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How to Troubleshoot Printer Problems on a Windows PC

Printing Documents From Your Computer To Your Printer

The paperless office isn’t yet here for many of us, and printers are still a fact of life. If your printer isn’t working quite right on a Windows PC, here are some simple troubleshooting tips that can fix it.

Obviously, the first steps are the most obvious. Verify your printer is plugged in, powered on, and connected to your computer (or the Wi-Fi network, if it’s a Wi-Fi printer). These may seem obvious, but sometimes we forget to check the simple things before checking the more complex ones.

Check the Paper

First, ensure your printer is in proper working state. Verify that the printer has paper loaded if it isn’t printing. Even if you’ve loaded paper, you may need to properly align the paper so the printer can use it. Check the inside of the printer to ensure there isn’t a paper jam preventing the printer from working. If there is, you may need to manually remove the jammed paper and clear things up.

Check the Ink or Toner

Of course, you’ll need enough ink (if it’s an inkjet printer) or toner (if it’s a laser printer) before you can print. Even if you’re just printing in black-and-white, some inkjet printers may refuse to print at all until you refill their color ink.

To check your printer’s ink levels on Windows, open the Devices and Printers window in Windows. You can do so by opening the Control Panel and clicking “View devices and printers” under Hardware and Sound. You may be able to select a printer by clicking it and view this information at the bottom of the window, or right-click a printer, select “Properties”, and look for the ink or toner levels.

Many printers report that sort of information here, although not all do — it depends on the printer and its drivers. You may also be able to see this information on the printer itself, if it has a built-in status display.

Check the Print Queue Dialog

Problems with printing could also be caused by issues with Windows. To ensure nothing is going wrong, open the print queue dialog in Windows. You can open a printer’s queue by right-clicking that printer in the Devices & Printers window and selecting “See what’s printing”. If you see an older document that can’t print with an error, right-click the document here and remove it. If a printer job is paused, you can resume it from here.

You should also click the “Printer” menu here and verify that “Use printer offline” isn’t enabled. If this option is checked, remove the checkmark to disable it.

Install, Update, or Reinstall Your Printer Drivers

You may need to install, update, or reinstall the printer drivers if it isn’t working properly. Printers should ideally “just work” and have their drivers automatically installed by Windows, but this doesn’t always work. To do this, visit your printer manufacturer’s website, download their driver package, and run the driver installer. It’ll walk you through installing the printer drivers and detecting your printer.

Use the Printer’s Diagnostics

You might need to use a diagnostic function that will clean the printer’s heads or nozzles, or realign them. This option will be in a slightly different place in each printer, depending on the printer’s software. On Windows, open the Devices and Printers window, right-click a printer, select “Properties”, and examine the options here to see what options are available for your particular printer. These options are provided by your printer drivers, and you may find them somewhere else — for example, in a printer configuration utility located in your Start menu.

This can help fix problems with poor print quality, too.

Set Your Default Printer

RELATED: What's New in Windows 10's First Big November Update

Windows 10’s “November update” changed the way default printers work on Windows. By default, every time you print to a printer, Windows will automatically make it your default printer. This would be inconvenient if you wanted to leave one particular printer as your default one and occasionally print to another one.

To disable this, open the Settings app from the Start menu or Start screen, select “Devices”, select “Printers & scanners”, and disable the “Let Windows manage my default printer” option.

You can then select a default printer by clicking or tapping it in this window and clicking “Set as default”. You can also right-click a printer in the Devices and Printers window and select “Set as Default Printer”.

If your printer has a physical control panel with buttons on it, you may need to press the “OK” button one or more times if it’s displaying a status message. Some printers may just not print until you press “OK” and verify you’ve seen a displayed status message. This control panel may also display more detailed error message that will point you in the right direction and give you something to search for if it isn’t working properly.

Lots of things can go wrong with a printer, and some printers — especially older ones — may display confusing error messages. If your printer shows a particular error message and you’re not sure what it means, you should try searching the web for that particular error message.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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