You wouldn’t believe how many times I hear that each day!

My associates in the technical support field and I get a chuckle over just how many service calls we answer with that problem description – “I can’t print.” The tricky part of it is just how many things could possibly be wrong to cause the issue in the first place. Sure we usually start trouble shooting with the obvious stuff like “is the printer turned on”? Or “are the cables connecting the printer to the computer plugged in properly”? But most of the time the solution isn’t that obvious. And again there could be a number of reasons why nothing is coming out of the printer.

“I can’t print!”

I don’t think people quite understand that when you get a call with a problem description like that you really have no idea what you are getting into because let’s face it – on the surface it looks easy enough; just go out there and fix the printer. But the reality of it can be much different.

You see, there are a ton of things that have to happen right in order for a print job to make it from a program to the actual printer. A failure in any number of different places can result in the same thing – no printer output. And often without any error message to tell you what could be going wrong. To the end user it looks like a printer issue, click print and nothing happens? Must be a problem with the printer. Unfortunately chasing down a printer problem can be a time consuming and frustrating chore.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that have to be correct starting from the printer and working back to the computer.

Like I said earlier, the first things we usually check are the obvious ones; is the printer turned on? Is it plugged in? Is there any paper loaded properly in the paper tray? These are the questions that we usually ask the end user over the phone and most of the time the answers we get are accompanied by heavy sighs. “Yes, it’s turned on” and “yes, plugged in.” I know these obvious questions can be annoying but there are times when that is the problem – maybe a cable jiggled loose – and (as annoying as those questions can be) checking there is the first place to start. Most of the time however, the problem is somewhere deeper and we may end up having to set up a time to connect and have a look.

Sometimes the issue is the ink cartridge. If the printer has been sitting there unused for a long period of time the cartridge may be full but little “ink scabs” have formed over the nozzles preventing the ink from squirting out but still registering as full. That problem will often manifest itself as “blank pages printing” or lines appearing throughout the printed document. The fix for that is often a thorough cleaning (or, if the cartridge is really old, a fresh ink cartridge).

Moving our focus away from the printer and to the computer the next question we ask is “can the operating system (usually Windows but the same concepts apply to Macs) even see the printer? If we take a look at the printer settings in the computer we can tell a lot of things right away. If the operating system can’t “see” the printer then it may show up as “grayed out” and you may have documents queued up waiting for the print device to come back online. For that you usually have to dig a little deeper and check what ports the computer is trying to use and sometimes switch the ports around to get it to work. (I actually see that issue quite frequently).

Sometimes the default printer settings have been changed to a non existent or “virtual” printer generating a “save as…” window instead of a printed document. The solution is to set the correct printer to the default but be sure to verify the print job is going to the printer you want it to when you hit print – some programs ignore the default printer settings in Windows and send print jobs to unexpected places if you are not careful.

There can be many many more reasons why a print job doesn’t make it to the printer ranging from driver problems to issues relating to the program that you are trying to print from. The point of this week’s column was to illustrate that most of the time you have to dig a little deeper – most solutions to common computer problems are not as obvious as they initially appear.

Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at 888-752-9049 or (No Hyphens!)

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