Thursday, October 05, 2006

The PC that Ate my Printer Paper

I recently set out to configure the PC my girls use for educational games to allow them to print from the PC to our printer connected to our 20" iMac. I had just slogged through getting a WiFi card to work with the Windows box, and was already pretty grouchy. But I figured printing is a solved problem, so what could go wrong? Silly me.

Being a long-time Mac user, I decided to turn there first. I turned on Windows Sharing on my Mac, hoping this would make the next steps obvious. No such luck. There was a comment from the preferences pane about referring to my Windows documentation for configuring a network printer. To me this is a 50/50 split. Part of this is due to the incredibly labyrinthian nature of Windows software, and part of this is marketing on the part of Apple to push people to the simpler solution that a Mac offers.

Then I decided to download Bonjour for Windows. This is Apple's implementation of a zeroconf-like service (Apple contributed to zeroconf but then diverged from the working group for some reason I don't yet understand).

I then downloaded the drivers for the HP C4180 printer, assuming they would be necessary to print to an HP C4180. When I tried to install the drivers, the installer complained that it couldn't find the printer, but gave me an option to install the drivers anyway. I was puzzled about why it would bark at me when it could install without the hardware but chalked it up to the oddities of Windows software. I should have been more suspicious.

Next, I tried to configure a printer with Bonjour, but couldn't find the driver for the C4180 anywhere. Turns out (after about 20 minutes of digging) that the drivers weren't actually installed when it couldn't find the printer. Of course it acted as if it installed correctly. Grrrrrr.

I resorted to hooking the C4180 up to the PC to get the drivers to install. While doing this, I thought to myself "If this screws up my printer I'm going to hurt someone at HP". It might seem odd to be concerned that the printer would be reconfigured in a manner incompatible with the Mac just by trying to install printer drivers while it was hooked up to a Windows machine. But this sort of thing has happened to me and others in the past.

After reconneting the printer to the Mac, I went back to the PC and did a Bonjour printer setup using the newly installed printer driver. Feeling hopeful, I tried to print a test page from Kid Pix, a drawing program for children that was the whole purpose behind this exercise in self-torment.

I spent the next half an hour trying different things, to no avail. Finally, I hit upon just the right Google search and learned that you have to choose the generic Postcript driver on the PC for things to work. So, all that effort to get the C4180 drivers installed was wasted. For this, I blame Apple. They should document clearly that you use the generic Postcript driver when using Bonjour to print to a printer connected to a Mac.

Thinking everything was finally solved, I try to print a test page from Kid Pix. This resulted in a paper jam in the printer. Repeated attempts ("surely the jam was a fluke") produced the same results. So, I embarked on another investigation. Printing from the Mac still works fine. Printing from NotePad on the Windows box works fine. Printing from Kid Pix still produces a paper jam every time. What the heck is going on?

Finally, after some cursing and tortuous preferences dialog comparisons, I made a guess that Kid Pix doesn't have a default paper type. Once I selected a default paper type, things started working. How anyone other than a software developer could get this far and not throw the machine across the room is beyond me.

It clearly isn't Bonjour for Windows, since NotePad printed just fine. What sort of OS would allow you to print without specifying a required parameter? Or if it's the HP printer or driver's problem, what sort of printer manufacturer would not have a default for the value?

I have a new quest: convince my wife we should spend the money to replace the kids Windows machine with a Mac.