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Linux Printing Tips

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I've always liked CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System that is the standard printing subsystem for Linux, though a lot of my geeky friends rail and grumble against it, and pine for the olden days of LP and LPR. (Right, and hauling water from the creek is another long-lost pleasure.) The main gripe I have about it is even though are reams of documentation, it's still hard to dig up answers. But I still like it, and more printer vendors are joining the Linux parade and supporting GPL printer drivers, and even nice software control panels.

Though I think an over-abundance of control panels doesn't help anything, and just adds more points of failure and confusion. I stick with the CUPS Web interface, localhost:631, and hand-edit cupsd.conf when it is hopelessly horked by distro maintainers. (Ahem, Ubuntu. Too many notes!)

Inside of CUPS are several different groups of drivers: Foomatic, Gutenprint, and vendor-supplied drivers. This is why so many printers have several different driver options when you install a new printer. Unlike Windows, in Linux it is trivially easy to test the different drivers to see which one you like best-- in the CUPS Web interface, just select "Modify printer" to run through the installer again. You won't have to reboot or watch it gag and crash; it just works. Many printing problems are cured by using a different driver.

I had an issue with an HP Laserjet 3050. This is one of their low-end multi-function laser printers: scanner, fax, copier, and printer. Somewhere in my Linux adventures it suddenly decided that it could not just print, no, it wanted me to hit the 'Enter' button on the printer for every print job. Every. Single. One. Finally I got tired of it, and after wasting time on HP's support Web site I figured it out myself. Dear HP: Your entire Web site is the most amazing mish-mash of confusion I have ever seen. Please hire a college intern to test all the links and make sure they go somewhere useful, instead of wandering off into the weeds. Kthx, love, me.

At any rate, I poked around in CUPS and noticed that it was using a CUPS driver, either Foomatic or Gutenprint, who knows which one, instead of the HPLIP driver. HPLIP drivers are labeled in the CUPS driver selector as either HPLIP or HPIJS. So I switched to the HPLIP driver, and no more hitting 'Enter.'

The best advice I can give for happy Linux printing is shop carefully. Don't buy an unsupported printer, don't buy a printer that only has binary drivers. If it's not in CUPS forget it, unless you enjoy manually updating your printer drivers every time you upgrade Linux or CUPS. Some hardware vendors are really weird: they'll proudly offer up antique binary-only drivers that require Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0 or SUSE 6, and then act all puzzled when you complain. Though thankfully this is rare anymore.

How to find if a printer is supported? Visit CUPS.org, the user forums for your particular flavor of Linux, and the printer manufacturer's site, in that order. Apple owns CUPS now, and cups.org actually has a lot of helpful information. Linuxprinting.org used to be a great site, but then it merged with the Linux Foundation and doesn't seem to be maintained anymore. Last time I looked (just now) I got a lot of 404 errors. Try your luck at OpenPrinting.

Save Money On Inks and Toners

Ignore the scary warnings by printer manufacturers about aftermarket inks and toner cartridges. They're full of hooey and just want you to waste all kinds of money on their overpriced inks and toners. Yo, printer persons-- if you didn't make ink so insanely overpriced, we would use more. Guess what else happens when we use more ink? We use more paper, and wear our printers out sooner. So wise up already!

I have long happily used remanufactured laser toner cartridges. Even the super-cheap ones, which cost about a third as much as the name brands, come with free shipping labels for recycling the empties. I recall the olden days when you could remove the end cap and refill laser cartridges your own self.

Color inks are the real money-suckers, and happily there are ways to foil them too. If you do a lot of color printing you can get remanufactured ink cartridges, refill kits, or "never-ending" refill kits. They all work fine, and if you have one of those horrid "chipped" printers (microchips in the cartridges that decide when to replace them, and there is no arguing with them) you can get devices to re-program the chips. They're perfectly good inks, and the only question I can't answer is if they equal the so-called "archival" photo inks. But then, we won't know about the brand-name "archival" inks for quite a few years either.

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