Ask LH: How Can I Make My Inkjet Printer Suck Less?

Ask LH: How Can I Make My Inkjet Printer Suck Less?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve gone through at least 20 inkjet printers in my lifetime and they’ve all sucked. The ink is too expensive, the printers are built like they’re made to break, the ink nozzles get clogged every few months, and I spend a fortune on paper. Is there anything I can do to make my inkjet printer suck less? Sincerely, Printed Out

Dear PO,

Buy a laser printer and order prints of your photos online through a photo-printing service. You can get a cheap colour laser printer for little more than the price of a good inkjet and the toner it comes with will last you a year. A black-and-white laser will be cheaper and last even longer. Photo-printing services cost next to nothing, and you can even pick up prints at local retailers the same day if you’re willing to pay extra. But presuming you’re not ready to ditch the inkjet out of some kind of misplaced love, sure, we’ve got some suggestions.

Avoid Clogged Ink Nozzles


Inkjet nozzles clog because they have ink in them and that ink dries, blocking the passage of more ink. Isn’t that great? So keep it moist. The easiest way to do that is print regularly. Set an alarm on your calendar to just print something once a week. Print a photo of a rainbow or something that will use the colours. Sure, this is somewhat wasteful, but it’s less wasteful than running the nozzle clearing tasks that will be required if dried ink clogs them up. Plus, if you’re printing anyway, you can generally avoid the problem.

Because the ink is of a higher quality, it also helps to…

Buy Ink from the Manufacturer


I’d love to suggest that third-party ink retailers can provide the same quality as the people who make your printer, only for less, but that’s not the case. If you don’t believe me, check out these tests from PC World. In some cases the knock-off brands are passable, but clearly not as good. In other cases the quality is downright terrible. It gets even worse over time, too. This is an unfortunate reality because ink is so expensive. It may cost a bit more, but at least your prints won’t look like crap.

If you do decide to go the cheap ink route, however, you should at least get this continuous ink system.

Get Your Colour Right


When you install your printer drivers, you’re most likely installing ICC profiles as well. ICC stands for International Colour Consortium and these profiles help your computer display the colours on your screen as closely as possible to the way they’ll look when you print a photo. If you have a crappy monitor there’s only so much you can do, so a high-end colour-calibrated monitor is necessary if you want to get as close to an exact colour representation as possible. But if you have a better-than-cheap display and a photo editor that supports ICC profiles (e.g. Photoshop), you can come pretty close. Just make sure you’re actually using the profile for your printer. How to set an ICC colour profile will vary from editor to editor, but in Photoshop you just go to the Edit menu, choose colour Settings, and select the profile you want. Even simple applications like Apple’s Preview can do it by going to the Tools menu and choosing Assign Profile. It’s a pretty common feature, even if you’re not aware it’s there, so just check your manual and you might be surprised to find your editor can handle the job.

This is just scratching the surface of colour management for your printer. If you want to take a deep dive, check out this article in PC Magazine.

Pick the Best Paper


It may seem like a gimmick, but good paper will make your prints more vibrant and last longer. The problem is, that paper can get pretty costly and the quality can degrade pretty quickly if it isn’t meant to last. You can spend a lot of money on fancy archival paper that promises vibrant colours in your prints for longer than your laundry detergent promises the same for your clothing, but you don’t have to. The problem is figuring out what paper to buy, and that answer is rarely consistent.

Most manufacturers will tell you their paper will work best with their printers and often times they’re right. They’ve created the ink. They know how it bonds with the surface of certain paper coatings better than anyone. They’ll also create a range of paper and some will be phenomenal while others will be pretty mediocre. Nonetheless, you can generally expect a higher level of paper quality and compatibility from the manufacturer of your printer.

To complicate matters further, many manufacturers have different types of ink for different types of printers, so it’s important to match your ink type with the paper type. Most inkjet printers will work with the standard range of papers, but if you have a specific kind of ink you’ll want to check and see if there’s also a special brand of paper just for you.

