Your printer's manufacturer doesn't want you to use your printer to just print and scan. They want to install bloated apps, eat memory, and to constantly nag you for more ink. Trim your printer setup to the minimum with this five-step guide.
Image via Kevin Cortopassi.
Mac owners and brave Linux adherents don't really need this guide. Oversized, heavily branded printer software does exist for Mac platforms, but you can use most any printer by simply plugging it in and hitting Command-P in an app. Linux, for the most part, works the same way, with the essential driver bits baked into the core of the system.
That leaves Windows. A hardware driver is supposed to be a simple, mostly hidden interface, but the majority of printer installation packages — whether installed off the CD in the box or from the printer maker's web site—want to do far more than just explain a printer's inner workings to your system.
When you're cleaning up a slow-going system, look in the system tray, or hit Ctrl+Shift+Esc. You'll likely find one or more apps running that do nothing more than wait for a printer or scanner to be connected, then somehow pop up and do, well, something. Some printer makers step a bit further, installing toolbars in your browser for supposed "smart printing", and installing a whole mess of software for image editing, photo retouching, project printing and scanning that's far less useful than a lot of free software.
If you're the victim of a printer maker's overly ambitious plans, here's a sequential guide to getting rid of the bloat and reclaiming working memory, hard drive space and some semblance of sanity in your printer setup.
Step One: Uninstall What You've Got
If it's a printer you're using at home, go ahead and wipe out whatever software you've got on your system associated with it. You don't want remnants of other drivers and software hanging around when you start over — trust me on that. Hit your Start menu, select the Control Panel, then click "Uninstall a program". Search for your printer maker in the upper-right corner ("HP", "Canon", "Lexmark", etc). You might be surprised at all the stuff that's there.
Click each item, starting with the most primary-sounding item, and hit "Uninstall/Change". If you're lucky, you'll get a prompt from that main item to uninstall everything; otherwise you might have to doggedly detach each piece individually. You may also have to restart your system once or twice, too, and maybe immediately. When I was cleaning up my system's printer setup, HP's software didn't really give me a choice.
Note: If you're using Windows XP or a similarly older version, I recommend using Revo Uninstaller, especially its portable (a.k.a. no installation needed) version to do your wiping. It's not quite as necessary with Windows Vista/7, but it's still a pretty good app, despite how buried the free version is on Revo's web site these days.
Step Two: Try Windows Update First
Power up your printer and plug its USB cord into your computer while Windows is running. Microsoft has a pretty extensive library of printer drivers, especially for popular printers that aren't brand-new, and if your system is connected to the web, Windows might be able to automatically download and install a driver — possibly a smaller driver package than the manufacturer offers, too. It could just be the same kind of plus-sized installation, too, but installing through Windows gives you access to regular, automatic updates. If you luck out with Windows' automatic installation, skip ahead to the Cleaning Out Auto-Starters section.
Step Three: Grab the Latest from the Web
If Windows can't fix up your printer automatically, head to your manufacturer's web page, then look at the top of the page for the "Support", "Support & Drivers" or "Support & Downloads" section. You'll be asked to enter in your model number, then likely pick which version of Windows you're running (Unsure? Click the second question here).
More than anything, be on the lookout for a more stripped-down version of your printer driver—one without all the extra software and "utilities". You'll know this by the smaller download size, which is usually listed. You may be out of luck, like me, and be stuck with a 200MB download. Hold your nose, click to save it, and grab yourself a coffee while it downloads.
Step Four: Cut Down the Cruft
That coffee wasn't a cheap transition — well, that's not all it was. You'll want to be paying attention when you install your software. I've installed my own HP printer drivers at least a dozen times, and I just noticed for the first time that I could limit the software it installs. It's a blue link that looks like part of a licence agreement (see in the image above). Those "Click here to customize" links are often pretty subtle and tucked away — printer makers want everything to be easy, and they also like the profits from "Buy supplies" links. Look for them and use them if you can, keeping only the most basic software. Hopefully they're labelled as such — driver software, printing functionality and so on.
Check that your printer actually works: print a test page, if offered, or simply print out a simple document or web page. Now that we know it's installed and operational, let's scale things back.
Head first to your Startup folder in your Start menu (Programs/All Programs->Startup), which is the nicest way software can suggest you run something on your computer automatically. In my case, my printer isn't always connected to my main laptop, and even if it was, I'm only scanning things occasionally. So I don't need a "Digital Imaging Monitor" running on my system at all times. Right-click on the entry in the Startup folder and hit Delete. You didn't delete the program, just the shortcut, so you can always add it back if it's useful.
Now we're going to check out what other goodies our printer people asked our system to automatically start each time. Open your Start menu and enter msconfig and press Enter (on Windows XP, enter msconfig into the "Run" item on the Start menu. Click on over to the Startup tab.
Look through this list for your printer's manufacturer. It's never good to make bold pronouncements about computer issues, but I can say that I've never encountered a situation where a computer needed some kind of auto-starting, printer-related app to print. When it's time to print, your app contacts the driver, which feeds the printer, and your paper comes off the roller. When you're done, hit "Apply". If one of your apps really was needed, you can always head back into msconfig and re-check the app, so experiment with a clear conscience.
Unsure of which apps you actually need? Note the name of the application, usually ending with ".exe", and enter it into the search box at Sysinfo.org's Startup List. You'll likely find it there, along with a letter-coded recommendation on whether you need to keep it running or not: N, U, and X are safe to un-check in your msconfig window.
Step Five: Install Great, Lightweight Alternatives for Scanning and Photo Editing
If you've installed the basic printer and scanner driver for your system, that's all you really need to actually print and scan. Printer makers offer you scanning apps, maybe the kind that auto-load when you lift your scanner cover, and image/photo editing tools, but you've probably never heard any tech blog rave about such an app's greatness.
Scanning (and Faxing)
I asked on Twitter for recommendations on alternative apps for scanning, and got quite a few responses. I'm also a little embarassed to admit that I didn't realise that Windows Fax and Scan was available in all versions of Windows 7, and the Business, Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. It's a pretty straightforward tool for simply grabbing a document from your scanner, saving it to your hard drive, and getting on with your life. It can also handle faxes, if your system is set up with a phone connection.
Twitter user hqraja suggested FreeKapture, as well. But the majority of respondents noted that their favourite image editing apps — Paint.net, Picasa and more — offer their own scanner functionality, usually tucked into an "Import" function in the File menu.
Simple Image Editing Software
You can read up on our readers' general favourite picks for image editing, but they tend to be a bit more in-depth than the average user needs for simple touch-ups, light fixes, and cropping/resizing — except Picasa. Picasa is a great tool for editing, red-eye-reducing, cropping and emailing or backing up photos, as we suggested in a feature on setting up your folks. If you wanted a more straight-ahead editing tool, Paint.net is the next level up.
With just your drivers installed, your auto-starting items reduced, and better scan and edit software installed, your system, and hopefully your workflow, is a bit cleaner and more agile. If you've done your own printer purge and have further tips, we'll gladly hear them in the comments.