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Considering Image Print Quality by Resolution, Droplet Size, and Number of Ink Cartridges: A Large Format Printer Buying Guide

The first thing many people think of when they consider printer quality is resolution. When it comes to wide format printers, however, resolution is not the number one factor determining print quality.

In wide format printers, you also need to consider droplet size, how many ink cartridges the unit has, and print technology issues such as color capability and how the printer interprets the data you aim to print.

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Determining Wide Format Printer Quality

Three main items determine print quality:

  • Resolution
  • Droplet size
  • Ink cartridge quantity

Resolution is measured in dots per inch, or dpi. High resolution, however, does not necessarily indicate quality prints. When comparing two units, you also want to look at the printer's technology to determine whether it has the ability to produce the quality images you require.

Droplet size is measured in picoliters (a picoliter is one-trillionth of a liter). Typically, you want a printer with a smaller droplet size, as this returns prints with higher quality. This is due to the fact that the printer has to make multiple passes to achieve optimum coverage, giving your image crisp lines and more vibrant color.

Finally, the number of ink cartridges makes a big difference in coloration. Your basic wide format printer comes with five ink cartridges: two black and one each of cyan, magenta, and yellow. The next step up is eight cartridges, while the highest quality printers typically come with 12 ink cartridges. Think of it as the difference between coloring with the 64 Crayola box and the skinny little 8-crayon version.

Of course, the only real way to determine the print quality of any printer is to see it in action, preferably using your preferred printing medium. If you regularly

print on vinyl, you want your sample printed on vinyl to get a true feel for the machine's print quality. Ordering online? See if you can find a print shop or store that carries that same model to run your sample.

Evaluating Printer Quality

Beyond those top three items (dpi, droplet size, and number of ink cartridges), you want to look at the printer's color capability with higher resolution, variable drop, and speed when evaluating quality.

You want a wide format printer that produces consistent color on a variety of mediums and substrates (i.e. rigid as well as flexible). What's more, you want this color capability to be true at any resolution, and whether your image is designed for close or distant viewing.

Variable drop print heads do exactly what it sounds like: produce different drop sizes within a single printed image. More common in prints using grayscale or lighter colors, variable drop creates photo-quality images while using less ink than binary variable drop print heads.

When it comes to printer speed, most people think that faster equals better. With a wide format printer, this is not necessarily true. Yes, you want the machine to complete projects in a timely manner. However, too quick often results in a pixilated or blurry print, which is rarely the look you're going for. You also want to look at how the printer manufacturer defines its "up to" speeds. Often, this number indicates how quickly the printer works in draft or express mode, two options rarely used for commercial purposes. You want to know the printer's speed when it's set at the quality level used for your standard print jobs.

Additional Quality Considerations

In a large format printer, image processing tells you how the machine interprets your data to create the print. This plays a big role in determining those fine details. Sometimes you want a dotted line, such as in electrical drawings, but the printer's interpreter may see that dotted line and turn it into a straight, smooth line.

If you plan to print from scanned originals, look carefully at the printer's scanning technology. The best units have the ability to enhance "weak" data, such as pencil marks, while suppressing unwanted data, such as wrinkles in the original.

Finally, you also see a lot of variance in print quality when you use an inkjet or color printer versus straight black and white images, especially as you change from one print surface to another. If you regularly switch between glossy surfaces, matte paper, vinyl, or any other medium, look for a printer that handles that level of versatility without sacrificing quality.

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