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Printing tips and tricks in OS X

There are some behind-the-scenes features in the OS X print system that can be convenient options for managing printers and printing in OS X.

In OS X when you connect a printer the system will configure it for use, which you can manage through the Print & Fax system preferences if it does not happen automatically. Once added, the printer will create a local print queue where jobs are sent when you print from various local applications.

In addition to this standard printing behavior, there are several additional features of the print system that may be useful, depending on your needs.

Default printer settings
You can set the default printer from this list, or by right-clicking the desired printer in the device list. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET

Default printer selection
When you install a new printer on your system it is set to be the default printer, and while you can select other printers to use as your default, there is another option that might be useful, especially if you have a system that you regularly use in two different environments with different printer setups.

In the "Default printer" menu where you select your default printer, there is an option called "Last printer used," which will change the default printer if you select a different one in the print dialogue. By using this option, you can change your default print environment whenever you print, instead of having to go to the system preferences to make these changes.

Printer sharing options in OS X
With printer sharing enabled, you can add specific users to allow them access. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET

Printer sharing
Another feature in the OS X printing system is its sharing options, which allow you to share printers on the network for other systems to use. When you set up your printers, you can enable this option by checking the "Share this printer on the network" option. By default this will allow anyone on your local network to print to your system, but you can adjust who gets access by clicking on the "Sharing Preferences..." button (or going to the "Printer Sharing" section of the Sharing system preferences) and then selecting your printer and adding specific users or groups that are allowed to print.

One convenient aspect of OS X is its support for "sharing only" accounts, which means you can create a special printing account and password to add, instead of needing to establish a new user for the system. This can be done within the Printer Sharing settings by clicking the plus button and then either selecting one of your contacts to use as the account template, or clicking the "New Person" button. Once you have added a specified account or two to the "Users" list, you can then delegate printing to each of them.

Printer pool setup in OS X
With multiple printers selected, you can click this button to create a pool. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET

Printer pools
It is not uncommon for people to have several printers available to them, and often in workplaces there might be several of the same type of printer available that users can select. In these situations, you may not care to select a specific printer to print to, and even prefer to have the system pick from one that is not currently being used, or which may be offline.

In these cases, you can create a printer pool on your system from these printers, and when you print to the pool the system will automatically print to one that is available. To create a pool, in the Print & Fax system preferences, select the printers you would like to have in the pool by pressing the Command or Shift key and then selecting multiple printers. When you do this the window will display a "Create Printer Pool..." button, which will make a printer pool device similar to other printers.

As with other printers, you can share the pool and delegate user access, which makes this a convenient option for creating a rudimentary print server. If you have a spare computer to use for this purpose, you can create a pool of your printers on it, and then share the pool to the network and grant specific user access to the pool. While such a setup does not provide print quotas or other detailed features of a true print server, it will provide the basics for a pool manager.

Printing from the Finder
Dragging files or even folders to the print queue will have the system print their contents. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET

Print from the Finder
If you have a file on the system that you wish to quickly print, while you can open it in the respective program and then use the print function, you can also do this by selecting the file in the Finder and immediately pressing Command-P. This action will open the file in its handling program and print it to the default printer, though some applications will require action through the print dialogue. You can also do this for multiple files, even if they are opened by different programs.

In addition to printing files from the Finder using Command-P, you can perform a similar action using the printer's queue. In the system preferences, select your printer or pool device, and then drag the printer device from the list to your Desktop or to the Dock. From here you can drag files to this device and have them print automatically. Beyond printing files, these print queues can also be used to print the contents of Finder directories. Simply drag a folder to the queue, and its contents will be printed in a formatted list that is sorted by name.

Quartz Filter options for printed PDFs
When saving the print job from Preview, you can select the color filter to use. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET

Print to black and white or grayscale
Most modern printers are color devices, but sometimes people may still wish to print in black and white or to grayscale. Unfortunately many of the printer drivers for these color devices do not have an option for printing in black and white or monotone; however, this can be done in OS X by using the following procedure:

  1. Open the desired document and press Command-P to print it.
  2. Use the "PDF" menu to open the print results as a PDF in Preview.
  3. Save the document to your Desktop or another temporary location, and when you do so choose either Black & White or Gray Tone from the Quartz Filter menu (you can use others if desired).
  4. If the document's color does not change, then close and re-open it from the saved location.
  5. Print the document to your printer.
Reset print system menu
Right-clicking the printer list will provide a reset option. Screenshot by Topher Kessler / CNET.

Clear printer problems
Sometimes after system updates, system migration, or a printer driver update, the print system will not work properly on your computer and result in hangs or errors when printing, which can be frustrating to troubleshoot and manage. Fortunately OS X has a built-in print system reset option that should help you clear most printing errors. To access this option, go to the Print & Fax system preferences and right-click the printer list. Then choose "Reset Printing System" and confirm your selection. Do keep in mind that this will clear all of your printers, so be sure you have this information stored as a reference so you can set them up again. One way to do this is to take a screenshot of the printer list by pressing Shift-Command-4, tapping the space bar, and then click the Print & Fax system preferences (it should highlight blue before you click) and the resulting screenshot will be of the selected window.

In addition to the print system reset, if you are a power user, then you might find the built-in print setup options rather limiting. Apple's print system is the Common Unix Printing System (CUPS) that has been included in numerous Unix and Linux distributions. This system has its own Web-based configuration interface that should allow you more options than what Apple offers through its interfaces; however, to access this interface you will need to specifically enable it. To do this, follow the instructions I outlined in a previous article on this feature.

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