Print Services

Wide Format vs. Plotter Printers: 5 Differences

Is your business looking to create large-scale print jobs? See the differences between a wide format printer and a plotter printer here.

Blog Post

7 minute read

Mar 27, 2024

You don’t get back from the gym and jump in the dishwasher, and you wouldn’t use a laundry washing machine to clean your car. Even though the dishwasher, the shower, and a bucket of hot soapy water are all designed for cleaning, they each have a set of specialized use cases. Similarly, different types of printers are designed with different functions in mind. 

Wide format printers and plotter printers are large paper printers capable of producing wide-scale visuals. Both types use oversized rolls of paper to create images that go beyond the dimensions of what a regular office printer can produce, but there are essential and distinct differences between the two.

A large paper printer is defined as: any printer supporting a maximum print roll width between 18” and 100”. Printers with capacities over 100” are categorized as super-wide or grand format printers.

In this article, we’ll explore the details of each type of printer, what makes them different, and how a business would use them so you can decide which might be right for you! 

The main differences we cover include: 

  1. Print Quality
  2. Cost
  3. Speed
  4. Use-Case
  5. Resolution & File Types

If you want help addressing your print needs, consider getting in touch with an Impact print specialist who can guide you through the printer selection process and get you started with the right solutions for your business today.  

What Are Wide Format Printers?

Wide format printers are machines that use inkjet or laser technology to print on large rolls of paper. They provide a lot of flexibility, since they handle a variety of media types and printing resolutions.

Wide format printers are often used in print production projects to create a high quantity of large promotional materials. 

What Are Plotter Printers?

Historically, plotter printers—simply known as “plotters”—used a pen or blade instead of ink or toner to create images on large rolls of paper. This technology produces very accurate and high-quality images but usually lacks the flexibility of wide format printing.

A modern plotter printer has technology such as inkjet that allows it to be much faster than older plotters have been without sacrificing image quality.

The detail a plotter printer provides means it’s perfect for architectural firms or businesses using CAD (computer-aided design) or similar files.

Currently, plotter printers have evolved into technical printers. Although they are still called “plotters,” technical printers are the modern, digitized version of the old plotter printer. See below for more on technical printers. 

Differences Between Wide Format and Plotter Printers

Differences Between Wide Format & Plotter Printers

2. Cost

A wide format machine can print much faster than a plotter printer, so for large quantity jobs, this can be a cost-effective option.

However, plotters such as a vinyl cutter—printers that create images on vinyl in simple colors with the use of a blade—are a more budget-friendly option when a business needs to print vinyl signs that don’t require many colors.

Additionally, plotter printers are used to print a lot of technical drawings, maps, orthophotos, and renders. Plotter printers are ideal for any job that needs sharp text and precision lines on a larger scale.

3. Speed

Older plotter printers made use of a pen to produce a highly detailed image. Newer plotters have technology that allow them to print much faster than their pen or blade counterparts. Additionally, they have a faster processing time than the traditional versions. 

Wide format printers, on the other hand, are generally faster than plotters. They are created to produce a large amount of print jobs and work at high speed. For businesses that need a fast, high-capacity machine, a wide format printer might be the best option. 

4. Use Cases

Plotters work with vector images—images made from point-to-point lines—and are typically used for technical drawings where having a high level of detail is crucial. Sectors that often use plotter printers include: 

  • Engineering
  • Architecture and construction
  • Product design
  • Some sign-making 

Conversely, wide format printers are used for printing all kinds of large format images such as huge banners, posters, high-resolution photography, art prints, etc. The businesses that tend to use wide-format printers include: 

  • Marketing and graphic design agencies
  • Photographers
  • Entertainment studios
  • Art studios
  • Event planners

Any organization that’s regularly printing large signs, posters, or banners can benefit from investing in a wide format printer.  

The type of printer you choose will depend on your organization’s needs and budget. 

On Giclee Printing

An additional type of wide format printer, giclee printers are used by art or specialty photography studios to create high-definition, high-fidelity images.

Where a regular inkjet printer uses six to eight inks, a giclee printer will have 10 to 12 inks, providing a broader range of color combinations, bright hues, and accuracy.

Additionally, the spray nozzles of a giclee printer—the name derived from the French word for “to spray”—are much finer than a regular inkjet printer. This results in a machine that can deliver high-definition products.

Giclee printing can be used with canvas, heavy paper, or poster paper. However, it will not work best with materials such as fabric or vinyl. 

5. Resolution and File Type

Plotter printers can print up to 1440 dpi (dots per inch—a measurement of the image quality on a paper), while most wide format printers can only print resolutions of up to 600dpi.

As stated above, vector images do not change quality regardless of how much they are enlarged, which means a plotter printer will deliver a high-definition print job regardless of image size. 

Since wide format printers use pixel images, an image with a lower pixel resolution will lose its definition when enlarged to a large document.

Therefore, wide format printers work with pixel-based files such as PDF, JPG, BMP, etc. Plotters work with vector files such as AI, EPS, or SVG.

Modern Wide Format Printers and Plotters

Wide format and plotter printers have merged into two new types of printers: graphic arts printers and technical printers. 

Graphic Arts Printers

Graphics arts printers, like their name suggests, produce beautiful and detailed prints such as photos, displays, and colored packaging. They typically print slower but have a wider color gamut and higher resolution.

To achieve a high-quality result, these printers use a lot more ink since they completely cover the substrate—the material on which the ink goes—with color. 

Technical Printers

Technical printers are mainly used to print line drawings. These are usually plans for buildings since their accuracy is true to scale.

These machines are the ones that are colloquially called “plotters.”

Although historically plotters only used black ink and depended on line thickness to depict the different materials used in a construction project—electric and plumbing, for example—modern plotters use inkjet technology to produce black and white or colored prints.

Do You Need a Plotter or Wide Format Printer?

Knowing which printer to pick to satisfy your business needs can be confusing considering the wide array of choices. 

Wide format and plotter printers are machines that deliver large-scale print jobs. Depending on your business needs, one may be a better fit.

Whether your business is looking to produce high-volume custom prints in-house, needs a machine that will deliver detailed architectural images, or simply wish to take advantage of office-style printing, choosing the right hardware can be a big task.

No matter if your organization needs to print detailed construction blueprints or high-quality posters, consulting a print specialist will ensure you get the best results while sticking to your print budget.

For example, a print specialist can suggest an inkjet printer that prints black and white or color for the exact same cost. 

Consider working with an Impact print specialist who can help you choose a printer with the correct specs for your needs, help you with installation and configuration, and train you and your employees on best practices to make the best use of your digital hardware. 


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