We were all lied to, weren't we? We were certain to have a "paperless office" by the start of the 21st century, the early computer makers promised. We should have guessed they were fibbing when they kept making printers. Today, we have several different types of printers, and a few new standard technologies we use to communicate with them compared to the early days, but one thing unites them all: they often don't work when we want them to. Here, then, are some tips for cajoling them back to life when you're up against a deadline.
Most of the time, the problem when a printer won't print is actually obvious, via a message either on the printer's tiny screen or your computer or mobile device's bigger one: you're out of ink (not the ink you need, of course, but that's another hair-pulling issue), the network is down, you've been a naughty boy or girl who's used "unauthorized" cartridges, or -- very rarely these days, which is nice -- a paper jam. Another rare one, but one we've actually witnessed, is that the cleaning staff unplugged the printer, and everyone was confounded as to why it wouldn't turn on until we pointed this out.
These days, thanks to design and tech advances, a printer problem is generally actually a communications issue. Mostly, owners have already checked that ink or toner levels are okay, that the machine is plugged in, and that it is still either directly wired to the originating device or properly connected to a Wi-Fi network. These are the usual first steps people engage in when they try to print and get rebuffed with a non-obvious, non-hardware error. Using the printer utilities usually supplied by the printer maker, users can often conduct some further tests, like an alignment or print-quality test, or invoke a self-cleaning cycle.
If one can get that far, the problem often isn't communications, since the computer or mobile device and the printer must be still talking to each other in order for these things to happen. Thus, we head into head-scratching territory -- it should be working, but it isn't. Among the next steps people generally (and correctly) try is turning the printer off, then on again, or restarting the computer, or double-checking that they have selected the right printer.
Pause and Manage
These are all sensible things to do, along with re-setting the printer's connection to the Wi-Fi network if the printer is connected wirelessly. Sometimes, however, the problem isn't with the network, the printer, or you: it's a "stuck" previous job that had an issue, and is still trying to complete -- thus blocking all other jobs from even attempting to run. This is where a closer look at your printer System Preference panel, and a little bit of understanding on how to manage the "printer queue," can pay off.
While the first impulse may be to bring up the printer maker's own utilities, if you've tried that and nothing has worked, head to OS X's System Preferences panel, and click on the Printers & Scanners section (if you're running an older version of OS X, this may be slightly renamed; we use OS X 10.11 El Capitan and you should to, if you can). If this isn't an area you often visit, the layout is similar to several other panels: a list of your assets (in this case printers) on the left, specifics about each selected one on the right, general options on the bottom.
In most cases, where you want to start (beyond seeing that the correct printer is selected) is to see the color of the tiny dot next to the status. Red is a problem or an indication that the computer thinks the printer is off, and generally accompanied by the word "offline," yellow indicates a diferent sort of issue, and green means that in theory everything should be working; communications between the computer and printer are okay. With red, recheck the cables or connections, and with yellow or green, your first stop should probably be the "Open Printer Queue" button on the right side.
This gives you a list of jobs in line to be printed, including all 78 times you angrily punched "print" before you calmed down and started proper troubleshooting. Scroll through that list and see if any of the jobs have a different "name" than the one you are obviously trying to get done. Next to the jobs will be any relevant messages, like "printer not ready," and on the right side, two small buttons: pause/continue, and cancel.
An old job that never printed and is still trying to do so may be cancelled; you can also pause that 578-page report someone else in the house/office is trying to print so that you can get out your one-page office party memo without waiting for the larger job to finish. You may also want to just clear the entire queue of jobs, then try again. This often works, and sometimes it is never clear what caused one job or several to stop printing, but clearing the queue and restarting the printer frequently fixes it.
And if that doesn't work
A potential next step is one people are usually hesitant to try, despite its very high success rate -- and the reason is because it involves a tiny bit of perceived risk. Should clearing the queue not work, and all the hardware points have been checked and restarted, the next step is to delete the printer from the list of printers on the left side of the System Preference Printers panel. It's scary -- what if you can't get it back? But at worst, this will likely be a tiny inconvenience if it happens, and it probably won't.
At the bottom of the left side of the panel, there are small plus and minus buttons. Select the problem printer, take a breath to strengthen your resolve, and click the minus button. The printer will be deleted off the list. This is usually a good moment to turn the printer off, turn it back on, and check connections again (connect the printer by USB if it is normally on Wi-Fi if you can) -- then press the plus button and (almost always) the printer's driver (perhaps an updated one, as well) will reappear to be added. Usually, that's it -- the printer is restored, all the old print jobs (if any) are wiped out, and you can start using it again immediately.
The reason we suggested the USB connection even if you normally use the printer via Wi-Fi is that this eliminates the router as a possible blocking point, and helps identify if there is a hardware problem with the printer. Once the printer is restored using a direct USB connection, replace the printer where it normally goes, and re-add it to your Wi-Fi network (using instructions generally available from the printer itself, or the documentation that came with it).
Sometimes, particularly if you have more than one printer option in the house and find that none of them are working -- particularly if other computers seem to have no problem with printing to the printers -- you can try another, more drastic solution. Right-clicking (or control-clicking) on the left side of the printer system preference will bring up the ominous-sounding "reset printing system," which simply uses low-level system commands to restore OS X's printing system to defaults, in case something has gone wrong with your system's ability to print.
Out of habit, we usually restart our computers when we have to go to this option; it may or may not help, but on the very rare occasion we've had to reset the printing system, the problem has been resolved each time. Having to do this is usually a sign that it is time for some system maintenance generally.
You'll notice we don't have much to offer in the way of advice for iOS users who are having problems with AirPrint -- that's because most of the troubleshooting steps will still require you to work with either the printer or a computer. If the printer is AirPrint compatible, and you're sure you're on the same Wi-Fi network as the printer is, then the issue is with the printer (though often, it may just be a case of Wi-Fi printing being slower than direct-connection printing, so give it a minute if the document is large and/or complex).
If the printer is not AirPrint compatible, chances are you are using an app from the printer manufacturer itself with its own wireless protocol, or some third-party software like Printopia to "relay" your print job to an awake OS X computer that will hand off the job to the printer -- in which case, the various troubleshooting steps we outlined above still apply. The good news -- which is quickly forgotten when there is a problem -- is that problems are actually fairly rare (though this can vary by usage patterns and printer type -- an infrequently-used inkjet printer will have more issues than a laser printer, for example), and Wi-Fi printing these days is fairly robust, so most of the time it will "just work."
Meanwhile, we continue to inch our way -- thanks to email, texting, PDFs, iPad Pros, and other technologies -- to reduce our need to print, and lurch unsteadily towards the (mostly) paperless office. For those who have ever wrestled with a multifunction copier at the local office-supply store, or an obstinate home printer that refuses to tell you what's wrong, that day cannot come too soon.