Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Printer Saga

August 2008

By Mike Gould

Some times you just gotta bite the wallet and buy a new piece of gear. Maybe the old one died, or didn't work with some new stuff you bought, or you just felt like five years is a good full life for a printer, time for something shinier, faster, newer.

Printer Conniptions
Such was the case at my office, where my aging HP 1200 laser printer had issues with the latest update of Photoshop. I've written previously about how one of the big challenges in SOHO (small office/home office) computing is making new stuff talk to old stuff. The problem in my case, which is a common one, is that HP didn't bother to update the software drivers in my ancient (yeah, five years is ancient in this realm) printer so that when Adobe changed something subtle in the bowels of their printing engine (or Apple did when they built Leopard, the latest Mac OS), it broke the link to my printer. I could print anything to the printer except for Photoshop files, and I really, really needed to do just that last week when I was making the invitation for the reunion party of my band from the mid-seventies, the Martian Entropy Band. (See http://www.myspace.com/themartianentropyband for fascinating details).

So it was time. I had been contemplating a newer printer for some time, as I noticed all the new ones I was setting up for clients were at least four times faster than mine. A pleasant coincidence of birthday money from my wonderful mother-in-law (thanks, Joan!) and a client in similar need sent me on my way to Office Depot, which was having a sale that week.

Buyer's Guide
How to buy new gear: determine need, research the web for the best solution to that need, then find the best price in the area ('cause it pays to shop locally, right?) It turns out that the printer I chose, a Brother 5250DN, was available at all the usual suspects (Staples, Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.) for around $250, but Office Depot had a $60 rebate, so that was where I went.

This was unusual for me, because in the past, I've been an HP kinda guy when it comes to lasers. (I generally recommend Epson for photo inkjets, but that's another story). But all the reviews I read on the web said that the el-cheapo printers (i.e., those in my price range) HP is cranking out these days are less than delightful. The el-cheapo (relatively) Brother got much better reviews, so that's what I chose.

I got the printer home, plugged it in (via built-in Ethernet, another bonus - no cheesy USB for me) and voila: really, really fast printing. Crisp print, not too noisy, ever so much nicer than my old beast. Actually, I skipped the usual fun part: the software that came with the printer didn't work with my system, which uses the latest mojo from Apple, Leopard, aka System 10.5.4. No problem. I went to the Brother site, found what I needed, downloaded and ran it, and off I went.

Best If Used Before
This brings up a very common phenomenon in the world of doodad purchasing: never trust the CD in the box. You don't know how long that box has been sitting there. And if the item is on sale, it might be because it has been there for quite a while and the software has gone stale. This is almost always the case after major operating system upgrades (Leopard, Vista, etc.). The solution is to check out the website of the device in question; make sure things have been updated recently. This has been one of the sore points with Vista: old things (scanners, cameras, printers, etc.) didn't play nice with the new kid on the block. This has been mostly fixed by now, but something to consider when the next major update comes out.

I liked the printer so much that I recommended it to my client, who ran out and bought it as well before the sale was over. Now I'm committed. If there are problems, I'll hear about it, and as it happened, I did.

My client is a PhD. candidate who is working on her dissertation, and doesn't have time to mess around with balky printers, so when it started taking long minutes to print simple PDF files, I got the call. After a bit of back and forth, I determined that Adobe Reader had issues with the printer. A quick re-configure to open PDFs in Apple's Preview fixed that, but it points up another important issue: sometimes new stuff doesn't play nice with other new stuff. She had the latest Adobe Reader software running under the latest System software and it took minutes to print, whereas the Apple software printed it in seconds.

Pushing the Envelope
So things are humming along nicely, and I decide to print some envelopes. Oops. The envelopes came out wrinkled, crinkled, and gnarly, not the sort of media I like to send to clients. Back to the web. Remember that search I did when I was evaluating printers? I seemed to have missed all the reviews that said "works great as long as you aren't printing envelopes". Doh!

Fortunately, a more diligent search revealed the fix: two little levers at the back of the machine that regulate the pressure of the paper feed. Switching these to 2 ("Don't Mangle") from the 1 ("Mangle") position fixed the problem. I noted that the presence of these levers is mentioned nowhere in the Brother documentation; without my buddies on the web, I would have been SOL. (Or forced to call Brother support, which is where this little gem of information came from originally).

Lessons learned: if it doesn't work, make sure you have the latest drivers, research it on the web, and if all else fails, call customer support. (Or me, if you happen to have a Mac... ;-)

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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