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Top 5 printer problems and how to fix them

Bad print quality and unreliable wi-fi are among the most common printer problems, but our experts can explain how to solve them

It’s frustrating when the tech we rely on doesn’t work as it should, and printers are no exception. In our latest annual tech experience survey, we quizzed over 16,000 people* to uncover the most common printer problems.

Many of the issues we heard about were related to poor print quality, which meant users were struggling with colour imbalance and smudged text. Other respondents told us that the paper wasn't feeding into their printer correctly.

On the plus side, our study found that many people were able to fix these problems themselves, so you don't necessarily need to pay a professional.

Keep scrolling for details on how to ensure your printer is working at its best. If you're thinking of replacing your current printer entirely, we've also rounded up some tips on picking the perfect alternative.

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Common printer problems revealed

1. Bad print quality

Deterioration in print quality was by far the most common problem experienced by respondents. Users told us they had noticed colour imbalance and white lines on prints. Text was flawed, too, landing in the paper tray looking spiky, misaligned or smudged.

To fix, simply turn your printer off and on again to see if there's an instant solution. If not, check whether your ink cartridges need replacing.

To check printer ink levels on Windows, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button in the bottom-left corner of your screen. 
  2. Search for Printers & Scanners
  3. Click on the printer you want to check and select Manage.
  4. If your printer is low on ink, you'll see a message next to Printer Status that says so.

To check printer ink levels on Mac, follow these steps:

  1. Click on the Apple icon and go to System Preferences.
  2. Select Printers & Scanners and choose your printer. 
  3. Click Options & Supplies.
  4. Ink levels are shown under the Supply Levels tab.

If your cartridges have plenty of ink left, poor print quality might be caused by blocked printer head nozzles – those are the components that spray ink onto the paper. This is more likely to happen if you don’t use your printer very often, as dried ink can cause a blockage.

Printer cartridge

Cleaning the nozzles could help. You can do this by running your printer’s cleaning function, either via the brand's printing app on your computer or on the printer itself. Consult your printer’s manual if you’re not sure where to find it.

If the self-cleaning function doesn't solve your problem, you can clean the printer head manually. Use a lint-free cloth dampened with warm distilled, filtered or bottled water. 

To tackle text that doesn't line up correctly, have your printer perform an alignment – you'll see an option for this in your printer settings. Turning it off and on again after 30 seconds can also fix the problem.

Your printer paper could also be causing smudging or feathering, so confirm that you're using the right printer paper for the job. Damp, curled or wrinkled paper can affect print quality.

Looking for a budget printer with quality performance? Read our guide on the best cheap printers to buy and run.

2. Hardware problems 

General hardware problems were also widely reported in our survey. These could be more difficult to fix yourself if components need replacing. If you suspect a hardware issue – maybe the printer won’t print or won’t turn on – check the basics first. 

Ask yourself the following:

  • Have the cables become disconnected or are they damaged?
  • Is there a paper jam?
  • Has the paper been loaded incorrectly?
  • Is the power light on?
  • Are there any flashing lights that could indicate a problem?

Once you’ve checked all of the above and, assuming you’re able to print, try to print a self-test report – this could tell you what’s causing the problem.

To run a test report on Windows, follow these steps:

  1. Click Start, then Settings > Devices > Printers & Scanners.
  2. Select your printer and choose Manage.
  3. Click Print a Test Page.

To run a test report on Mac, follow these steps:

  1. Click on the Apple icon and go to System Preferences.
  2. Select Printers & Scanners and choose your printer. 
  3. Click Open Print Queue > Printer > Printer Test Page.

If you need to pay for a printer repair but don't fancy spending big, there's good news. According to our survey, the average repair cost for an inkjet printer is lower compared to any other type of tech product we asked about: £42 compared to £74 for wireless headphones and £73 for laptops.

3. Problems with paper

This can be caused by dusty or dirty rollers, obstructions in the paper tray, an overfilled paper tray or even the paper itself. If turning the printer off and on again doesn’t fix it, check the paper you're using.

Printer paper

Your printer paper should all be of the same size and type, and loaded properly, with the edges of each sheet aligned. Issues with the paper can cause paper jams, too. Remove the paper and, using a torch if you need to, check for obstructions in the mechanism inside the tray.

Try cleaning the rollers inside the paper tray using your printer’s roller-cleaning function, if it has one. Alternatively, use a long cotton swab dampened with distilled, bottled or filtered water, but make sure you unplug the printer first.

