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Compare Wide Format Printers vs. Technical Printer Plotters: What Is the Difference?

Although both print in a wide format, there are distinct differences between wide format printers and technical printer plotters. The vast majority of wide format printers are found in pay-for-print shops, while plotters are more often found in ACE industries – architecture, construction, and engineering.

What Are Wide Format Printers?

In essence, a wide format printer is any device capable of handling print mediums 24 inches or wider. In addition to paper, these medium include vinyl, cloth, wood, metal, glass, and pretty much anything else you might want to print onto (typically up to around 2" thick).

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You find around three-quarters of wide format printers in print shops, copy shops, and other print-for-pay businesses. This is mainly due to the cost, which typically ranges from around $2,000 to $20,000, but also due to the simple fact that not many people or businesses have a regular need for this type of printer. Another factor is the room required for a large format printer. However, if you operate a business that regularly prints large-format documents, posters, and other graphic designs, you'll likely determine the cost is necessary.

Businesses that create a variety of sales and marketing materials, as well as retail operators offering graphic design products, may choose a wide format printer. Eventually, the cost of sending out their print jobs outweighs the cost of buying and operating their own machine.

The printing processes of wide format printers include laser and LED, inkjet, thermal transfer, electrostatic, and copy press. Each has its own preferred applications (see our guide to wide format printers).

What Are Plotters?

Plotters use automated pens to create line drawings of blueprints, diagrams, graphs, and other technical drawings. There are also plotters that use multi-color pens. These printers create sharp, high-resolution lines, which is why they're so popular in ACE industries. Some people use the terms plotter and wide format printer interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Like wide format printers, plotters typically start at 24" with models ranging all the way to 6' across. Engineers and architects use them to print a variety of technical documents.

Plotters date back to 1959. At that time, the maximum paper width was 11" and the machines held a single pen. By the 1970s, plotters read data via magnetic tape, with a maximum resolution of 100 dpi. Technology continued improving to 1,000 dpi. Today, however, some ACE offices use high-end inkjet printers capable of printing the fine detail formerly reserved for plotters.

Differences between Wide Format Printers and Plotters

There are many differences between wide format printers and plotters. First, plotters typically cost more, both to purchase and in replacement ink.

They also vary in the types of printing they're used for, with wide format printers more commonly found in graphic design and plotters in creating technical drawings. Some graphic designers use plotters, however, when they need highly detailed line work. This is where the high resolution of plotters really comes into play. Large printers, on the other hand, are better for large-scale graphics and color images, especially when you need shading, color gradients, and similar design elements in the finished product.

Image quality is excellent for both (assuming you choose a quality printer). Plotters often create much greater line detail, which is why they're so popular in ACE industries. The dotted and dashed lines common in technical drawings require crisp, clean printing. Achieving this level of detail is a top feature of plotters.

The main difference between the two printer types is in how they produce prints. Plotters use a vector format (creating images with lines) whereas large format printers use what's known as raster files, which uses a grid and pixels to create a picture.

Vector images use point-to-point nodes, connected by lines and curves, all of it created using mathematical descriptions of position, location, and length. Changing the scale of the image does nothing to the print quality; it is always crisp and clear. Raster images, on the other hand, look like a series of dots across a grid. Changing the scale drastically alters the print.

So, which printer is the right option for you? It depends entirely on the type of printing you perform. High resolution, detailed technical drawings benefit from a plotter, which has the ability to produce the crisp, clear images those industries require. For graphic design, such as posters, t-shirts, and signage, large format printers create quality images and typically at a lower cost.

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