How to fix smudged, lined, or distorted printer printouts

The cause for a printout having smudged or distorted text and images, and random meaningless characters can be due to multiple possible reasons. To troubleshoot the problem, we recommend reading each of the following sections in order. They’re written systematically to troubleshoot the problem in the most efficient manner possible.

Paper issues
If you are using anything other than standard printer paper, you may see smudges, uneven or crooked text, or text that runs off the paper’s edges. To verify this is not the issue, try 8.5 x 11 sheets in your printer. If your printer works fine with standard paper, you may have a sizing or texture issue. If not, move on to the next section.

Select sizes of paper may require users to move a slider or feed the paper into the printer in a non-traditional manner. See your printer documentation for steps on loading different sizes of paper into the printer. Additionally, some varieties of paper have different textures on the surface that cause smudging, streaks, or lines to occur. As a result, some types of paper won’t be compatible with your machine.

If you live in an area where the air is often humid, the moisture in the air can be absorbed by the printer paper. When printing on paper that is even slightly moist from humidity, ink can become smudged on the paper, colors can run together, and text or images can be distorted. Check if the paper is moist and try replacing the paper in the printer to see if print quality improves.

Driver related issue
If a printer is printing unreadable text or strange characters, you may be experiencing a driver related issue. Download the latest drivers for your printer and install them. For a list of printer manufacturers and links to the driver sections on their websites, see our printer drivers index.

Dirty or misaligned print heads
Your printer may be printing fuzzy, blurry, or other faint text because of dirty print heads. All modern printers have a self-cleaning mode, which cleans the print heads, and additional internal equipment used in the printing process. If you use your printer often or have had it for more than one year, we recommend running the printer’s cleaning function. Consult your printer’s documentation for details on how to run the cleaning function, as it differs for each printer brand and model.

Ink cartridge issues
If you have been using the same cartridge for more than a few months, you may want to check the ink or toner levels. On most modern printers, you can check these levels using software or a light indicator on the front of the machine (consult the owner’s manual for details on indicator lights).

If you have been using the same ink cartridge for over a year, it can dry out, or the print heads can become gummed up with ink residue. While you can try cleaning the print head, we recommend replacing the ink cartridge for the best results.

Laser printer hardware issues
A laser printer has several hardware components that could cause issues with print quality. One piece of hardware to check is the toner cartridge and drum assembly. Most laser printers include the drum with the toner cartridge. The drum itself can be defective, which results in toner misapplied to paper, or smudged toner due to too much toner applied to the paper. A defective drum can also cause print lines to appear on paper, often in the same place on each piece of paper. Multiple print lines can appear on paper, evenly spaced between each other.

The toner cartridge itself may have toner “leaking” from it, causing excess toner to get on the paper and other parts of the laser printer. Leaking toner, in general, can make a mess on the paper and inside the printer.

Another piece of hardware in a laser printer that causes issues is the fuser. It is the component that fuses, or adheres, the toner to adhere to the paper. When it is not fusing correctly, toner can become smudged on the paper if non-fused toner sticks to the rollers.

In the case of a bad drum or leaking toner, it is best to replace the entire toner cartridge. If you suspect a bad fuser is at fault, it is best to have the laser printer serviced at a repair shop.

Other printer hardware issue
Finally, if you’ve tried all the above recommendations and continue to experience issues, your printer may be encountering a hardware related issue. Contact the printer manufacturer for additional recommendations and suggestions on repair or replacements.

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