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Commentary
11/23/2008
10:17 PM
Dave Methvin
Dave Methvin
Commentary
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Painful Printer Experiences Are Too Common

At Microsoft's recent hardware engineering conference, WinHEC, Microsoft had some information that stunned me. In one of the sessions, the presenter said that more than one in nine Vista printer driver installations end in failure. Are you surprised?

At Microsoft's recent hardware engineering conference, WinHEC, Microsoft had some information that stunned me. In one of the sessions, the presenter said that more than one in nine Vista printer driver installations end in failure. Are you surprised?This isn't a problem unique to Vista; I've had many of the same problems with XP. By far the most annoying problems of installing and using a new printer are created by the printer makers. As far as I can tell, printer makers treat drivers as an expense that they grudgingly pay just so that you won't return the printer after taking it out of the box and finding it won't install. Certainly there's a driver on the CD in the box. It's in there with a bunch of other software that you'll be better off leaving on the CD because it's junk. The driver itself often works well enough to print a test page, so people think everything is working fine.

Later on, though, the system starts to misbehave. PowerPoint crashes. The system gives a print spooler error. Perhaps the problems only occur when the printer is turned off, maybe only when the printer is on. If you're lucky, you'll associate the new printer and its driver with the seemingly random behaviors that have suddenly cropped up, and return it while you can. Think I'm exaggerating? Search for printer driver crash and notice the wide variety of problems. Those are just the cases where someone could associate the crash with a printer driver!

I recall going into a Staples store in April 2007, about four months after Windows Vista shipped. One employee there was a retired IT guy, and really knew his stuff. Since I'd just taken the plunge and gotten a Vista system for testing, I asked him which all-in-one printer I should buy with the best Vista support. "Sorry, none of them work well on Vista yet," he replied.

That's the other maddening thing about printer support. Printer models seem to change every six months; once a printer is discontinued the driver is usually orphaned as well. If you're lucky, the new model will be be compatible enough that it can use the same driver, but don't count on it. I have an HP OfficeJet K60 that never got proper Vista support, for example, but I limp along on the built-in Vista support because I refuse to throw out perfectly good hardware.

Microsoft is certainly aware of this problem, as its statistics show, but the problem isn't new. Printer drivers and the associated printer-related software always have been miserable. Printer makers don't seem to have the motivation or technical abilities to do a good job on the software they ship with their hardware. This is especially unfortunate because printer makers are increasingly using software to do the job of hardware, reducing the manufacturing cost of the unit. As long as we keep buying those unreliable printers, they'll keep making them.

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