Rotate the rollers as you clean them, and leave them to dry for 15 minutes before turning your printer on again.

If you're dealing with expensive running costs, explore our guide on the best cheap printer ink cartridges and where to buy them.

4. The ink jets/print head stops working 

Our printer survey also uncovered problems linked to ink jets or nozzles on the print head not working, which can happen if your printer hasn’t been used in a while.

Try cleaning the print head. As we mentioned earlier, you'll need to use a damp lint-free cloth. If the print head is built into the ink cartridges, replacing it could fix the problem – consult the user manual or the brand's website for more details. The HP website, for example, has a walkthrough on replacing a print head.

Some printers feature print heads that can't be removed, so you'd need to get the part replaced professionally.

In some cases, it's more economical to buy a new printer than to pay for a new printer head. If you're leaning towards buying a new printer, consult our printer reviews to secure a Which? Eco Buy model combining quality printing, energy efficiency and low running costs.

5. Wi-fi connection problems

A printer that connects to your home wi-fi network lets you queue jobs from a phone or computer without a cable. However, some respondents told us they were struggling with this.

If you’re unable to print over wi-fi, check that your printer’s software is up to date by visiting the manufacturer’s website. Most brand sites will make this an easy task, especially if you have your model number to hand.

We’ve included the most common manufacturer site links here:

Wi-fi extender

Investing in a wi-fi extender can help improve your internet coverage – these plug into the wall and boost the signal coming from your router. Some models will create an extra network that appears in the list of available networks on your devices. Often, the extender will mirror the name of your normal network with 'EXT' at the end. 

Other wi-fi extenders work within a mesh system, boosting your existing router network without creating an extra one. These allow you to stay on the same network right through your home, but they tend to cost more.

Struggling to stay connected at home? Check in with our wi-fi extender reviews.

Buying a new printer 

If your current printer leaves you feeling frustrated, it might be time to look for an alternative model. At Which?, we rigorously test the latest printers to help you pick the perfect one for you. 

When buying a new printer, you'll need to decide whether you want to purchase an inkjet or laser model. Inkjets are typically cheaper up front and cost more to run, while laser printers are pricier to buy but can produce quality prints faster and more cheaply. Tank printers (often inkjet models) are extremely cheap to run, but can be expensive to buy.

See also: Why your next new printer should be a Which? Eco Buy

Which features matter the most?

  • Size – if you're limited on space, you'll want a printer that performs brilliantly but doesn't take up too much room. 
  • Ink and paper capacity – consider shopping for a printer with a large capacity for paper and ink so you don't need to constantly replace them. 
  • Running costs – some of the best printers may seem expensive initially, but they cost less than cheaper models to run throughout the year. 
  • Print quality colour accuracy and sharpness are key, which is why our expert reviews cover print quality in detail. 
  • Printing speed – using a printer that takes a lifetime to print can be particularly frustrating. For every printer we test, we time the print speed of different types of documents and how long it takes to turn out the first page.

If you're thinking of buying a new printer, explore our guide to the best printers – our expert reviews are backed by rigorous lab tests.

Recycling your old printer

If you're looking to replace your printer, you can't just throw it in your rubbish bin.

The good news is that recycling your printer is fairly simple – a number of high street stores are willing to take your unwanted printer if you buy a replacement from them. Note that Robert Dyas, Argos and Currys accept second-hand printers.

Some local councils are unable to collect small electricals directly from your home. If council collection isn't an option, you can visit a recycling centre – there are thousands across the UK. For an overview of nearby donation points, enter your postcode on the Recycle your Electricals website.

For more details on getting rid of unwanted electricals, batteries and chargers, read our advice on how to recycle electrical items.

Sign up for Which? Computing

Which? Tech Support can help you keep you on top of your home tech. Our experts explain things clearly so that you can resolve issues and feel more confident using your devices.

Get expert support:

  • By phone – clear guidance in choosing, setting up, using and resolving issues with your home tech devices.
  • By email – outline the issue and we’ll email you our answer.
  • By remote fix – we connect securely from our office to your home computer and resolve issues while you watch.
  • In print – Which? Computing magazine, six issues a year delivered to your door.

Join Which? Tech Support for £4.99 a month. You can cancel at any time.

* Survey of 16,097 Which? members and general public carried out in March 2022.

Additional reporting by Ian Molyneaux.

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