Why I Don’t Fix Printers

I get this question all the time: “Do you fix printers?” My pat answer to that question is “No”, because most of the printers I’m asked to look at are cheaper to replace than to have me fix, and the few that aren’t require special training and access to dealer/authorized servicer parts that I simply can’t get. That said, many SOHO printers can actually be fixed without breaking the bank, but only if you have the basic repair skills and time to do it yourself, and if your time wouldn’t be better spent doing something else.

I will illustrate this by relating my recent experience fixing my own printer, a Canon MAXIFY MB5120. In short, this printer is a beefed-up inkjet all-in-one that offers faster-than-average printing and scanning, better-than-average paper handling, automatic duplex printing and scanning and a host of networking options that make it accessible to all my devices, whether they’re computers, tablets or phones, both at home and via the Internet. But at the heart of all that, it’s still an inkjet printer, and it’s subject to the same problems that affect all inkjet printers. The most common of those problems is clogging of the print head, and that’s exactly what happened to my MB5120.

Inkjet print heads get clogged for many reasons. Most often, the cause is disuse. Printer ink is a liquid that gets sprayed on the page by the print head (in a highly ordered way, of course, so as to make clear, sharp, full-color printouts with crisp text) and dries there to make the printout permanent. Obviously, in order for the ink to dry before you get a chance to smear the printout, it needs to be formulated to dry very quickly when exposed to air. But as an old, possibly obscure song says, “The air, the air is everywhere.” That includes inside your printer, just outside of the print head. If left undisturbed long enough, that ink just inside the print head will dry out and harden, clogging the head. That’s why inkjet printer experts advise users to print, and print often, preferably in full color. (That’s right — that setting your boss wants you to use to print monochrome on your office’s color laser printer to save money on toner? That’s false economy if you do it with your inkjet printer at home.) I’ve heard a lot of recommendations about exactly how much you really need to print, but a good guideline is at least 5 full color pages per week.

I’m familiar with that guideline, and I have plenty to print on my printer, so lack of full color page printouts wasn’t the reason why my printer’s head clogged. Other possible reasons include poorly formulated ink (possibly a factor in my case, as I unabashedly use compatible ink tanks that I buy online instead of expensive, geniune Canon brand ink), the trend towards ever-tinier ink nozzles to get those increasingly sharp inkjet printouts, and poor overall print head design. Canon and I will disagree on this, no doubt, but I have good reason to suspect that those latter two potential causes may have come into play in my case. But at least Canon gave my MB5120 a print head that can be removed (with effort) and cleaned or replaced if necessary. At least one other manufacturer whose printers I have owned makes it next to impossible to remove their print heads. I will leave them nameless for the time being.

After the clogged yellow nozzles were diagnosed, and the Canon-ized (sorry, couldn’t resist) fixes of cleaning and then deep-cleaning the print head via the menu had been tried fruitlessly, I began warming myself up mentally to the messy and somewhat time-consuming task of removing and cleaning the print head. This would not be my first time doing this; part of why I was so reluctant was because I knew I would be spending 2-4 hours between actually fixing the thing and trying not to get ink all over the place; the latter is the part I find most daunting.

For my Canon MAXIFY MB5120, the tools for the job include a #1 Phillips head screwdriver, a small, plastic container, some Windex window cleaner, some water, some paper towels, a spray can of 100% isopropyl alcohol (sold at Micro Center, for cleaning electronics) and a lot of patience. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail, because the detailed procedure would only help you if you own a Canon MAXIFY MB5120 or one of its MAXIFY MB series siblings. (They are mostly sold online, and, therefore, are not very popular.) There is a lot of variation in the way printers are put together. If you want specific instructions for working on your own printer’s print head, I recommend searching for your printer model on YouTube, iFixIt.com or both.

For my printer, the first step is removing the ink tanks, which takes a bit of ballet with turning the printer off, turning it back on and unplugging when you hear the print head do its power-on self-test sweep, because Canon, in an apparent attempt to protect us from ourselves, did not provide a menu-driven means of removing an ink tank before the printer detects that it’s empty. The second part of beating that “safeguard” is manually turning a plastic gear inside the printer in order to activate the cartridge eject mechanism. I had to do this four times, once for each ink tank. After the ink tanks are removed, out comes a clipped-in plastic shield. Now I have access to the print head, but before I can operate the lever that releases it, I must remove two hard-to-reach screws that are there because… well, apparently, because Canon thought it was a good idea. (Anti-magnetic screws in a recessed location just above a spot where the only place they can fall is into the innards of the printer? Really, Canon?!?)

