Wide Format Printer Versus Plotter: What’s the Difference?

Printer Vs Plotter Boxing

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

What Is the Difference Between Wide Format Printers and Plotters?

Wide Format Printer Versus Plotter: What’s the Difference? Printing technologies offer a wide array of possibilities which range from the ability to print on different surfaces, create flawless large graphics or display amazing visual effects. But they also evolved to meet the critical needs of specific industries. Among the constellation of printing technologies, you have the wide format plotters and printers. It’s not uncommon to hear a language misuse between these 2 technologies. Some people use the terms plotter and wide format printer interchangeably, but even though both create high-resolution image replication, the methods of reproduction differ substantially. But let’s dig into it a bit more now.  

Wide Format Printer Vs Plotter

Unlike wide format printers that replicate graphics by applying ink dots, plotters are specialized type of printers that draw continuous lines with an automated pen. This pen is attached to a metal arm which moves left and right for drum plotters. For flatbed plotters use a system where the paper is fixed and the pen moves horizontally across a bar capable of moving vertically across the page. This operating mode represents a significant difference but the main difference between plotters and format printers lies in file format. Plotters rely on vector graphics, while format printers output raster images, also known as bitmaps or pixels. In other words, vectors graphics are made up of paths determined by a mathematical formula that defines the shape, color and position. On the other hand, raster images consist of pixels of colors that creates an overall image. Consequently, plotters are resolution independent. Vectors can be scaled to any size without losing clarity. When a raster image is enlarged, however, the size of the pixels simply gets bigger, causing distortion of the image. Plotters were praised for their accuracy and clarity of detail over aesthetics. This is the reason why industries such as architecture, construction or engineering most readily adopted this technology. However, today printing technology has largely caught up. Modern printers can deliver the same level of accuracy without the critical disadvantages which plotters had.  

Why Printing Caught Up to Plotting

Even though plotters have many benefits there were 3 major disadvantages that initiated the shift to wide format printing:

  • Versatility: Plotters were mainly prized for their precision but wide format printers have definitely more output capabilities and can serve more industries and needs. In addition and despite the fact that plotters delivered super-precise schematics, they struggle with gradients and shading which are often used in blueprints.
  • Cost Effectiveness: Printers print outputs in a fraction of the time it took a plotter to draw. This allows you to improve returns on investment by reducing production costs or enabling economies of scale.
  • Limited Autonomy: The drawing had to be done in a single session. If, for any reason, production is interrupted, printing cannot resume where it stopped and you will need to start over.


Comparison Chart

  Wide Format Printer Wide Format Plotter
Print Process Print dots (pixels) Draw continuous lines
Output Raster image (bitmaps, pixels) Vector graphics
File Formats BMP, PDF, JPG, TIFF DWG, CDR, Al and other vector formats
Software Photoshop and any other image-editing program Adobe Illustrator, Corel, Flexi, CAD
Speed Fast speed, more cost effective Slower speed
Ease of Use Accessible Requires skillset in specialized softwares (CAD)
Designed for Banners, tradeshow signage, wall / floor graphics, point of purchase displays, posters, yard signs, fabric and textile Blueprints, diagrams, graphs, technical drawings
Weakness Struggle to manage gradients, line shades, and solid areas effectively


So, who is the winner? Which device is the right option for you? Of course, it depends on the type of print jobs you perform and what are your customer needs. If you exclusively print detailed technical drawings, you may probably opt for a plotter. But if you need a more versatile device we’d advise a wide format printer instead.

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