But then there’s the expense. Buying paper from your printer’s manufacturer is almost always a costly endeavour, so you can either look for sales or try to figure out what else works. To do that, you’ll have to experiment, as one brand of third-party paper also varies in results depending on the printer. Even the print setting can make a difference. I used to buy Kodak Satin paper because I loved how it looked, but I had to use the slow print settings and let it dry or the ink would run. It looked great in the end and it was pretty cheap to buy, but it was a pain in the butt to use. You’ll find lots of papers like this online, so the best thing you can do is buy small packages of each and try them all out. It may turn out that the manufacturer’s paper really is the best, but the best paper at the best price is ultimately going to be what you prefer. Just make sure you read the instructions for each kind of paper so you don’t print on it incorrectly and miss out on discovering something great.

Make the Best of a Bad Situation

While you’ll still probably have a better experience with a good laser printer, and save some money in the process, these tips should help you avoid at least a few potential problems with your printer. The unfortunate reality is that the hardware is always pretty crappy and is going to have some issues, but if you’re diligent you can eke some more life out of what you’re stuck with. Good luck, and happy printing!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Been using a BW Samsung ML-740 for something like three years now, only changed the toner once and that was due to clogging, the second one is still going after a year!
    “You can get a cheap colour laser printer for little more than the price of a good inkjet”
    Any chance ‘LifeHacker’ can do a run down of the prices and specs of colour laser printers? I generally don’t need the colour. but it would be a nice to have the option if the prices have come down that much! #]

  • Small hack I learnt:

    1. Remove all cables and set these aside.
    2. Fully remove the paper tray and take out remaining paper and keep that with said cables.
    3. Invert printer, and remove all external screws
    4. Take out the power supply and anything else that looks interesting and might contribute to little side tech projects. Keep these.
    5. Box everything else up and take to an e-waste recycling joint (as we care about the environment)
    6. Detour past any reputable tech supply store on your way home and purchase a new laser printer of your choice.
    7. Install said laser printer in place of old inkjet, using appropriate cables and paper that we saved in steps 1 and 2

    Note: if any of the steps fail, repeat ten times out loud: “It’s time to move on buddy!”

  • I own an inkjet and buy third party cartridges and am very happy with their performance. What we print is 95% text and 5% pics/diagrams (school work of son #1) so it doesn’t make sense to go with the manufacturer’s ink and premium paper, especially as we always print pictures at one of the processing outlets. Why would anyone bother to print pictures at home, given how cheaply these outlets can print your pictures?

  • We picked up a great deal on graysonline on a colour laser multifunction printer/scanner fax. Even had network support. Shame its a dell and only plays nicely with windows and even then it was a pain in the ass. Also had a bw laser that has lasted years and has pnp support for mac. Great for printing uni docs so long as you don’t need colour.

  • My personal experience with third party ink, especially a CISS system, has always been fantastic. Nothing irritates me more than people who insist on pitting third party to original OEM products and mindlessly suggest the third party product is inferior. My experience with ink, with car parts, and many other things in life, simply do not support this kind of “common sense” belief. PCWorld, along with sites like CNET, simply aren’t respectable sources of information. All their “reviews” read like a suped up version of the product spec sheet – with no real testing involved. I won’t be surprised if those so called comparison tests are just photoshopped images.

    The bottom line is, from my own experience of using exclusively third party ink for 15 years in all my printers, I have not had a single problem due to third party ink.

  • I have a HP LaserJet 1000…..must be well over 9 years old and is only on its 2 toner cart. Would love to get something a bit newer that could hook to my router but can’t justify thowing out a perfectly good printer

  • I used to use a colour laser but I print so little these days that my expensive and almost full colour toner cartridges went past some expiry date and the printer refused to use them. Hundreds of dollars to replace all the cartridges… I calculated it was cheaper to junk the laser and buy a new inkjet printer which would be less wasteful in the long run even with the more expensive smaller containers of inks. Good hint about remembering to print something each week to avoid clogging.

  • I still use my 10 year old Canon S800. I buy third party ink. It’s a no-nonsense printer that has outlasted a handful of multi-function printers/scanners/copiers that my wife has insisted on buying.

    Prints black and white fast. Colours are a bot slower but still look fantastic

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