Printer Driver Crash Course
Sure, the easiest way to churn out a simple print job is to hit Ctrl-P (or Command-P for you Mac users). But taking a few minutes to explore your printer driver can unearth a whole new layer of control over your printing processes. A printer driver, in short, is a utility that allows your computer to communicate with a printer, and lets you control numerous functions in your print jobs. Although you can change a few settings when you launch a print command from within a Windows application, you can access a number of next-level functions through the driver interface. You are even likely to find useful printing options that you weren't even aware of.
Drivers either come on the setup disc included with your printer, or you download them from the manufacturer's website as part of the setup process. One of the driver's main tasks is to translate files sent from a computer into a printer language for output. Thus, in some high-end printers you may have more than one printer driver, one for each printer language, most commonly PCL and PostScript. The manufacturer's recommended driver generally installs as the default driver, and sometimes you have to check a box during the setup process to install any additional drivers. For most business printing, PCL—a versatile printer language created by HP—is preferable, offering faster printing with less drain on memory during printing.
PostScript is Adobe's printer language, and Adobe programs such as Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat are optimized for use with it. As such, it's commonly used by graphic designers. Although PostScript is mostly used on Macs, it's also compatible with Windows. But unless you need it to print out graphics files (or you print a ton of PDFs), you're better off sticking to PCL. You can always switch between the two if need be.
Accessing Your Printer Driver
To access your printer driver's interface in Windows 10, type Control Panel in the search field in your toolbar and press Enter. A pull-down menu at the Control Panel screen's upper right lets you view the page by Category, Large Icons, or Small Icons. If you are in Category view, you need to switch to either of the icon views. From there, click on Devices and Printers, and you should come to a screen similar to the one you see below, with a series of icons identifying printers for which you have installed drivers, and the default printer identified with a green checkmark.
Right-clicking on the icon for the printer you want to access will bring up a menu. The two choices under that menu that house most of the driver's functions are Printing Preferences and Printer Properties. Printer Properties lets you choose ports and control security features, while Printing Preferences—by far the most important of the two for everyday use—houses a wealth of settings for layout, print quality, profile presets, and more.
You can also access your driver's settings from within many Windows programs as you prepare to print. When you click on File at the screen's upper left corner, and then Print from the pull-down menu, you will see the Print screen, which offers a few basic options: number of copies, paper size, one- or two-sided printing, and the like. Some programs (Word included) provide a link to Printing Preferences from this page; others, such as the Chrome browser, do not.
What Does It Do?
Virtually every printer function that you might want to change can be controlled through the driver. And considering the huge variety of printers on the market today, they can vary widely depending on the printer's purpose. For instance, the driver for a professional photo printer will be quite different than an office monochrome laser.
That said, they have common elements. When you open the driver, you should see a dialog box with a series of tabs at top left; the leftmost tab—often called Layout or Setup—includes information like the number of copies to be printed, one-sided or two-sided printing (if your printer supports auto-duplexing), paper type, and printing mode presets (such as Photo Printing, Business Document, and Vivid Color). Many simple consumer printershave just a few tabs that consolidate the important printing functions, while higher-end business models may have half a dozen or more tabs, highlighting features that may include some you weren't even aware of.
For example, the Lexmark Universal v2 driver on my work printer has a tab labeled Watermark, which I had never paid attention to. Tapping the tab launches a dialog box from which you can add a watermark (such as Confidential, Draft, or a timestamp) to one or all of the pages you are printing. Another tab on the Lexmark driver, and on drivers for other printers that support password-protected printing, is named Print and Hold. It allows you to enter a PIN number for a print job and then send the job to the printer; the intended recipient would have to enter the PIN on the printer's keypad for the job to be output.
Can I Use a Universal Driver?
Most major manufacturers, including but not limited to Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Lexmark, and OKI, offer what they call universal printer drivers. As you might suspect, they're not really universal—they generally only work for printers from that manufacturer, and some will only work for non-PostScript or for monochrome printing, for example. They can be handy, though, if you are networked to, say, a fleet of Brother monochrome printers: You don't have to install a separate driver for each new printer you add. Microsoft has a universal printer driver for non-PostScript printers, although setting it up can be rather involved. In most cases, going with the model-specific driver that the manufacturer offers is preferable to a universal driver.
Accessing Printer Settings on a Mac
Macs have a more streamlined and consistent printing interface than Windows systems, and you have extensive control when printing from individual programs. In addition, you can see basic data about your printer, as well as change your default printer, from your Mac's Printers & Scanners dialog box. With a Mac running High Sierra or other recent versions of macOS, go to System Preferences in the Applications folder and click on Printers & Scanners. (With older versions of macOS, the setting is called Print & Fax.) This opens a panel with a list of installed printers, with the default printer—the last printer used, unless you have specified another printer—highlighted. You can see a list of available printers, share your printer to a network, change the paper size, and check the print queue. Pressing the Options & Supplies button launches a dialog box with a Driver tab, which lets you control a limited number of settings.
The real action, though, is when you print from a program. When you click Print from the File menu, up pops a Print dialog box, which offers some basic settings (number of copies and media type for instance), and a button labeled Presets, which launches a drop-down menu with a host of settings for layout, color, paper handling, print quality, and duplex printing. You can use them as is, or customize and save them.
What About Multifunction Printers?
As devices that do more than print, multifunction printers (MFPs)—also known as all-in-ones or AIOs—offer great versatility, and consolidate within a single machine what used to require three or four devices. Almost all of them scan and copy in addition to printing, and some add fax capabilities as well. All of them have a printer driver, and many have a fax driver you can access as well, but you seldom will see a separate scanner-driver interface with MFPs.
Generally, scanner functions are controlled through manufacturers' scan utilities, which have user-friendly interfaces, or from the MFP's display, whether it has a touch screen or a non-touch screen with function buttons for scanning. Unlike printing, in which you can launch a print job from the comfort of your desk, you have to walk up to a scanner to load the original. Thus, it makes sense that most scanning functions are controlled from within the MFP, which won't even need to be connected to a computer if it can scan to a USB thumb drive or memory card.
Multiply Your Choices
Many users will be fine using the printing interface in a given application, and working from its set of options. However, those choices are often quite limited. Accessing the printer driver—whether through a "Printer Properties" or a similarly named link in an application, or through Devices and Printers in your control panel—will present you with a much wider variety of options. A thorough perusal of the driver settings may well reveal features you were unaware your printer could even perform.