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How To Fix Your Printer

Printers can break, jam, and drop print quality suddenly. Here's what you can do about these common printing headaches.

Don't let your paper jam.
If your printer jams: You're going to need to get that paper out of your printer before you do anything else. It pays to check your printer's documentation to make sure you extricate the paper in a way that does not damage your printer's internal mechanics.

Specifically, check the manual for advice on how to get to where the paper is stuck (an access door or release lever), and how to remove the sheet--ideally, in one piece, as removing smaller bits can be a real pain.

If you can't find your manual, the basic rule of thumb is to pull gently on the paper in the direction that it would be exiting--i.e., forward, not backward, in the paper path. If you can't get the whole piece of paper, look carefully for the stray scraps and extract them with tweezers, as they could cause another jam.

When it comes to paper jams, they're easier to prevent than to fix. Start by taking good care of your paper--make sure it is stored smooth, dry, and flat. Do not feed folded, dogeared, torn, or otherwise less-than-perfect paper into your printer.

Also, don't let paper sit for more than a day in vertical-feed trays, as the pages can bend slightly (affecting their ability to feed smoothly) and the pressure of the paper on the rollers might affect the rollers' functionality.

Finally, adjust your paper tray to fit the paper you're using. A carelessly set width or length guide can affect how the paper feeds and possibly cause a jam.

If you're having problems with print quality: Start by checking your printer drivers for the following settings:

  • Paper type: Make sure your paper type matches what you're using. Paper weight, for instance, can affect how a printer adjusts its rollers to pull the paper through, and also how long a laser or LED printer "bakes" the page. Using "plain" vs. "photo" paper will affect how much ink an inkjet uses to create an image.
  • Quality level: the different levels of print quality, from "best" to "normal" to "draft," affect the speed, precision, and ink usage of the printer. Using draft mode would be reasonable (and economical) if you're just printing something casually for brief or internal use--such as a map, or a document you wish to proofread. Print using the "best" setting for documents you plan to show to the public, or for a formal letter or nice photo.
  • Document type: Some printers let you specify whether you are printing a memo, a newsletter, or a photo, and automatically adjust settings to fit.

Check your paper type.
Also, most printers these days have their own maintenance functions that will realign and clean the printer heads. Run through those once or twice and see if that helps.

If your printer is printing slowly: A handful of different factors could be slowing down your print speed. Here's what to look for.

First off, check to make sure you're not printing in a high-quality or "best" mode, which will take longer than a default or draft mode.

Depending on what you're printing, your connection to your printer might be bottlenecking the print rate. Wireless connections can be affected by distance from the printer, airwave interference, and physical barriers, and USB connections have narrower bandwidth than ethernet connections.

If you print run-of-the mill documents, largely text and some photos, than a wireless or USB connection should be adequate. If you print complex or high-res graphics or have a lot of people trying to use the printer, ethernet is better suited for bigger or busier traffic.

Also, most consumer printers rely on your PC to process the print job, so if your PC's memory and processor are already heavily taxed your jobs will take longer to process.

If a printer does have its own memory (usually one designed to work in an office), check to make sure there is enough memory to handle the complexity and quantity of jobs you are sending to it.

Did problems begin after you started to print a lot more than usual? Check the printer's monthly duty cycle to see how much it's designed to push out.

If you started off with a consumer-level printer designed to print perhaps up to a few dozen pages a day, but you are now printing a hundred or more pages a day, your old printer is probably struggling to keep up. If you are printing 25 percent or more of the monthly duty cycle spec, then you should probably get a printer with a higher monthly duty cycle.

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