My friend Jill asked me recently about fixing printers. A printer seems like something you should be able to fix. Actually trying to fix it, though, usually leaves you confused, disheartened, and unpacking a new printer in short order.
Jill asked because she, like many, is home all day, trying to keep her young kids busy. She needed to print a Molly of Denali maze for her young daughter. Her printer’s response: “Printhead is missing.” The family’s HP OfficeJet Pro 8720 was bought in 2017, and prints about 10 pages a week. And they were not in the habit of removing the printhead from their printer.
The $190 Printhead Problem
I looked at all 55 instances of the word “printhead” in the manual for the 8720. You can align the printhead (with Windows-only software) or clean it (which uses ink). An HP Knowledge Base post about printhead problems suggests lifting a latch on the printhead and jiggling the cartridges around three times (pictured in that transfixing GIF nearby). That’s about it, in terms of DIY repair.
You can damage the printhead if you leave paper jams unaddressed, fail to replace cartridges immediately, or (surprise) use non-HP ink. Jill’s printer did have non-HP ink in it once, but not at the time of the printhead problem. A “Missing” printhead sounded like it could be a damaged connector; maybe a ribbon cable stretched too many times. I didn’t get a chance to look, though. Jill’s husband, after trying all of HP’s suggestions “a hundred times,” had to toss it and buy a new model.
I found a replacement printhead for the 8720 on Everything Business Depot’s Amazon storefront for $190, a remanufactured version for $170, and on eBay for $160. Meanwhile, I could drive to my local Best Buy and get what looks like a comparable OfficeJet 8025 Wireless All-In-One for $170. So it goes with printers. At best, someone might take a moment to search and find some kind of recycling or responsible disposal nearby.
Why must it be this way?
Printers Are Sold Below Cost, and Treated Like It
Everyone who has bought more than one printer during their lifetime has a story like Jill’s. It might make you think of printers as the most unreliable, Wi-Fi intolerant, antiquated device in your home. But my former colleague Liam McCabe at Wirecutter suggests that’s the wrong conclusion. Your printer sucks, but that’s because it’s a really complicated machine sold for a dirt-cheap price:
You take your printer for granted, but that box can cover a piece of paper in millions of dots of precisely located, color-matched ink in a few seconds. You’re probably buying the printer for the cost of parts and distribution, which means the manufacturer is effectively subsidizing the thing on the premise that they’ll recoup their research and development costs (and the rest of their overhead) from your ink purchases.
Your 11th-generation smartphone, thin laptop, voice-interpreting Echo or Google Home—they all seem so much more advanced and reliable than your printer. The big difference is that printers have a lot of moving parts. While phones and laptops and voice assistants certainly break and malfunction (hi!), they’re mostly solid-state electronics, modulating tiny pulses of electricity across immobile boards and components. Printer parts can wear out, jam, run dry or get clogged, and become misaligned.
And yet, these complicated miniature factories are sold real cheap. Printers follow the classic razor and blades model: cheap printers, expensive ink. An IHS Markit teardown of a $70 HP printer estimated its manufacturing cost at $120, according to Consumer Reports. Keep in mind that $120 figure is just the cost of manufacturing the device; it doesn’t include research and development into ink technology, or marketing, or even shipping. HP has put significantly more into your cheap printer than you paid for it, on a reasonably good bet that you’ll pay it off over time.
Given these conditions, it’s sadly apparent why printer makers rarely provide parts, manuals, and repair service for their huge fleets of complicated devices sold for as little money as possible. That negligence seems like it could backfire, given that a malfunctioning printer could drive someone to another brand. But there are only four major consumer printer brands to cycle through. You need to put ink on paper, so you’ll likely be back.
iFixit doesn’t sell consumer printer parts. Parts boss Scott Head agreed that most printers are cheaper to buy than repair, making the maintenance of a huge catalog of specialty parts hard to justify.
What HP Says
I emailed HP about Jill’s issue, and some broader questions. An HP representative responded. Asked if there existed a more detailed service manual for the HP 8720, HP linked the manual and setup guides for the printer. HP noted that, if the product was in warranty (one year for most HP retail printers) or had an extended warranty, HP would replace the whole unit, and cover shipping both ways.
HP does not have a repair program in the U.S., the representative wrote, and mentioned the warranty program again. If a customer’s printer fails outside of warranty, “we will listen to learn more about our customer’s print needs, and provide suggested upgrade options if a customer is interested in purchasing a new printer,” HP wrote.
My last question was the big one: “Everyone I know, whenever faced with a printer issue, finds that it’s less expensive to buy a new printer than to try and fix the one they have. Why is that?”
“At HP, our customers are our priority. We will gladly replace defective units free of charge for printers covered under warranty,” the HP rep wrote in response.