With the print head finally out of the printer, my next step was to give the print head a several-hour soak in what amounts to a sitz bath of a 50/50 mix of Windex and water. Ideally, I would be using a solvent specially made for cleaning inkjet print heads. Also, ideally, I would be using a sort of syringe with a short hose made specifically to fit on the print heads ink input ports. And at very least, it would be best if I were using distilled water for mixing with the Windex and flushing later. But, again, I don’t fix printers on a regular basis, so I don’t have those things. So, a sitz bath of tap water and Windex would just have to do, followed by a careful water rinse, trying to blow it out with the spray alcohol, and then an overnight dry-out period of just sitting on a pad of paper towels.

Fast-forward to the morning, and I reverse the print head removal procedure to put the head back in the printer and reinstall the ink tanks. But the process isn’t over yet, because remember that those print heads are supposed to be made to help prevent the problem I was trying to fix in the first place. In other words, no matter how hard you try to dry the print head out, there’s going to be some water and solvent trapped inside. That’s probably for the best, if you think about it, because loosening and flushing out as much dried ink as possible from the print head, only to have something else dry in there and clog it, would be a bad thing. But until all remaining water and solvent are flushed out, your printouts are going to be fuzzy, prone to smearing, and possibly dripping. So, the first thing I did after putting it all back together was a print head Deep Cleaning via the menu. Since that basically tells the printer to flush out the print head with a substantial amount of ink, that should have been just the ticket for flushing out the leftover solvent. After the Deep Cleaning was done, I printed a test pattern and… seeing that I was still getting very little yellow ink in the test pattern, I did another Deep Cleaning. This time, the test pattern looked a lot better — not perfect, but at least passable — so, the next step was to start printing every full-color e-mail in my Inbox to make sure that ink got flowing and displaced any solvent still left in there. I should probably print another 50 pages or so before I attempt any photographs.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of why I don’t fix printers. My Canon MAXIFY MB5120 would have cost about $200 to replace. At what I charge clients per hour, the 2-4 hours it would take for me to do something like this to your average printer would end up costing close to $200, and maybe more, and most of my clients with inkjet printers have models that cost less than mine. Note that most of the YouTube videos that show how to fix printers are made by technicians who live in countries other than the United States. In the US, computer hardware is cheap compared to labor. In many other countries, hardware is more expensive, and people are paid less, so repair is a more attractive option. But not here. So, why did I go to the trouble of cleaning my own printer’s print head? Let’s just suffice to say that due to circumstances beyond my control, it made more sense to take the time to fix it than to go shopping for a new one.

But, what about other kinds of printers? In the US, expensive laser printers and office copiers are worth fixing. In fact, many offices have service contracts for their copiers, because they can be very expensive to service. But I don’t handle those, either, because, as said earlier, fixing those requires special training and access to parts that I can’t get.

“CAN YOU GET ME A WEBCAM?” (NEW ANSWER: HOPEFULLY SOON!)

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, and until today, my answer has been “Alas, no. The pandemic caused a run on webcams, just as it caused runs on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and a number of other commodities (most recently, interestingly enough, bakers’ yeast). The few that are available are either overpriced or dubious imports, with long delivery estimates.”

It’s easy to imagine why webcams have been in short supply worldwide. After all, most everyone has been working remotely and attending virtual school classes for over a month now in much of the United States, and even longer than that in some other parts of the world. This requires webcams, so those people whose desktops didn’t have one (and whose laptops came with crummy ones) rushed out to buy them. But unlike some of the other commodities that people began to hoard, webcams were simply a victim of short supply to begin with. People who buy traditional desktops usually don’t buy webcams for them, and most all-in-one desktops and laptops come with webcams that are at least acceptable. So, under normal circumstances, retailers don’t stock a lot of webcams. After all, no retailer wants to store large quantities of a product that people don’t normally buy in large numbers. Doing so means a long wait to recoup their cost, not to mention the shelf space that the slow-moving product occupies, which could be more profitably occupied by more popular products. And, of course, it’s similarly unprofitable for distributors to keep large quantities of webcams in stock, and for manufacturers to produce them in large quantities. So, once people realized they were going to be stuck working and learning frrom home, it didn’t take long, or panic-buying or hoarding behavior, for the webcams in the pipeline to sell out.

