The Whole Ink Jet Printer Survival Guide

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Last month, I discussed keeping your laser printer in top form. This month I address how to maintain an ink jet printer.

Many of those laser tips also apply to ink jet printers--especially suggestions for speeding the printing process. Probably anyone who uses an ink jet printer for color output wants desperately to shorten printing time. Visit jun00/hardware to find June's Hardware Tips.

Heads Up

Ink jet printers are far less complex than their laser-toting cousins. That's because ink jet printers are basically an updated version of that old office workhorse, the dot-matrix printer. Both ink jet and dot-matrix printers rely on a printhead that slides back and forth across the face of the paper, composing letters and images from combinations of ink dots. The smaller the dots and the greater their density, the crisper the image.

Dot-matrix printers transfer ink dots much as typewriters printed letters by striking an inked ribbon against the paper. Ink jet printers replace the ribbon and mechanical letter heads with a printhead that blows the ink through as many as 160 tiny nozzles to form clusters of very small, precisely placed dots. The ink is stored in a cartridge. On some printers, only the cartridge need be replaced; on many others, however, you must change the entire printhead.

Here are tips for maintaining your printhead and the rest of your ink jet printer.

Keep your nozzles clean: Faint output, unprinted lines running across the page, or simply no visible printing at all indicate clogged nozzles. Many ink jet printers come with a nozzle-clearing function that blows ink through the nozzles to unclog them. Use this feature regularly, especially if your printer tends to sit unused for weeks at a time.

If that doesn't clear them, you'll have to remove the printhead and clean it manually. Dampen a lint-free swab or cloth with isopropyl alcohol and gently wipe the nozzles to remove dried ink. Then retry the printer's auto cleaning function. If that doesn't work, replace the cartridge.

Power down properly: Always use your printer's power switch--rather than the switch on a surge protector--to shut the unit down. Many ink jet printers have a printhead parking function that's triggered by the printer's own power switch.

Seal your cartridges properly: Keep ink fresh by storing extra cartridges in their factory-supplied containers. If you regularly switch between color and black ink printheads, store the swapped-out cartridge in an old factory-supplied container or in a small, zip-lock bag.

Maintain your contacts: Over time, the metal contacts on the back of the printhead may oxidize and lose their conductivity through exposure to air. Use isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free swab to keep them clean--especially if the printhead was used and then removed and stored for a long period of time.

Use the right paper: Most ink jets print reasonably well on standard, 20-pound copier paper. But the type of paper you use strongly affects the quality of ink jet output. Some grades of paper absorb too much ink, causing either too light or too blurred an image. If you want the best image possible, use the paper recommended by your printer manufacturer.

Keep it clean: Periodically inspect the inside of your printer for scraps of paper or other debris. Unplug the printer, and use canned air and tweezers to remove anything that may smudge the output or otherwise gum up the works. If your printer's environment is very dirty, keep a plastic cover over the printer to extend its life and minimize downtime.

Don't be jammin': Ink jets--especially low-cost, relatively flimsy ones--are sensitive to paper position and weight. Always set your paper guides carefully, and never mix paper types in the same tray.

Get the latest driver: Like laser printers, many manufacturers' ink jet models will perform better if you equip them with up-to-date drivers. Find and download these drivers at the vendor's Web site.

My Friend Flicker?

I just purchased a new 19-inch monitor, and I love the extra desktop space I get when working at 1280 by 1024 resolution. My graphics adapter supports up to 1600 by 1200 resolution at 85 Hz, but my screen displays an annoying flicker. I tried to increase the screen's refresh rate, but I couldn't find the refresh rate adjustment in Windows 98. Is there another way to reduce the flicker?

Robert Johnson, Chicago

You're on the right track. To reduce screen flicker, you need to increase the refresh rate--the number of times per second a complete image is drawn on your monitor's screen. The refresh rate is measured in hertz, which is just a fancy way of saying screens per second.

To avoid screen flicker, according to conventional wisdom, your PC needs to draw an image on your monitor no less than 72 times per second, a refresh rate of 72 Hz. Other authorities peg the minimum comfort rate at 85 Hz. To find out what refresh rate works for your monitor (and your eyes), try different settings.

To set the refresh rate manually, go to the Settings tab under Display in Control Panel, click the Advanced button, and select the Adapter tab. If your graphics card and your monitor support multiple refresh rates, you should be able to select a refresh rate from the list.

If your only choice is Optimal, you are at the mercy of Windows, which takes configuration data from Plug and Play monitors and adapters and determines an optimal rate. If the refresh rate is set to Optimal, you still have screen flicker, and other refresh rate options are listed, try them. Sometimes Windows' formula for determining optimal settings doesn't establish the fastest possible rate.

Manually setting a refresh rate causes Windows to warn that you may damage your monitor if you select a refresh rate that exceeds its designed capacity. This is rarely a problem for Plug and Play monitors; but to be safe, check your device's documentation before making a change.

If--like Mr. Johnson--you can't find any refresh rate settings on the Adapter tab, Windows has determined that there's no other workable refresh rate available. Since you know that your graphics card supports higher refresh rates, your monitor probably doesn't. Check your monitor's documentation to make sure.

Even if Windows won't cooperate, you may be able increase your refresh rate. If you have a Plug and Play monitor, confirm that Windows has recognized it and installed the correct drivers. If not, the refresh rate is set automatically to a flickering and unchangeable 60 Hz. Again, go to the Settings tab under Display--or in Windows 95, look under Monitors in Device Manager--to see the name of the installed monitor. If "Unknown Monitor" is listed, Windows couldn't find a driver for your monitor.

Click the Advanced button on Display Properties' Settings tab. On the Monitor tab, make sure that the Automatically detect Plug and Play monitors check box is checked. If it is, you may need to install a custom driver from your monitor maker's Web site. If your monitor isn't Plug and Play, Windows won't recognize it and will run it at 60 Hz unless you manually install a driver for it.

The more colors you use, the more information moves through your PC and the longer the monitor takes to draw and refresh screen images. Reducing the color depth may increase refresh rates and put new choices on the refresh rate list, but photos and other colorful images will appear less lifelike.

To reduce color depth, go to the Settings tab under Display Properties. If "True Color (32 bit)" is selected, lower it to High Color (16 bit). Except when viewing photographs, you should find this drop in color depth tolerable.

Lowering color depth from High Color (16 bit) to 256 Colors, however, is a little harder on the eyes.

You'll find files mentioned in this article at Send questions and tips to We pay $50 for published items.

Kirk Steers is a PC World contributing editor.

Is Your PC a Hottie?

The most delicate parts of your PC are among the hardest to keep your eye on--the CPU and motherboard. A failed CPU fan or power supply fan can rapidly overheat delicate chips and fry them. To avoid this, download MotherBoard Monitor from FileWorld or (author Alex van Kaam's site). This handy program reads temperature and fan RPM data collected by your system's BIOS, displays it in Windows' system tray, and alerts you when there's trouble.

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