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Gadgets & Tech

Printers cannot be reformed. We have to render them obsolete.

Printers cannot be reformed. They must be destroyed, once and for all.

A printer sits in a guillotine.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; Monique Woo/TWP; iStock)

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This week, The Washington Post published a series of articles about why home printers are so awful and what you can do to tackle your printer headaches or find alternatives:

Today, let’s wallow in the soul-crushing madness that printers put you through.

More than 1,100 readers commented on our article about the high costs and other traps of printer ink. You have strong feelings about printers — mostly hate and rage.

You should feel outraged. We waste brain cells, hours of time and lots of money trying to make printers do their basic job.

There is no good printer — only less bad ones. (Chris Velazco tested three here. Hint: You might be better off paying more upfront for a laser printer or a model with an ink tank.)

The inescapable conclusion from our Printer Week coverage: Printers are terrible, and they cannot be reformed. So we must end the tyranny of printers in American life.

Even if you like your printer, look around and see how many people are driven mad by theirs. This industry treats customers like garbage and that behavior shouldn’t be rewarded.

The best solution is to tear down the whole system by starving printers of their oxygen — our printing tasks.

Each document, photo, homework assignment, tax return and package return label we avoid printing is one step closer to a blissful future in which printers are nearly obsolete.

You might need or want to print stuff. Fine! Stick with your printer. Fax machines are horrible, but they’re still around.

Our collective ambition is to slowly kill off the parasite of printers. We can do this.

A ‘nightmare’ product

I had a revelation when I spoke with Marc Weber, a curatorial director at the Computer History Museum: Printers are getting worse — like humans devolving back into one-cell organisms.

Weber still remembers the sound of a professional-grade printer his father had at a time when few people owned a printer. “It sounded like a machine gun,” he said.

Beginning in the 1980s, three technologies combined to give us new creative powers. Personal computers, home laser printers, and software for digital images and text allowed us mortals to create professional-quality printed documents.

Today’s home printers are far better than their pioneering predecessors from the 1980s and 1990s. But printers have generally failed to keep up with the massive price and quality improvements of many other technologies.

Today’s TV set, computer or mobile phone is light-years ahead of one you might have owned 25 years ago. Can you say the same about your printer?

Weber said modern inkjet printers with complicated, glitch-prone software remind him of his father’s complex machine-gun printer.

“We’ve reintroduced the full-blown inconvenience of professional machines,” Weber said. “They took a wonderful product and managed to turn it into a nightmare.”

When we have a choice, we shift away from printing

Again, I know that many of you love your printers and can’t imagine not owning one. And some companies — I’m looking at you, insurance providers — require you to print out forms and mail them back.

It’s okay. Revolution is slow. But it’s possible to reduce our reliance on printing. We’re doing it.

To pick one example, it wasn’t long ago that nearly everyone who traveled by airplane or attended a concert clutched a paper ticket printed at home or somewhere else.

Now, roughly half or more of travelers on American Airlines and United Airlines use mobile boarding passes, according to those airlines. Ticketmaster says 84 percent of its customers in the United States are using digital tickets, compared with 46 percent in 2019.

The transformation of flight and event tickets shows that our printing habits can change when there’s a more appealing option. This can be an inspiration for other areas of life.

Each time you print something, consider asking yourself: What if I didn’t have to?

Could you skip printing — or go to a FedEx shop or local library to print on occasion? Could you ask your kid’s school to stop requiring you to print homework assignments?

Some stores will take a package without a return label that you need to print. Heather Kelly has more tips for alternatives to printing documents or photos at home.

I haven’t owned a printer for at least 15 years. I work around those moments when a printer could be handy.

I recently had to write a letter to get reimbursed for a financial account. Without a printer, I wrote a letter by hand.

Last time I signed lease paperwork for my apartment, I used the scanning function of my phone’s Google Drive app to save a digital copy for myself. No need to hunt for a printer. I have instructions on how to scan documents with your phone.

My experience may not be right for you. But next time you want to bash your printer into bits, know that you cannot fully escape from printer idiocy. Printers — ALL PRINTERS — will betray you in some way.

We have decades of evidence that the whole system of printers is broken. The more we avoid printing when we can, the more alternatives there will be — and the easier it becomes to never print at all.

Printers won’t change. Only we can.

Let’s send printers to Hades where they belong. (And don’t print out this newsletter.)

Tell me your thoughts and questions about printers at [email protected]. I’ll answer a selection of your questions next week.

Check out more from Printer Week:

If you own an inkjet printer, you should turn off automatic software updates.

This will give you more freedom to buy ink cartridges from someone other than the printer manufacturer, my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote.

I can’t give you instructions for all the printers in the world, but start by looking on your printer’s display screen — if it has one — for the Settings or Setup menu. That usually looks like the image of a gear.

Next, look for an option for “printer maintenance, “update the printer,” “machine info,” “device settings” or something similar. You want to uncheck any boxes for auto-updated firmware. (That’s the software that operates your printer.)

You may instead need to make those changes on a website or app for your printer. Again, you’re looking for a settings or setup menu to stop automatic firmware updates.

LD Products, a company that sells aftermarket printer supplies, has videos explaining how to turn off firmware updates for some popular printer brands.

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