A month and a half into pandemic stay-at-home orders (in the USA, that is), reasonably priced, webcams are starting to reappear, and it no longer takes 6+ weeks to get them. But the familiar webcam brands are still missing, and a lot of the end user reviews, when they’re present, look suspiciously like ‘bot-generated fakes. I’m still getting calls from clients who need webcams, but who wants to buy an unknown, untested model in hopes that it works? Who is going to take that risk?

The answer is: Lebowitz IT Services will! I just ordered the webcam pictured in this post. (I am not posting a link at this time, because I am not prepared to recommend it before I try it out.) It has genuine-looking reviews, some including photos and video, and most of them are positive. It’s in stock now on amazon.com, and I expect to receive mine in a week or so. When I do, I will run it through its paces, compare it with my trusty Logitech C270 webcam, and let you all know the results. After that, if the webcam proves worthy, it will be resold at cost, and more will be ordered for others who need or want them.

“I don’t want to be a criminal. Will you do it for me?”

People who know me well know that I respect intellectual property rights and honor end user license agreements. The fact is that failure to do so is stealing. I didn’t sit down to write a treatise on this today, but suffice to say that there is case law (both secular and religious, for those who compartmentalize) to back my assertion up.

I received a call today from a client who needed remote assistance from a software company. It seems that the software company technician wanted my client to install TeamViewer so that they could log in remotely. The client was unable to do so, and called to ask me to do it. I told the client, as politely as I could manage, that the request was rather surprising, that I found it more than a bit offensive, and if the software company’s technician wanted TeamViewer on my client’s computer, they should find a way to facilitate this themselves.

So, what was wrong with this request? Simple: Contrary to what many people think, TeamViewer is NOT freeware. TeamViewer (the company) graciously permits free use of their remote access product for personal use only. They do not leave “personal use” to the imagination; they explain what personal use means as far as they are concerned, and provide concrete examples to illustrate it. Using TeamViewer to provide technical¬† support to another company falls squarely into the category of business use, at least as far as TeamViewer (the company) is concerned. Business use requires a license, and TeamViewer licenses range in cost from about $700 to thousands of dollars, depending on a number of factors. I’m not going to try to argue that TeamViewer is inexpensive for this, that or the other. The fact is that many technicians find TeamViewer to be the very best remote access software available. TeamViewer (the company) knows this, and thus justifies the premium price. My business can’t afford that premium price, but I don’t use this to make an excuse for violating TeamViewer’s intellectual property rights. I simply license and use a less expensive remote access product.

The reason I found the request offensive is because it told me three things about the software company (which, I happen to know, charges hefty licensing and maintenance fees for their own products): First, they’re too cheap to license remote access software that they need to provide support. (To reiterate: TeamViewer may be the best remote access software, but it is not the only remote access software. There are cheaper, and even free, alternatives for those willing to open their eyes and look.) Second, they clearly know that providing TeamViewer to their customers without a proper license is against the law, because other companies that license TeamViewer appropriately have easy ways to distribute the TeamViewer host software to their customers, and this software company is not doing so. But what really made me angry was the third thing: while the software company knows that distributing TeamViewer without a business license to provide tech support is illegal, and therefore will not do so themselves, they are perfectly happy to ask other people to install it, and thus break the law for them!

If someone doesn’t agree with intellectual property laws and end user license agreements, or just doesn’t want to play by the rules for whatever reason, we can agree to disagree. It’s not my job to police such things. But at least he should have the guts to commit the violation himself. I draw the line when someone asks me to be a criminal for him.

Your Hard Drive May Be Encrypted…

AND YOU MIGHT NOT EVEN KNOW IT.

No, this isn’t a warning about the latest virus, ransomware, or hacker-related misery (unless you’re one of those Mac or Linux fanatics who views Microsoft as pure evil). It’s about a feature built into your computer and Windows that you probably didn’t know about, want or ask for, and was provided to help protect you from those very things, but has the potential to cause data loss itself.

