I gave some out-of-character advice this week when someone came calling looking for help troubleshooting an inkjet printer.

Essentially, I told him that unless the problem turned out to be a problem with his cabling (it was–his USB hub had gone bad), he’d be best off just buying a new printer.

In my experience doing desktop support (mostly HP and Canon inkjets), a very limited number of things can go wrong with inkjet printers.

1. Cabling. Try plugging your printer directly into the computer’s USB port, rather than into a hub. Try plugging it into a different USB port. Failing all that, try a different USB cable–hopefully you have one, such as for your scanner.

In the case of parallel printers, you don’t have as many options. Try another cable, and if you’ve got a bunch of stuff daisy-chained off your parallel port–say, a printer, a Zip drive, and/or a scanner–try plugging the printer directly into the computer. Daisy-chaining multiple devices off the parallel port works some of the time. But since this port was never intended to be used that way, doing this is not very reliable. It’s frustrating, I know. That’s why USB was invented, with chaining in mind.

If the printer works alone but not with everything else, there are two options: Add a parallel port and move devices to it (chain no more than two devices off a single port) or replace one or more of your parallel devices with USB devices.

For good measure, I also like to try the printer with another computer whenever possible.

2. Ink cartridges. Ink cartridges dry out if they’re not used. Let your printer sit idle for much more than a couple of months without using it, and you’ll probably kill your ink cartridge. It’s not a bad idea to make sure you print at least one document a month. Some people have taken to storing their ink cartridges in an airtight container when not in use, and that’s not a bad idea either. Even inside an airtight container, they’ll eventually dry out, but not as quickly.

3. Printheads. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you would do well to either find your printer’s manual, or download a copy of it from your manufacturer’s web site and read it. On HP and Lexmark printers, the printhead is usually integrated into the cartridge, so when you replace your cartridge, you replace your printhead(s). That’s not always the case on other printers–especially Canons. Generally, if your printhead is a separate component, you should replace your printhead every two or three times you replace your ink cartridges. Not doing so can prematurely kill your printer, and can certainly cause weirdness.

It definitely pays to read and follow the maintenance schedule in your printer manual. Remember, a printer is a mechanical device like your car.

This printhead advice also follows for people who refill their ink cartridges for HP, Lexmark, and other printers that integrate the printhead into the cartridge. The printhead will wear out eventually, so refilling a cartridge more than a couple of times is a bad idea. The quality of your prints will go down and your printer will wear out more quickly.

4. Refills. Manufacturers claim refill kits prematurely kill your printer. I’ve never seen any independent study either verifying or refuting this, but since aftermarket refill kits will not use the same ink formula as the manufacturer uses, I’ll buy their argument that they might not be quite as good for the printer, and might cause its mechanical parts to wear down more frequently. But do the math: A refill kit costs what, 10 bucks? A set of ink cartridges costs what, 50 bucks? A new Epson Stylus C64 printer costs less than $70, including a starter set of ink cartridges. But let’s imagine a really bad-case scenario: Even if you use 6 refill kits a year and break your printer, you’ve saved $240. That’s enough to pay for a new printer and still be money ahead. And if your printer is more than a couple of years old, that cheap Epson is probably faster and higher-resolution than your old one.

5. The printer itself. There was a time when printers would run for 10 years or even longer. But that was 10 years ago, when a good printer pretty much cost a minimum of $200. Today, printers are loss-leaders. Stores and manufacturers sell cheaply-made printers at a loss and make it up with huge profits on consumables like ink cartridges and printheads. Today, printers are made cheaply, and they’re just not as rugged as the printers of a decade ago. They break. And when they break, they’re usually not worth fixing–not when an Epson Stylus C64 sells for as little as $57. (And it’s an awfully nice printer for 57 bucks.)

So be prepared to buy a new printer every couple of years if you use it a lot. Here are some things you might look for:

* Seperate print cartridges for each color. Some printers use a black cartridge and a color cartridge, with cyan, yellow, and magenta ink in one cartridge. Some use separate black, cyan, yellow, and magenta cartridges. This is more economical in the long run, as you can just replace or refill the individual colors as they run out.

* Seperate print heads. This is more economical in the long run, since the cartridges cost less, and you can refill your cartridges longer, but it also means you have to remember to replace them.

* Laser printers. Color laser printers cost more up front,  and a lot of people can’t justify that in an era when you can buy a color inkjet at Kmart for $35. Don’t buy a $35 inkjet though, because it won’t come with a black ink cartridge, which will negate all the savings, so read the box carefully. But if you primarily do black and white printing, b&w laser printers cost $150-$200. Toner cartridges cost anywhere from $30-$60 on low-end printers, but they typically last for 2,000 pages or more, as compared to 300-500 pages for inkjet cartridges. I bought a Lexmark 4039 laser printer in 1996. The toner cartridge is only now looking to need replacement, and that only shows up when I print photographs. My running-on-empty toner cartridge is still fine for printing text. This is an extreme example, as the 4039 was intended to be a printer for medium-sized offices, but I got 7 1/2 years out of that toner cartridge. Now that I think about it, that printer has probably saved me enough money to pay for a $700 color laser printer.

A lot of people would do well to buy an inexpensive laser printer to use for casual printing, and an inkjet printer to use for printing color. (Get an inexpensive one if you print things like greeting cards, or a nicer one if you print photographs.) This especially works well in households that have more than one computer–network the computers together and share the printers, and then all of your computers can print to both.