What You Can Actually Fix on a Printer (It’s Not A Lot)
By all means, try out the cleaning, aligning, and other troubleshooting tips in your printer’s manual or online product pages. Check out our printer repair guides, where we have 16 brands, and many of their sub-categories, including HP OfficeJet. Search our Answers forum, where you might find a solution like blasting the printhead nozzles with air. On the model number closest to Jill’s doomed printer, you can fix a faulty paper jam sensor, remove the scanner, or take off the whole outer case, if you wanted to get at something deep inside.
But printers are very distinct, loosely related beasts. Looking through our guides for fixing a paper jam, I found one Brother laser unit where, while reaching in to remove a paper jam, you could damage the printer by touching the electrodes on the right side. Fun! Each printer has its own interface (if it has a screen), drivers for different operating systems, error codes, and ink types.
You can web search your model number, part number, and problem, but be wary of the sources you trust or buy from, and please don’t download anything or get on the phone. I discovered, while looking for specific and general fixes, sites that want you to install “printer fix” software that is almost certainly malware. I also read in Consumer Reports about remote tech support scams, which will also end in heartbreak and disaster.
I haven’t even touched on the network issues you can have with a printer. I have a Brother laser printer in my home. It’s connected by ethernet to my home network, and I have turned off its Wi-Fi component. I have assigned the printer a permanent IP address through my router. And yet, every fourth or fifth time my wife or I want to print something, one of us will have to remove and re-add the printer to our computer, or turn the printer off and then on again. I am a highly experienced unpaid junior network administrator, and even I can only shrug at the Brother’s whims.
Consumer Reports and HelpDeskGeek offer some general check-this-then-that advice, although with a focus on Windows systems. Sometimes it’s better to just connect the printer to a computer by USB and share the printer through Windows or Mac OS’ built-in printer sharing. You might also discover that your printer has an ethernet port, just hidden behind a small plastic tab.
So, What Can You Do? Maintain and Demand Better
Jill asked a question that I haven’t really answered yet. What can you do to prevent a future run-to-the-store printer scenario? I have a few suggestions:
Rely on trusted reviews. Do as much research as time allows before you buy. The reviewers at Wirecutter (where I worked before iFixit) and Consumer Reports spend many hours, speak to experts, and have actually plugged in and set up many of these printers. They hear from their readers if their picks break or misbehave. You can do your own research, but starting with quality sources will save you time.
Buy as little printer as you need. Start with a black-and-white laser printer, and scale up from there. Can you live without color printing, if it means you occasionally have to stop by a copy shop, “borrow” the office printer, or have your photos printed at the drugstore? Then do so. Black and white printers are cheaper and faster per page, their toner cartridges generally don’t jam or dry out if you don’t use them, and you’re safer buying third-party laser toner versus ink cartridges. You’ll pay more upfront, but they pay off over time.
The same goes for all-in-one printers that have a scanner attached. Even if it costs more money, buying a separate flatbed or portable document scanner ensures that only one device can break at a time.
Stick with printer brand ink, or reliable third-party. We’re loath to suggest that manufacturers’ warnings against third-party replacements have weight to them, but when it comes to inkjet ink, there are some differences.
Consumer Reports noted that third-party inks, at best, were a “step down in quality” or “would be just fine,” but also noted that some brands clogged printheads or were struggling to get working. Wirecutter recommends retail locations like Costco, Sam’s Club, and Fry’s that use Retail Inkjet Solutions’ refilling stations. Notably, Wirecutter did not recommend online vendors. Many were not transparent about their ink sourcing, and some openly sought to game customer reviews.
One notable exception is Epson’s EcoTank printers, which you can refill yourself with vials instead of closed cartridges, and which Epson claims are “open” to third-party inks. They’re more expensive than most retail inkjet printers, but cheaper in the long run.
Read the manual. Large parts of the manual may be overwrought diagrams of how USB cables work, or explanations of features you don’t use. But there are likely useful tips in the user manual that could save your printer. Things like the maximum number of days you should go without using or cleaning your printhead, or what different error codes mean.
Ask for a repair manual, directly or through group action. Given their cheaper-to-buy nature, trying to fix your printer is often a nothing-to-lose scenario. If printer companies know how to fix the consumer printers sent to them for service, it seems fair you, too, should get a shot at fixing them. Using your printer for longer means buying more ink, and it might even make you feel better about the brand that just failed you. If you find yourself in a phone call or web chat with your printer maker’s support staff, try asking them for a service manual.
This kind of scenario is why iFixit fights for the Right to Repair. Printer companies have little incentive on their own to provide the parts, manuals, or specialty tools they use to fix consumer printers. It’s more efficient for them if you just buy a new printer, and take on the guilt of tossing a big hunk of plastic, metal, and electronics into the trash. As tricky or longshot as it may be, there should be repair options beyond “Hope you buy a better bet next time.” It’s up to us to demand them, and make companies accountable for how quickly products end up in the waste stream.