Printer fun

Posted on December 18, 2016 with tags tech.

Had some printer fun this week. It was fun in the sense that failure modes are interesting, not that there was much joy in the process.

My current document printer is an HP that I bought back in early 2008; soon 9 years old, that is. When I got the printer I was quite happy: it supports Postscript, it supports memory extension (which allowed me to go from the built-in 64MB to a whopping 320MB), it is networked and has automatic duplex. Not good for much more than document printing, but that it did well. I didn’t print a lot on it (averaged it was well below the recommended monthly limit), which might explain the total trouble-free operation, but I did change the toner cartridges a couple of times.

The current cartridges were running low for a while, but I didn’t need to change them yet. As I printed a user manual at the beginning of the week (~300+ pages in total), I ran out of the black half-way through. Bought a new cartridge, installed it, and the first strange thing was that it still showed “Black empty - please replace”.

I powered the printer off and turned it on again (the miracle cure for all IT-related things), and things seemed OK, so I restarted printing. However, this time, the printer was going through 20-30 pages, and then was getting stuck in “Printing document” with green led blinking. Waited for 20 minutes, nothing. So cancel the job (from the printer), restart printing, all fine.

The next day I wanted to print a single page, and didn’t manage to. Checked that the PDF is normal, checked an older PDF which I printed successfully before, nothing worked. Changed drivers, unseated & re-seated the extra memory, changed operating systems, nothing. Not even the built-in printer diagnostic pages were printing.

The internet was all over with “HP formatter issues”; apparently some HP printers had “green” (i.e. low-quality) soldering, and were failing after a while. But people were complaining about 1-2-4 years, not 9 that my printer worked, and it was very suspicious that all troubles started after my cartridge replacement. Or, more likely, due to the recent sudden increase in printing.

Given that formatter board fixes (bake in the oven for N minutes at a specific temperature to reflow the soldering) are temporary and that you can’t find replacement parts for this printer, I started looking for a new printer. To my surprise (and dismay at the waste that capitalism produces), a new printer from a higher class was cheaper than replacing all 4 cartridges in my printer. So I had a 90% full black cartridge that I couldn’t reuse, but I’d get a new printer for not much more.

Interestingly, in 9 years, the development was:

  • In the series of printers that I had (home office use), one can’t get a Ethernet-only networked duplex printer; the M252 series has only an ‘n’ variant (Ethernet only, no duplex), or ‘dw’ variant (Ethernet, WiFi, Duplex); if one wants duplex but no WiFi, it’s available only in the next series, the M452.
  • The CPU speeds increased 2-3× and memory capacity by 2-4×; however, memory or font expansion is no longer possible.
  • The M252 series still uses Fast Ethernet (which is enough and consumes less power), whereas the M452 series has Gigabit.
  • It seems the cartridges come in two different capacities, but basically colour laser printers still employ the same 4-colour cartridge set (compare to photo printers at 9+).
  • I did just a brief examination of the market, but for home use, it seems the recommendation is still HP for no-troubles use or other brands for cheaper costs. Of course it varies a lot in reviews, but this is what I understood from forums; maybe I’m biased.
  • There was no increase in real resolution; the native grid is still 600dpi (photo inkjet printers are also stuck at 360/720 native for a while), but the ImageRet software processing seems to have advanced (from what the white-papers say).
  • Print speed however has visibly increased; still the same 2-3× increase, but this is wall-clock speed increase, whereas the CPU/memory is less relevant.

I was however happy that one can still get OS-independent (Postscript), networked printers that are small enough for home use and don’t (necessarily) come with WiFi.

However, one thing still bothered me: did I have such problems because the printer died of overwork at old age, or was it related to the cartridge change? So I start searching again, and I find a post on a forum (oh Google, why did you remove “forum search” and replaced it with “language level”?) that details a hidden procedure to format the internal storage of the printer, exactly for my printer model, exactly for my symptoms. Huh, I will lose page count, but this is worth a try…

So I do press the required keys, I see the printer booting and saying “erasing…”, then asking for language, which makes me happy because it seems the forum post was correct in one regard. I confirm English, the printer reboots once more, and then when it comes up it warns me: “Yellow cartridge is a non-HP original, please confirm”. I get confused, and re-seat all cartridges, to no avail. Yellow is non-HP. Sigh, maybe that cartridge had something that confused the printer? When I visit its web page however, all cartridges except the newly installed black one are marked as Non-HP; this only means that I can’t see their remaining toner level, but otherwise—the printer is restored back to life. I take the opportunity to also perform a firmware upgrade (only five years newer firmware, but still quite old), but this doesn’t solve the Non-HP message.

The printer works now, and I’m left wondering: was this all a DRM-related failure, something like new cartridge chip which had some new code that confused the printer so bad it needed reformatting, at which point the old cartridge code is no longer supported (for whatever reason)? Was it just a fluke, unrelated to DRM? Was the problem that I powered off the printer soon after replacing the cartridge, while it was still doing “something” (e.g. preparing to do a calibration after the change)?

And another, more practical question: I have 3 cartridges to replace still; they were at 10% before this entire saga, and I’m not able to see their level anymore, but they’ll get down to empty soon. The black cartridge in the printer is already at 77%, which is surprising as I didn’t print that much. So should I replace the cartridges on what is a possibly fully functional, but also possibly a dying printer? Or buy a new one for slightly more, throwing out possibly good hardware?

Even though I understand the business reason behind it, I hate the whole concept of “the printer is free, you pay for the ink”. Though in my case “free” didn’t mean bad, as a lifetime of 9 years is good enough for a printer.