Mac OS X: When default printer doesn’t mean ‘default’

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
March 1st, 2006 • 10:15 am

If you’ve ever had to use Mac OS X with multiple printers, you know that it’s always been a bit of a struggle. In fact, until Mac OS X 10.3 came out, it was impossible to set Mac OS X to always use one particular printer as the default printer.

There was some kind of “Default Printer” setting in the interface, but the printer selected by default in print dialogs in Mac OS X applications would always end up being the last printer used, regardless of what the “default” selection was. It was a major annoyance, which, in my experience, would cause all kinds of people to send all kinds of print jobs to the wrong printer, simply because they somehow “forgot” to switch back to their preferred printer after having used another printer for a one-off job.

In Mac OS X 10.3, Apple revamped the user interface for the printing architecture, and introduced a few new options, including the option to choose the printer that should be the “selected printer in Print Dialog” by default in System Preferences:

Default printer in Mac OS X 10.3 or 10.4

Apple doesn’t actually use the phrase default printer here, but that’s what it means. (And this particular interface is unchanged in Mac OS X 10.4.)

As you can see, you can still use the pre-Mac OS X 10.3 behaviour (“Last Printer Used” option), but most users are likely to have one particular printer that they use more often than the other ones, and the logical choice here would be to select that particular printer in the menu. Once that printer is selected in the menu, it becomes highlighted in bold in the list of printers in the preference pane.

There is only one problem. Even after you’ve made this choice and selected a default printer, if you happen to add another printer to your list, automatically Mac OS X switches to that newly added printer as the default printer, regardless of the choice you made earlier.

In other words, the default printer setting is only good as long as you don’t add another printer. As soon as you add another printer, that other printer becomes the default one, and if you still want to use the same printer as the default printer, you have to select it again!

Now, I realize that, for many people, the list of printers doesn’t change all that often. After all, you are not likely to want to add a new printer to your list every other day. So this is an irritant that mostly affects professional Mac troubleshooters such as myself, who have to constantly reinstall systems and rebuild printer lists from scratch and fix printer lists because something has gone wrong with one of the printers.

But it’s an annoyance nonetheless. And it’s particularly annoying because it doesn’t make sense at all. Why on earth should the last printer added always be selected as the new default? This is a behaviour that seems to assume that Mac users always do things in one specific order, adding their printers starting with the least important one and ending with the most important one.

I always find those interface flaws that assume one specific order for things to be particularly annoying. After all, our computers are multithreaded and able to do all kinds of different things at the same time. This means that the sequence in which things are done should not be relevant. As long as step 2 (adding printer B) doesn’t require the prior completion of step 1 (adding printer A), then there is no reason why doing step 2 before step 1 should have any consequences.

Unfortunately, in this particular case, it does.

2 Responses to “Mac OS X: When default printer doesn’t mean ‘default’”

  1. danridley says:

    I can see this as being beneficial behavior for a mobile user. Workflow being:

    1: Finish document

    2: Oh, I can’t print

    3: Install driver for nearest printer

    4: Print

    This strikes me as likely being a more common scenario than a desktop user changing printers around very often.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Surely even mobile users have one particular environment where they work most often—and one would think that, even if the mobile user is often in other environments where he has to use other printers occasionally, he would still want to have one default printer that doesn’t change.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.