Why Are Printers So Unreliable? [I Hate Printers!]

One thing that really grinds my gears is when a piece of technology struggles with the one and only task it was designed to complete. Add to that an incredibly frustrating troubleshooting process the blood really begins to boil. 

Printers especially I’ve found to be guilty of more than their fair share of problems. 

If you’re lucky enough that your printer provides an error message when it stalls or jams you might just be able to figure out a fix. A lot of the time however you’re on your own. Go figure it out. 

I understand and appreciate that printers are pretty complex pieces of kit, numerous pieces of software and hardware needing to harmonise before even one letter begins to appear on paper.

However in the age of self driving cars is it too much to ask for a reliable printer?

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

What are the main causes of printer failure?

The causes of printer failure are numerous and varied, but at their core the main reasons can be grouped into a few categories, namely:

  • software
  • consumables
  • connectivity

Software: outdated drivers

Drivers are a piece of software stored on your computer that helps convert files into a form that your printer can understand. Each printer has its own unique driver and without this little program the two devices will be unable to speak to one another. 

Driver tends to be added automatically when installing the printer for the first time however you might have to do some digging on the manufacturers website if a smart auto-updater isn’t part of your operating system.

You’d expect then that once the computer/printer relationship has been established that you’re good to go forever more right?

Well, not exactly. Drivers can become incompatible for a number of reasons but the most common one is that it conflicts with your computer OS following an update. 

Normally this problem can be overcome by updating or reinstalling the driver from the manufacturers website however the prompt to do this may not come automatically.

Consumables: ink

Printer manufacturers make their profit not on the devices themselves (in fact these are often sold at a loss) but on the ink needed to operate the machine. 

The sky high cost of ink used by inkjet printers has led to a number of counterfeit products tempting customers away from OEM ink to using cheaper third party alternatives. 

The threat of lost profits has led some printer manufacturers to programme their devices to refuse to accept anything other than their own ink cartridges. A problem if you normally go with the cheapest option on Ebay for your supplies. 

Refilling an official ink cartridge can be a cheap option, but here again if you opt for third party products the quality of ink isn’t guaranteed, and moreover the print head on the reused cartridge wasn’t designed to cope with printing on paper forever. 

You very well might encounter blotchy print outs shortly after reloading with ink. 

It isn’t only third party inks that can cause an issue either. If you own an inkjet printer, underusing branded ink can also pose a problem. 

If an extended period of time (as little as 3 months in some cases) is allowed to pass between prints then it’s possible for ink to dry and the printhead (tiny holes that build letters and pictures from thousands of tiny drops of ink).

With many shared office blocks forced to close their doors during the Covid 19 pandemic waste collection points have seen an influx of dried and blocked ink cartridges over the past year.

Consumables: paper

We can’t talk about printer errors without bringing everyone’s favourite, the ‘Paper Jam’, to the table. 

This much maligned malfunction is the most common of them all and can be caused by a number of reasons.

  • Paper not lining up correctly. Papers feeding into the print rollers at a slight angle, paper with frayed or crumpled edges, or paper that is prone to stick together can all cause a paper jam. Increased humidity in the atmosphere is sometimes enough to warp paper so much that it cannot be used. 
  • Using the wrong paper thickness. Paper comes in different sizes and weights. A low budget home office printer will have difficulty printing on thicker paper and card. 
  • Blockages. The print rollers responsible for drawing paper into the printer become blocked with dust, lint or pieces of torn paper.
Image by piyaphun on Canva Pro


If we’re honest, in terms of aesthetics printers aren’t great to look at, and they’re also kind of loud and disruptive. 

These factors aren’t too much of an issue in a traditional office environment when background noise is wholly immersive but in a home office setting a bulky printer can easily present a noisy distraction and take up valuable desktop real estate.

For these reasons printers are often tucked away, or at least hidden out of sight in a corner of the room or sharing leg room beneath your desk. Whilst this is good for decor it often hinders the wireless connection to your network.

Having connectivity problems is a trade off of most modern printers connecting to computers wirelessly (first connecting to a wireless router then using WiFi to communicate with individual devices). Moving the printer closer to your router, or failing that as we’ve shown implementing a WiFi booster will make your connection more reliable. 

Once the connection has been formed however there always remains the concern of it dropping out. 

As many will attest, being flashed a ‘Printer Offline‘ pop up immediately after pressing print can be hugely frustrating!

Especially if documents were printing smoothly only an hour or two earlier, you’ve made no changes since then and still…..fail. 

If there are multiple wireless networks available in your office it’s possible the offline status is a result of your computer auto connecting to a different network (after the primary network temporarily becomes unavailable for instance). 

For wireless printing to be successful the printer and computer must be connected to the same network.

So why the unreliability?

I know it sounds a bit of a cop out but the unreliability of printers is a result of many, many variables needing to align before even one print out can be achieved.

Of course, we can’t overlook the part human error plays when a machine fails or an automated process goes wrong. 

In the case of a printer, selecting and installing incorrect consumables, or even basic positioning of the printer are choices which can hinder the print process at no fault of the printer itself. 

It would be wrong to say that the technology just isn’t quite there yet to achieve a printer with bulletproof reliability, but why would printer manufacturers invest millions to improve an issue which is out of their control (be it a computer or network issue). 

It seems that having multiple independent industries (computer, printers, consumables) with an interest in the print space is always going to be plagued by conflicts. 

But there’s no point getting stressed about it. Especially when 98% of the time deleting temporary stored data by switching everything off and back on again works to fix the issue.

Perhaps too the troubles experienced at the hands of printers just sticks in the mind as being particularly bothersome, when in actual fact it’s no less unreliable than any other piece of technology performing complex commands. 

If an app on my phone is glitchy I hardly give it a second thought before closing it down and opening it up once again. 

Too often we get riled up by drawing comparisons between machines and humans. (Also known as the ‘Computers are Social Actors’ Theory). 

We expect machines to fulfil a role much the same as a human, and when they don’t it feels like a personal attack. 

It’s then far easier to express anger and frustration at a machine that isn’t going to argue its case, nor is it likely to offer any solace when it quits on you. 

How rude!

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