Giving Up on Multi-function Printers

Last fall, there was the crashing sound of silence as Hewlett Packard customers discovered that a Snow Leopard update killed the scanner function on their multi-function printers. The whole affair has soured me on these kinds of printers.

Last week, my colleague, Ted Landau, wrote about how he’s had it with inkjet printers. (I stole his title.) I generally agreed, and feel that the agenda to make money from ink has blinded printer companies to the need to build quality products that don’t chew up our time and frustrate us. In any case, my own experience echos something different: I’ve had fairly good luck with inkjet printing, but with with each upgrade to Apple’s Mac OS X, it’s been an increasingly difficult affair to keep all the multi-functions all smoothly operational all the time.

This falls under the category of “So what did I expect from a US$100 consumer printer?” It’s the buyer’s delusion. The joy of setting up a new printer is frequently offset by the time we waste trying to recover from software fiascos down the road and once again, I am reminded that paying a little more can save a lot of grief. Accordingly, I don’t think I’ll ever buy another multi-function printer. It’s just too much hassle to keep the admittedly dicey software working all right all the time. In my experience; in my opinion.

Where it All Began

It was the release of, I believe, Mac OS X 10.6.5 in November 2010 that killed the scanning process for many HP printers — from what I saw looking at the forums. Worse, it’s not a widely reported event, so people are still walking into, say, Staples, buying an OfficeJet 4500, and tearing their hair out when they discover that HP’s scanner software doesn’t work in Snow Leopard 10.6.7.

Officejet 4500

The problem is made all the worse by the fact that people can go a long period between scans, but when they need a scan, it’s usually right now and mission critical: a legal, real estate, or job finding document. That’s immediately followed by the frustration and misery of trying to figure out how and when things went wrong. There’s guilt. “Did I do something wrong?” Just last night, my wife approached me with some aggravation: “John! My HP Photosmart (C4680) printer won’t scan anymore!” I told her that it happened to me too and, yes, I’d been using Ed Hamrick’s fabulous VueScan since Christmas. I installed on her iMac, and it worked perfectly.

I imagine a lot of (former) HP customers have discovered VueScan. It’s one of those practically perfect apps for the Mac that makes it onto the top ten list every time. It works with an enormous number of scanners and printers. It saves the day. There’s a free trial period to get you out of an immediate jam. It has it’s own built-in drivers so you don’t have to depend on on Mac OS X idiosyncrasies. It’ll cost you $40/year, and you’ll feel like it’s worth every penny.

The Future of Printing

There are many home computer users who despise printers and printing and somehow manage to avoid owning the nasty devices. Wasting time and space and paper and natural resources isn’t a good thing these days, and it may be an industry conceit that we need the kinds of printers we buy these days. And yet, there are those occasions when printing out a crisp copy of a document, right now, is essential. It could be your Income Tax. It could be an article you need for a class. It could be that you need a copy of a contract or a receipt. Times have changed; printers have not.

It’s a sad irony that we buy cheap multi-function printers for occasional use*, but then when the occasion arises, it’s almost always urgent. Any little thing that goes wrong can tax our patience to the limit. That’s why some home office people have a decent laser printer designed for regular office use. It’s there, ready to perform and create great looking documents in a pinch. A stand-alone scanner, one whose drivers can be expected to be professionally maintained for the Mac, is also a good idea.

Technology Changes

Multiple devices take up room on our desktop, but technology changes, and one of the changes happening these days is that, in my opinion, inexpensive multi-function inkjet printers just aren’t up to the job anymore. (I had similar problems with a previous Lexmark multi-function printer.) Worse, in my opinion, there’s never a clear admission by the vendors of any specific problem because the technical issues can remain unresolved with Apple for some time. Plus, the near infinite mixes of printer models, drivers, and OS updates make it impossible to cite specific remedies. The documentation for my OfficeJet 4500, which is actually a pretty good printer, as a printer, says that printing and scanning are supported in version 2.3.2 of the print driver. That’s obviously not the case nowadays, yet no one has changed the chart to reflect current reality.

The typical result is that it’s not clear how to fix the problem, if can even be fixed. HP provides some unbelievably obtuse instructions on how to get things working, but fails to note whether this procedure will work post-10.6.5. I’ve read stories by users who’ve tried everything HP recommended, spent hours and hours, and failed to recover the scan function.

To make matters worse, some jerk in the forums will recommend a snarky, throw away solution, like, “Re-install your OS, then reinstall the print package.” Some people foolishly take that advice and end up wasting hours or days. In the iPad era, this is just so sad.

My Plan

When my current multi-function printer fails, I plan to buy a good quality laser printer and a good quality flat-bed scanner. But I’ll be careful there as well and read lots of reviews. My last Canon LiDE scanner had an install process written by aliens from 51 Pegasi.

In my experience, printer companies don’t seem to invest a lot of money in making their multi-function printer software perfect, reliable and a joy to use for the myriads of printer models they sell and the OSes supported. It’s an embarrassment compared to the quality of Apple software in general. Keeping all the software components of a multi-function printer working nicely at all times, through all the Mac OS X updates, seems an impossible task. (You may have been one of the lucky ones. I look forward to your comments.)

It’s time for another home office strategy change.

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* The next time someone wants to send me a fax, I’m going to say, “What’s a fax?”