stink.