Chapter 11 - Printing

We live in day in which a wealth of newspapers, magazines and journals are just a click away on the Internet. But if you're old fashioned like me, you might prefer reading documents on paper as opposed to on screen.

Let's face it. There's just no cyber substitute for sitting at the table with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee.

That's why printers are such a popular computer add-on, and are even bundled with many deals on new computer systems. They help link the electronic world to the print world, and help us share our thoughts and creations with those who are not yet connected.

There are many different brands of printers, but they tend to fall into three major categories.

Ink-jet printers

These are the most popular printers in the home market, primarily because they produce beautiful results at a reasonable cost. Ink-jet printers run anywhere between $75 and $500.

Like the name suggests, the printers' jets shoot tiny dots of ink onto the paper. Their quality is measured in resolution, or the number of dots per inch (DPI). Current ink jet printers offer 1440 or 2880 DPI, with others reaching as high as 5760 in some photo-quality models. The higher the number, the better the quality.

The ink dries quickly, but a full-color photograph might need to dry a minute or two after it first comes out of the printer. And if it uses water-soluble ink, spilling a glass of water on the paper could cause it to run.

While most printers use two ink cartridges - a color one and a black one - some models have separate ones for each color ink. The obvious disadvantage here is the extra work in putting them in, but it could save money down the road if, for instance, you use a lot of cyan but not a lot of magenta. Cartridges often don't last long and replacements can cost between $20 and $35.

You'll also find many ink-jet photo printers that specialize in printing high-quality images, although most inkjets nowadays do an admirable job reproducing photos when used with specialty paper.

Be sure to compare the PPM or pages per minute stat when shopping for an ink jet printer. (Although they can vary by brand and model, typical ratings might fall between around 20 to 30 pages per minute for black and white, and a little slower for color.) Speed might not be important for occasional printing, but can mean a lot if you're printing long documents.

Laser printers

Laser printers are your best option for high-volume, black-and-white printing, although they cost a bit more than ink-jet printers ($200 to well up into the thousands).

Inside, a laser printer works much like a copy machine, fusing a black powder called toner onto the paper. It creates a crisp, professional look that is not subject to smearing.

Color laser printers (which use four toner cartridges to produce full-color images, are great for the office, but their high price tag leaves them out of the reach for most home users.

(Again, check the PPM or pages per minute stat when comparison shopping.)

Dot matrix printers

Once the most popular type of printer, the dot matrix printer has been essentially retired. They're most similar to typewriters, using a hammer that pounds ink through a ribbon onto the paper. But, unlike a typewriter that uses dye-cut letters, dot-matrix printers pound out your letters with pins.

My father-in-law, J.W., uses a modern color ink jet printer, but he wishes he kept his old dot matrix around for printing documents. It was a bit loud, but it served him well.

"It was durable," Jones says. "The ribbons were cheap. The paper was cheap. Now it costs an arm and a leg."

That low costs and reliability is why you'll still see dot matrix printers pounding out invoices at many area businesses. If you get one as a hand-me down, great! Just make sure you can still find a place to buy replacement ribbons for your particular model.

Hooking it up

Back in Chapter 2, we mentioned that ports allow us to connect external devices to our computer.

Windows-based printers connect to computers using two types of plugs: a parallel cable (printer cable) or a USB cable.

Most PCs come with one parallel port (called LPT1:), which allows you to connect one printer. The parallel or printer port is a 25-pin, rectangular plug that's about two inches long. If you add a second parallel printer to your system, you'll need to add a second printer port to your computer or buy an A-B switch to change between the two devices.

If you have USB ports (and unless your using an older Windows computer, you will) use them! USB is more flexible, allowing you to connect multiple devices with fewer conflicts. And if you run out of plugs, you can always buy a hub to add additional ones.

Macintosh printers connect using either USB or an Ethernet cable, which looks like a large telephone jack. Ethernet is more commonly used for networking, but some Mac laser printers connect this way.

Some older Mac printers have a round printer connector. If you're trying to connect one these to a newer Mac, you might have to buy an adapter to switch that plug to USB or Ethernet.

One other note: Printers are often sold without the connecting cables, so you might have to buy one before leaving the computer store Some Windows printers are sold with a parallel cable but without a USB cable. Make sure you read the box to see what's included.


If you're installing a printer using the older printer jack, you should close all programs and power down your computer before installation.

Otherwise, if you're installing a USB printer, you usually can pop in the CD-ROM that came with the printer and it will take you from there. Others will have you install it manually. Click on your Start button and choose settings, then Printers. It will open a Window showing any previously installed printers and offer an Add Printer icon. Click there, and follow your printer's manual.

On the Mac, put in the CD-ROM and follow your printer manual.

Printer settings

In most instances, selecting File - Print and hitting OK (or just clicking on the print button) will give you the proper results, but you'll sometimes want more control over what's coming out of our printer.

If you want to adjust the settings, print by going to the File menu and clicking Print, which will give you a dialog box offering some options. If you just click on the little printer icon on the toolbar, it will use the default settings and not give you any choices.

Here are some settings you might want to adjust:

  • Portrait or landscape mode: This involves whether we want the image to print right side up or sideways. With standard paper, portrait is 8 x 11 and landscape is 11 x 8 .
  • Copies: It will typically default to 1, but you might want to change it to 2, 3 or 15 if you're printing something for your friends.
  • Pages: Your printer will default to printing all of the pages in a document, but you might want to override that. For instance, you might be viewing a five-page document but only want to print the third page. Or, you might have corrected a mistake on page 12 of a 12-page document. Why waste paper and print the same thing all over again? For example, entering "12" will print only Page 12, while entering "5, 8-10" would print pages 5, 8, 9 and 10.
  • Color or black and white: This setting chooses whether you want to use your color cartridge or just the black ink.
  • Other settings: This box will look different for everyone because it's brand specific to your printer. Some printers will offer information on how much ink is left; while others will allow you to click a button to have the printer clean its jets.

What happens when you print

Printing large documents can take a lot of time, but fortunately you can do other things on your computer while the printer churns away. That's because documents print in the background.

When you hit Print, the computer spools the information to a temporary file on your hard drive, which it then continually feeds to the printer's memory until it's completed. That means if you print an 80-page report, once it spools, you're free to do other stuff on your computer while it finishes.

Canceling a print job

On a PC, click on the printer icon in the System Tray (that's the area of your Taskbar near the clock). That will open the Printer Status box. Highlight the job that's currently being printed, choose Document and select Cancel Printing. It might take a page or two before it finally stops.

On a Mac, press Command (Mac Command key)-period and it should stop what it's doing within a page or two. Windows computers have no such shortcut (They should!).

Help, I ran out of paper!

No problem, just place more paper in the tray and tell it to resume. Your manual will tell you which button you should hit after loading the paper.

Specialty printing

Computer printing has expanded beyond the simple text document onto a page. People use printers and software to create high-quality photographs, make address labels and even print T-shirts. We'll cover some of these specialty uses next in "Chapter 13: The Write Stuff."

NEXT - Chapter 12 - Software