I’m writing this while waiting for a client’s ailing hard drive to decrypt so that I can make a full image backup of it and use that to move the system onto a new solid state drive. I hope the drive doesn’t fail in the process, and I’ve already backed up the data files separately in case it does. But how did this happen? The client was unaware that their drive was encrypted, and their computer runs Windows 10 Home. Most people assume Windows 10 Home doesn’t support drive encryption thanks to Microsoft’s minimal and misleading information on the subject, which mosty contains reminders that Bitlocker is not supported on Windows 10 Home! So, how did this situation come about?

I’ll try to keep this post from getting too long and complicated by simply saying that all flavors of Windows have supported drive encryption – generally referred to as “device encryption” – since Windows 7. However, until recently, computers didn’t have the hardware support to make it easy to implement and enable at the operating system level. That has changed over the last few years, and now nearly all mass-produced personal computers sold in the United States implement technologies such as Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), Secure Boot and some form of Trusted Platform Module. When Windows 8.1 and later are installed on a computer that have those features present and turned on, they automatically install with device encryption enabled, but not fully activated. The problem is that the installation does not tell you at any point that it is doing this, nor does it tell you how – or even that it is necessary – to take action in order to obtain your encryption key. What I find outrageous about this is that if you don’t take action to obtain your encryption key, Windows encrypts your drive *anyway*, just with a generic key. Look in any Windows support forum, and you’ll find plenty of requests for help from people who had no idea that their hard drives were encrypted until something went wrong, and you’ll find plenty of solutions suggested. Sometimes, one of those solutions helps someone get his computer back into Windows, but in all too many cases, none work, Windows must be reinstalled from scratch, and the data is lost.

I’m not saying that any of these technologies – UEFI, Secure Boot, drive encryption, or Windows 10 – are bad. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s good to have hardware support for drive encryption, especially in laptops, which are often targeted by thieves while their users are traveling. It’s not hard at all to get data off of a computer, even if you don’t know the user’s password, but hardware-supported drive encryption prevents that. However, I am saying that Microsoft’s decision to turn this feature on by default, without informing the user and making sure he either turns it off or takes action to obtain and secure his encryption key, is irresponsible. It leads to users getting locked out of their computers when manufacturers’ driver updates or Windows updates fail to install properly, and, in cases like the laptop that prompted me to write this, the potential to increase repair costs or even lose data when a hard drive starts to malfunction.

Here is what you need to do to ensure that drive encryption doesn’t bite you:

1. First, find out if it’s turned on. If your computer runs Windows 7 or 8.0, you can stop right here, because unless you explicitly purchased and installed a drive encryption system, your hard drive is not encrypted. If your computer runs Windows 8.1, its hard drive is still probably not encrypted. If you have Windows 10, click your Start button, then click on Settings, and then click on Update & Security. Look at the list on the left side. If you don’t see “Device encryption” listed, then you’re done. If you do see it listed, click on it, and the left pane will then tell you if device encryption is disabled, enabled or if you need to take action to finish setting it up.

2. If Device Encryption is turned off, and you want to simply leave it that way, then you’re done. Similarly, if the screen reports simply that Device Encryption is turned on, then you can simply leave it that way, although you may want to log into your Microsoft Account to make sure you know how to get to your recovery key.

3. If the Device Encryption screen reports that “You need a Microsoft account to finish encrypting this device”, then you need to decide whether you want to turn encryption off or finish activating it. Clicking the “Turn off” button will decrypt your drive. Clicking the “Sign in with a Microsoft account instead” link will take you to a screen where you can switch from logging in with a local account to logging in with a Microsoft account, after which you should return to the Device Encryption screen and finish setting up Device Encryption.

If you choose to use Device Encryption, then I strongly advise storing your encryption recovery key in your Microsoft Account, rather then relying on keeping it on a printout or a USB flash drive (the other two options). Anything kept on paper or flash drives is subject to being lost, damaged beyond recovery or stolen. You can misplace the credentials for your Microsoft Account, but you’re more likely to recover from that than you are to get back a recovery key that was stored on a lost, stolen or damaged flash drive or piece of paper.

Another consequence of using Windows 10 Device Encryption (or BitLocker, if you have Windows 10 Pro) is that it complicates data recovery efforts if Windows becomes completely unbootable or the encrypted drive starts to fail. Data recovery tools won’t work on an encrypted drive, and the drive can’t be decrypted if you can’t at least get into the Windows Recovery Environment. I’m always advising people to make regular backups anyway, but it’s absolutely critical to do so if your drive is encrypted.

As always, Lebowitz IT Services is available to assist you in protecting your precious data.