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WiFi can screw up your printer!

Ever been frustrated that the print you urgently needed half an hour ago has failed for the 10th time? Of course! Well, one modern reason for that failure may be your WiFi! One favourite statistic often quoted was that printers accounted for 40% of helpdesk calls – I’d like to think that this percentage has fallen in recent years but, as we enter more and more into the mobile, wireless age, that percentage could start to rise again.

In a recent printer test programme, I was being dogged by multiple printer errors and feeling very jaded by it.  The first inclination, of course, is to blame the printer – after all, it’s a new machine, new to the market and, like any new device, there is potential for it to be susceptible to minor niggles till they get ironed out with a firmware update.  This happens all the time with new mobile phones or tablets, so we get to expect it and we work with it.

BUT, as they say in the movies – “18 months earlier”!

I had been frustrated on occasions – nothing really bad and nothing that could be pinned down to any particular scenario – by my wireless mouse becoming a little jittery and unresponsive from time to time.  As I say, just annoying for a few seconds at a time but never bad enough to throw the thing out of the window!

Just before this test programme started, I bought a new computer, with wireless mouse and keyboard.  The difference here was that this computer was the first time I had used a WiFi PC with a wireless mouse/keyboard.  All previous PCs had been wired network and my laptop was never used with a wireless mouse.

On top of this, online ‘apps’ and services are being pushed at us left right and centre rather than utilising the ‘old-fashioned’ software installed locally on our very own, personal hard disk.  So, I thought, “Let’s be modern and use MS Office Mobile”.

Quite frankly, this combination is ‘Toxic’ to use a terminology that’s bandied around in the press with all-too-frequent regularity.  My mouse was jumping all over the place, sometimes the app would not connect to the internet ‘service’ it relied on even to open the document in hand, let alone to do anything with it.  And, I was experiencing errors in the printing, typically at a rate of 1 error every 10 print jobs.

These errors most often involved:

  • the print job simply sitting in a ‘Spooling’ state for ever – basically until the ‘Print’ dialog was activated again for another print job or till a different document was opened.  Then the spooling would suddenly finish and the print job would suddenly complete.
  • either part or all of the print just being abandoned and a sheet of paper being spat out of the printer without being printed.  This might happen with a single-page print job or the first or last page of a multi-page print job.

Well – needless to say, I alerted the printer manufacturer immediately.  But, being frustrated by the mouse problems (the two problems not being knowingly connected at this time) I also started to search the internet for clues as to why the mouse was jittery – was it faulty hardware, had I chosen the wrong wireless kit that was badly designed or what?  After a great deal of searching and reading of totally useless information, I finally stumbled on the suggestion that a wireless mouse uses the same 2.4GHz radio frequency that is used by most wireless devices.  The suggestion was to change to a set that uses 2.7GHz (of which I have not found any yet – though not searched long and hard).

So, I resolved to just grin and bear the mouse problem for the time being.

But, it then occurred to me that I was working with multiple 2.4GHz devices in the same room at the same time – computer, mouse/keyboard,  two mobile phones and multiple printers – plus the router, of course.  If my mouse was becoming almost unusable because of 2.4GHz interference, could the same effect be compromising my printing?

First test, switch to a nice, old (~8yrs?), comfortable PC still running Windows XP; wired mouse and keyboard; and wired network.  Turn the mobile phones off and use locally installed MS Office software.  Only the printers were left running WIFi from the router.  Wow!!  Not a problem in sight.  Printing ran through perfectly and much faster than using the new PC with Office Mobile – no internet traffic required to run the local application!!

So, next step, reintroduce bits of extra 2.4GHz WiFi.

To cut a long story short, the new PC, with wired mouse/keyboard and wired network connection – but running Office Mobile – was, again, perfect.  Even reintroducing the wireless mouse/keyboard into the mix produced only one error in 160 print jobs! There was an occasional jittery reaction from the wireless mouse but nothing too serious and nothing more than that experienced in ‘normal life’.

Conclusion – the printers were NOT at fault!

‘Going WiFi’, especially when used with online apps and services, might seem like the perfect way forward in this increasingly mobile world but, if this is the way we’re going to go, there has to be more effort put into making sure there is no interference between devices and transmissions.  Either new frequencies are required to spread the load or the channel/coding of data being transmitted needs to be reviewed and strengthened.

This ‘Toxic mix’ I referred to is when online apps are used in a combination with both WiFi network and wireless keyboard/mouse but the WiFi network seems to be the most toxic of all, interfering with the mouse operation, use of the online apps AND, most pertinently, successful and efficient operation of the printers.

I, for one, am not particularly in favour of online apps for primary office type applications. There is:

  • too much reliance on too many distributed pieces of hardware
  • reliance on the internet connection and the service itself being available (a serious outage of which I have experienced very recently)
  • too high a risk from many potential external interventions and service failures
  • increased and unnecessary internet traffic using valuable bandwidth
  • an increase in vulnerability and security risks
  • limited functionality in some apps
  • danger of the document not loading correctly

In terms of cost to the user, there is potential for a huge amount of frustration and time wastage as they struggle to handle a jittery, unresponsive mouse and the hassles of print jobs not being delivered when expected or not being delivered at all.  These all impact on personnel cost to the company (user, IT technician, IT manager, etc.), and productivity, through time lost and wasted; wasted materials, meaning toner/ink/other consumables and paper, while attempting to achieve successful hard copies; and potential purchases of new hardware in an attempt to resolve the issues experienced.  There is also potential for the mistaken loss of trust in the brand of hardware used and the reputation of the manufacturer.

Where do we go? The situation can only become more widespread as we progressively get rid of the wires in our lives and ever increasing levels of population carry more and more devices. Both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies are available on current routers, yet it seems that few devices make use of the 5GHz band, resulting in an apparent overloading of the 2.4GHz band. As a minimum, it seems that transmission frequencies need to be split out by device types, after all a mouse/keyboard combination only communicates with its own dongle so can easily be isolated from the rest of the radio frequencies being thrown around the room.