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Wide Format vs. Plotter Printers: 5 Differences

Wide format printers and plotters are machines that can produce large-scale visuals. Both types of printer use large rolls of paper to create images that go beyond the dimensions of what a regular office printer can produce. But, there are essential differences between the two.

Read on to learn more about these type of printers and their differences.

If you’d first like to read about print production for business or a managed print model, check out Impact’s blog Production Printers vs. Managed Print Services: Q&A with an Expert.

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 a 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 allow 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

1. Print Quality

Plotter printers are known for producing high-quality prints and precise, intricate cut lines. Since plotter printers use vector images, the quality of printing is not affected whether the image is large or small.

Wide format printers can produce jobs of different quality depending on the file size and definition. Since the files wide format printers use have pixels, an image with a low pixel count would appear distorted when printed on a large sheet of paper.

However, a professional graphic designer or print technician will understand that with the right file format and size, wide format printers can produce highly detailed large images as well.

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.

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. Uses

Plotters work with vector images—images made from point-to-point lines—and are typically used for technical drawings, where the advantages of having more details is evident. 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 large 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

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 printers 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,” and as mentioned above, are the ones used for architectural or engineering purposes.

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 a Wide Format Printer?

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

Whether 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.

Bottom Line

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.

Working with a print expert can help you avoid the hassle and confusion when it comes to picking the right machine for your business while sticking to a budget.

Discover whether print production or a managed printing services provider is the best option for your business with the blog Production Printers vs. Managed Print Services: Q&A with an Expert.